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Exploring Existing Knowledge and Capital in the Classroom from Non-Euro Dominant Student Perspectives

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5175 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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What They Bring to the Table: Exploring Existing Knowledge and Capital in the Classroom from Non-Euro Dominant Student Perspectives


The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, almost two-thirds of all American children will be students of color (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). Juxtaposed to this is the fact that over of 80% of teachers are White, monolingual women who have had little direct or authentic experiences with children from communities of color and have been socialized to uncritically accept negative stereotypes and deficit views of students of color (Landsman & Lewis, 2012). The changing dynamics of the nation’s schools has resulted in a widening cultural and racial mismatch between students and teachers, provide a compelling rationale for a more nuanced understanding of the interactions between White teachers and students of color—specifically, students’ “non-dominant cultural capital.” To be a successful White teacher in a non-white classroom, White teachers must recognize students’ non-dominant culture and learn how to pedagogically engage with it (Ladson-Billings, 2009; Milner, 2011). Predictably, members of the dominant culture are primarily White Americans, whereas people of color are largely notmembers of the dominant culture—given that dominant culture is viewed as the system of mainstream and widely acceptable social practices and ideas, often based on the ways of life of social groups with the most power in our society (Zirkel & Johnson, 2016). When teachers are not equipped to understand and manage inter-cultural gaps and challenges, cultural conflicts arise in the classroom, resulting in compromised teaching and learning processes.

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The fact that most K-12 educators in the United States do not share their students’ racial, ethnic, or linguistic backgrounds is an important factor in understanding teachers’ attitudes and beliefs about students of color. This disparity reflects and reinforces teachers’ deficit view of students of color—a view that is granted legitimacy through claims of colorblindness (Hinton, 2015) and the idealized notion (mostly among people of privilege) that the United States operates under a purely meritocratic system of equal opportunity for all who possess the “right” values, attitudes, and work ethic. In the practical sense, Pollack (2013) researched the ways in which “teacher talk” correlated to perceptions of students of color. They found that the teachers believed the educational and economic disparities their students of color experience were individual, not structural deficiencies, such as a culture of poverty, lack of positive role models, poor parenting, lack of value for education, loss of family values, and language deficiencies. Deficit-based teacher talk (such as that found in Pollack, 2013) demonstrates a lack of understanding and appreciation of the cultural capital and funds of knowledge brought into the classroom by students of color. The resulting feelings of misunderstanding, alienation, and disrespect by students and families of color contribute to the widening of the cultural divide.

Similar to Pollack’s (2013) research, in seeking to understand the connection between teacher expectancy outcomes and teacher perceptions of future trajectories, Dabach, Suárez-Orozco, Hernandez, and Brooks (2018) highlighted the fact that teachers attributed their students’ futures to family-related explanations more often than to structural factors. These deficit explanations blamed the trajectories of students of color on external loci, such as the students’ home lacking in valuable cultural factors. The researchers also found that the teachers expected the trajectories of students of color to lead to restaurant and retail work, manual labor, unemployment, childbearing and rearing, and technical trades, even though the students were only in elementary and middle school at the time of the study. Teachers’ explanations of students’ success or failure can affect their motivations to help students, as well as have negative developmental implications, whether directly or indirectly communicated (Bertrand & Marsh, 2015).

Cultural Capitalism and Teaching and Learning

Before discussion of cultural capital and its significance in education, it is essential to first briefly examine what is meant by culture as it pertains to current dialogue. Although culture by definition is dynamic, with no set definition, in the context of education it is one that is frequently used and is therefore crucial to understand. In relation to education, culture refers to sets of ideas, beliefs, and acquired knowledge that are passed on through teaching and learning— both consciously and unconsciously (Goldenberg, 2014). The way an individual talks, acts, and thinks are all reflections of one’s cultural upbringing. Since schools are often seen as integral sites for cultural transmission, reproduction, and socialization, these beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors have the potential to significantly impact the relations and communication between students and teachers in diverse schools. While culture is often generalized to a group of people, it is not synonymous with race, and may be shaped by a variety of factors, such as social class, language, religion, and immigration status.

Cultural capital is a concept that was conceived by Pierre Bourdieu (1977) to broadly define cultural identifiers, such as mannerisms, dress, beliefs, values, and artistic preferences, that have societal value and increase social mobility. Bourdieu theorized that students of color and low-economic status did not possess, by happenstance of cultural upbringing, the ability to accrue the cultural capital of the dominant white culture favored in educational systems. Therefore, the disproportionate majority of White teachers often experience a cultural mismatch, rendering teaching and learning ineffective. However, it has been argued (Rodriguez, 2013; Yosso, 2005; Zipin, Sellar, & Gates, 2015) that discussing cultural capital through Bourdieu’s framework views students of color through a lens of deficiency, as if their own cultural capital brought into the classroom is lesser than that of dominant white society. Therefore, it is important to examine the cognitive assets (or the funds of knowledge) students of all backgrounds—including those with low cultural capital—bring to the classroom, and how such assets impact teaching and learning.

Funds of Knowledge and Schooling

Before addressing the funds of knowledge of students of color, however, it is instructive to be reminded that the teaching force lacks diversity, with a teaching force comprised of mostly white, middle-class women (Milner, 2010). In schools that serve low income areas especially, it may be argued that many teachers of color themselves, having been largely educated in Euro-centric environments of contexts, may find themselves as interlopers in schools that are predominantly populated by students of color. In a sense, it is necessary to distinguish teachers who are of the community from those who are from the community—and it is obvious that this distinction can be rather complex. Although one might hurriedly conclude that a teacher from the same community is more preferable than one of the community, one may risk the proposition that the latter could sometimes be more preferable. The rational is that the teacher of the community who understands, remembers her own experiences (for example, as a person who has experienced financial challenges in her family), and therefore tries to implement learning activities and policies that foster learning for low income student populations (for example, by not asking for students to pay fees for a bus trip or ask them to buy expensive supplies for school work) is arguably, a more effective instructor. On the other hand, a teacher from the community who, having been educated outside of the community mindset and has forgotten her origins, has the potential to fail in a school that serves her own people.

Considering the scarcity of teachers of color in the teaching force, Moll (2015) refers to teaching in the United States as a commuter profession with most teachers living in communities other than those of their students. Teachers as commuters is not an issue of logistics but is representative of the larger sociocultural disconnect between K-12 teachers and their students. Ultimately, there is often a cultural incongruity between students and their teachers—both along racial and socio-economic lines.

When there is a cultural mismatch between students and their teachers, it is imperative that teachers develop the skills necessary to engage students from diverse backgrounds and develop pedagogical strategies that acknowledge and encompass the cultures of their students (Ladson-Billings, 2009). If this is not done effectively, the result may be the so-called achievement gap between white students and students of color in K-12 public schools. Closing the achievement gap has been the focus of substantial educational reform efforts; however, as Millner (2010) explains, educational reform efforts have failed to acknowledge that the educational deficits encountered by most students of color are not solely the result of limited resources but encompass other disparities that limit opportunities for students of color to receive an equitable education (Ladson-Billings, 2006).  One such disparity is the disproportionate ratio of White teachers to non-White students and the resulting lack of culturally responsive pedagogical strategies utilized by White teachers. Goldenberg (2014) refers to this dynamic as a “racial mismatch”; however, the mismatch is not limited to race, but also includes cultures. Cultural differences can lead to “cultural conflicts” within the classroom when teachers ignore the “skills, interests, and knowledge” of their students and teach strictly from a white, Eurocentric perspective (Goldenberg, 2014, p.112). “We all interpret behaviors, information, and situations through our own cultural lenses; these lenses operate involuntarily, below the conscious awareness, making it seem our own view is simply the way it is.” (Delpit, 2006, p.151) Teaching from this perspective without regard to students’ culture is dismissive and devalues the culture of students of color which can lead to cultural conflicts. Cultural conflicts can cause students to be resistant to schooling, but not to the idea of academic achievement (Carter, 2005). Students of color may perceive school as place that is unwelcoming and where their cultural capital is discounted (Goldernberg, 2014).

To engage students in the process of teaching and learning, White teachers must critically reflect on, and acknowledge, their positionality in the dominant culture and recognize their students’ positionality in the non-dominant culture (Landsman & Lewis, 2006). Teachers must assign value to the cultures of students of color by incorporating their cultures, not just their own Eurocentric culture, in their pedagogical practices.  If White teachers are to understand and incorporate the cultures of the diverse student population in their pedagogical practices, then White teachers much make the classrooms a space where students can openly express their unique backgrounds and lived experiences. Positive student-teacher interactions are crucial to student success (Goldberg, 2014). 

In the practical sense, Gay (2013) emphasizes the benefits of “teaching to” cultural diversity and the importance of connecting “in-school learning to out of school living” (Gay, 2013, p.49). Teaching about racially and ethnically diverse groups from merely a historical perspective, as is the case in conventional education, provides students with only a partial description of a racial or ethnic group. This type of teaching can serve as a foundation on which to build a more comprehensive depiction of the “lives, cultures, contributions, challenges, and experiences” of that group as is the intent of culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2013). Culturally responsive teaching creates a sense of community within the classroom with students bringing their varied forms of cultural capital into the classroom (Goldenberg, 2014). One such form of cultural capital is linguistic capital. Yosso (2005) refers to students’ ability to speak two or more languages and to serve as translators for their families as linguistic capital. Lee (2007) acknowledges African American vernacular as a form of linguistic capital that is not viewed as proper English, but should be valued as a form of self-expression by African American students. T.C. Howard (2001) writes that students of color are more expressive and impulsive in their actions while White students are more systematic and restrained. Teachers must come to accept that the ways students engage in the classroom are reflective of their culture and their lived experiences. This is the broad basis for the conceptualization of funds of knowledge.

Funds of Knowledge in Instructional Contexts

The concept of funds of knowledge was developed in the late 1980s as a form of education reform for public schools in the Southwestern United States with large Mexican student populations (Rodriguez, 2013). Its theoretical framework (and its extremities) challenges the deficit thinking prevalent in education—the notion that low school performance among students of color is caused by underlying linguistic, economic, and cultural limitations. Specifically, this concept sought to address the deficit thinking in education by acknowledging the cultural practices of students of color and their families as a form of social capital (Reyes, Iddings, and Feller, 2016). Funds of knowledge, then, are the historically accumulated bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household functioning and well-being (Gonzalez, Andrade, Civil, & Moll, 2001). By capitalizing on, and valuing, the wide variety of skills, knowledge, and competencies forged in the everyday lives and community histories of students of color, classroom instruction can be organized to increase quality and effectiveness of their learning experience. One example of such is where teachers visited the homes of their students of Mexican descent and witnessed activities such as gardening, construction, and open market transactions (Rodriguez, 2013). After identifying the skills and knowledge students brought to the classroom, those teachers incorporated them into educational practice. This resulted in the improved performance of those students, broke down barriers of prejudice and stereotypes that propagate deficiency narratives, and connected in school education to the out-of-school education and lifestyles of students of color.

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Similarly, teachers in a rural, agricultural city visited the homes of their students and created an Agriculture Field Day school event using mathematics, writing, and reading lessons that related to agriculture and connected the students’ everyday lives to their classroom activities (McIntyre, Swazy and Greer, 2001). In this way, teachers created a learning environment where students could utilize the funds of knowledge they brought to the classroom, as well as provided opportunities for the parents and community to participate in students’ learning experiences.

In the context of teaching and learning with funds of knowledge, a study conducted by Aguirre et al. (2013) offers a practical insight: In their study, the participating teachers ultimately created lessons, 47% of which included what researchers considered meaningful connections and transitional lessons—lessons that successfully connected observed community experiences and students’ funds of knowledge, with mathematically challenging problem-solving. One example utilized in a third-grade classroom involved a teacher who began the lesson with role-playing. Students recreated a scene where they were at the grocery store having a conversation in Spanish about the grocery list with ‘Abuela’ (grandma). While the math instruction was conducted in English, this activity used Spanish as a classroom resource. Students were then tasked to use Abuela’s shopping list to calculate the cost of items, and whether the funds provided ($40 or $70) would cover the costs. The lesson included photos and prices that the students and families were familiar with at their local Las Socias grocery store.

Another lesson from Aguirre and colleagues’ study (2013) was centered around “family dinner,” which required students to obtain recipes from home that they would like to share with the class. They then were tasked with finding the total ingredients that would be needed for their size family. This allowed students to connect their home funds of knowledge with a math lesson. Also, additional tasks of the lesson required students to compare store prices, as well as take transportation into consideration. The level of mathematical reasoning and alternate ways of completing the task was flexible, based off the students’ real-world experiences. While the remaining lessons found in the study did not fully incorporate students’ funds of knowledge with challenging mathematical problem-solving, they did attempt to connect familiar community knowledge and experiences to motivate traditional math assignments, such as replacing a traditional cookie-cutter shopping list with the name “pow-wow celebration shopping list.”

A final example of funds of knowledge in lesson planning involves the use of family dialogue journals to foster connections among teachers, students, and parents. To this end, Moll (2015) believed that these journals have the potential to allow participants to establish relationships and to engage with each other through written exchanges. In this effort, all participants are asked to share personal details about themselves, their beliefs and their experiences in their journals. Moll (2015) emphasizes the importance of establishing mutual trust among participants to ensure their communications are open and honest and believes that these journals can provide a unique opportunity for teachers, students and parents to assume the role of learner. This approach provides teachers with firsthand documentation in the form of written exchanges with students and their parents, which can be used to establish pedagogical practices that connect with the interests, experiences and beliefs of the students and their families.  Moll (2015) warns that there are risks associated with journal communications, because with indirect communication, misunderstandings can arise, which makes mutual trust and open communication critical to the success of this approach.

Funds of Knowledge and Pedagogical Content Knowledge

 The concept of pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986) suggests that effective educators are expected, not only to know their content subject, but also the professional skills necessary to instruct different kinds of learners, given certain considerations. These factors have been vastly researched and extended (to the point that one may include the ideas of multicultural education as a part of this domain of knowledge). In this domain of knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge is expected to include knowledge about the nature and identity of one’s students (i.e., who they are), what they are likely to know, and their potential misconception regarding specific topics. Such considerations are partly contingent on the socio-cultural backgrounds of the students. For this reason, a proficient instructor is expected to have some idea regarding the funds of knowledge students bring to the classroom.

Funds of knowledge advocates for teachers to value all their students’ cultural capital as dynamic, integral, and emergent intellectual resources in educational processes. This is likely to improve learning outcomes as disproportional balance of power is shifted to favor the roles and values of families, communities, and cultures, regardless of the linguistic, economic, religious, social, or cultural diversity in the classroom. The types of community cultural wealth, as suggested by Yosso (2005), that are brought into the classroom by students of color may include the knowledge, skills, abilities and contacts possessed and utilized by communities of color. Such kinds of community wealth help them to resist and survive macro and micro-forms of oppression and can be manifested in six specific types of valuable cultural capital: aspirational capital, linguistic capital, familial capital, social capital, navigational capital, and resistant capital. Recognizing, emphasizing, and utilizing non-dominant cultural capital in the classroom to enhance student learning creates a rich and compelling learning atmosphere for students of color.

Professional development and teacher education that addresses deficit views of families of color, that emphasize the remediation of families and individuals, as opposed to structural barriers, to improve student outcomes generates a critical awareness of deficit discourse and its negative influences on teaching, learning, and school-home relations. Education occurs through teacher and student interactions and for those interactions to be beneficial, students must learn through a curricula and pedagogy that emphasizes their skills, interest, and knowledge; their cultural capital. Identifying cultural capital is at times an ambiguous process, but there are ways in which teachers can identify and acknowledge cultural capital: values/interests, expressions/behavior, and language/communication (Goldenberg, 2014). The ways a student dresses (such as traditional Aztec dresses), music they listen to (such as hip-hop and reggaeton), and hobbies (such as stepping) are a few noticeable values and interests teachers can recognize as non-dominant capital that will allow them to create effective learning environments. A students’ expressions and behaviors, such as seeming argumentative or interacting in seemingly confrontational ways, is one way a students’ cultural capital may manifest, affecting the ways in which they verbally engage with lessons. While these behaviors and expressions seem disruptive, they are reflections of lived experiences and are just a differing way of engaging. The language and communication are extremely prevalent displays of culture. This often manifests as students speaking what is known as African-American Vernacular, or bilingual students, as they code-switch or act as language brokers as forms of self-expression and engagement.

Knowing the learner is crucial for teachers, allowing them to not only understand the context of their students’ lives, but connect with the community and culture in which they live. Once cultural capital is identified, the next question is often, now what? A strengths-based teaching strategy utilizes students’ cultural capital in completing assignments such as family journals, digital storytelling cultural memory banking, to allow learners to voice their experiences and interests. For example, having students read a text, asking them to share their own interpretations of the story, and then write a short essay on how their life experiences connects to the story (Llopart & Esteban-Guitart, 2018). These teaching strategies will not only provide educational opportunities for students of color with non-dominant capital but afford the entire classroom the benefits of learning various perspectives, ways of thinking, and ways of doing things. Indigenous heritage communities and Latinx communities often employ collaboration and group work that today’s institutions value (Rogoff et al., 2017). While acknowledging and utilizing cultural capital in the classroom is a dynamic, and at times challenging process, it demonstrates that going beyond students’ linguistic, economic, and socio-cultural differences reveals competent individuals with knowledge and skills embedded in their cultural communities and everyday lives. Although school environments cannot ignore the challenging backgrounds of students, by acknowledging cultural capital, educators potentially avoid leaning on the deficit perspective, associating students of color with economic difficulties, deficiencies, and other negative elements.

Final Thoughts

It has been shown that under-represented students are likely to benefit from learning environments that utilize their cultural, linguistic, and community knowledge as classroom resources. In that regard, proficient educators—especially educators of students of color—are expected not only to learn about the sources of students’ funds of knowledge, but more import, know how to use this knowledge in ways that enhance the development of intellectual skills that increase opportunities for academic success. By capitalizing on home and community knowledge, and therefore, knowing students as “whole persons,” classroom instruction and learning environments may be organized in ways that that foster meaning-making and deeper construction of knowledge. In so doing, students will not be passive consumers of knowledge, but active participants and agents in their own education.


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