Investing in cultural capital

Mr Shane Skillen, Co-Director of Technology Studies

The much-anticipated Gonski report was released one week ago to a good deal media fanfare. By most accounts, the 250-page report offers an in-depth examination and a rationale to revise the policies surrounding funding in the interests of equity and economic efficiency. Our Principal, Dr Amanda Bell was recently published in The Australian and in last week’s BGGS News reprising her standpoint on how to achieve exceptional education in the context of Gonski’s findings. One point in particular from Dr Bell’s article derived from the Grattan Institute study, Investing in Our Teachers, Investing in Our Economy, proposed the benefit of a ten percent rise in teacher effectiveness. We all know that schools are complex organisations and to achieve this ten percent nationally will involve time as educational strategies develop and permeate to classrooms.

But educational success is multi-faceted and there is more at play than teaching in classrooms. In fact the classroom essentially should underpin a wider set of life experiences. Let us leave institutional education aside then, in order to ask how families can support what is done in the classroom. Do families offer another source of educational success and improvement outside the teaching effectiveness ten percent?

For the purpose of this discussion, the answer is an unqualified yes. Families play a large part in educational success, a part which some would choose to call ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu, 1986). In the context of education, this refers to the influence the familial unit can have on a child’s academic success. From a sociological standpoint, cultural capital is influenced by—and in some degree made up from—several other forms of capital such as, social (social class), human (humanistic qualities and skills), economic (proficient management over economic resources) and environmental (house, street, suburb, state etc.). French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, suggests that cultural capital has three further subtypes: embodied (acquired and inherited), objectified (to possess or own cultural artifacts) and institutionalised (belonging to a school, university, club etc.). This is not, as some may think, an ivory tower concept as, for example, the World Bank uses qualitative research on social and cultural capital to guide decision making around financing and community initiatives all over the world.

One premise of this theory deduces that a child coming from a household with high cultural capital or one or more post-secondary qualifications will, through interactions with the household, develop more effectively her own capacity to learn. Through listening and communicating with their parents and guardians, and by discussing politics, religion, business and current affairs, young people are more capable of deconstructing and communicating about the world around them. On a more material level, familial units such as these generally have higher household incomes and are more likely to live in a good suburb, afford a better choice of schools (with like students), have greater access to technology, and the assistance of specialist help when required. However, in 2012 there is a cost associated with high cultural capital, one which may present a problem to our students.

Today students in many instances have a different workflow than their parents. It is fair to assume that this has, generationally, always been the case, but today’s technology rich-environment has amplified this disparity. The corollary to this is that today’s students rely less on their parents and guardians to filter their world, turning to the internet and social networks as lenses through which they form a majority of their opinions. Parents and guardians also find they are increasingly time-poor and, coupled with the invasive technologies with which their children are often fixated, can find opportunities to engage in meaningful discussion of the world increasingly scarce.

Over time, this poses a significant concern as it will influence the individual cultural capital traditionally inculcated within the home. As the number and frequency of face-to-face daily interactions declines, it is conceivable that the consciously-acquired and inherited cultural capital traits will no longer be effectively imprinted on the children within the home. This decline in the flow of cultural capital in the home may well have a corresponding impact on students’ ability to perform in an academic environment. While schools have an institutionalised cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) it has a symbiotic relationship with the messages being transmitted at home. This is evident through ethnographic research, which has proven learning to be reflexive and interactive and that language in the classroom draws unevenly from the social linguistic experiences of children at home (Lareau, 1987).

So what can we do to ensure we continue to positively imprint our cultural capital to our children and children’s children? How do we keep the flow? Work/life balance is a good place to start. Giving yourself more time allows more opportunity for positive interaction. Cultural capital is a two-way street and your children are imprinting on you as much as you are on them, so you may also need to consider your child’s culture. Burn half an hour watching their favourite clips on YouTube, they love doing this and it may open the dialogue to a whole raft of subjects along the way. Watch Q&A on the ABC and have them help you post a Twitter comment you came up with together. Look for opportunities to problem-solve together. They will benefit immensely either from your wisdom or equally from your ability to fake it. It is hard to encourage life-wide learning in your child if they do not see you practice it, so if you are out of the habit now is a good time to learn something new. Involve them in a household project, include them in decision making discussions, take them to work over the holidays, endure one of their teen novels or an Xbox game and take the time to discuss the plot and characters. Any number of these kinds of interactions will be conducive to expanding life experiences and positive cultural capital which will transmute in a large part to further educational success.

Now you have found your ten percent. We will be working on ours.


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital: English version published in J.G. Richardson’s Handbook for Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, pp. 241–258. Retrieved 24 Feb, 2012:

Gonski, D et al. (December 2011). Review of Funding for Schooling: Final Report. DEEWR, Australian Government. Retrieved 25 Feb, 2012:

Lareau, A. (1987). Social Class Differences in Family-School Relationships: The Importance of Cultural Capital, Sociology of Education. Vol. 60, No. 2, pp. 73-85. American Sociological Association.

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