DECODING CULTURAL CAPITAL
“How hard is it to raise one’s hand, to approach an instructor after class, or to come to office hours to discuss a difficult assignment?” Let’s imagine an instructor asking himself this question, sitting alone in his office hours. “Half of these students understood nothing of what I am trying to teach,” he thinks to himself. “And not a one of them asked a question or came to see me. They just don’t care.” Our hypothetical instructor’s question is a rhetorical one, but he is sure he knows the answer. Getting help seems the simplest thing in the world. For him it is just a matter of caring enough to bother to ask for assistance.
Those who have worked with Decoding the Disciplines over the last two decades have come to be suspicious of experts’ claims that what they do is simple. Like most academics, our instructor has been adept at getting help within educational systems for decades, or he never would have found his way to the front of the classroom. His ease at navigating this world may mask the complexities faced by those who are less familiar with such systems.
This is an important issue for anyone concerned about higher education to consider. If knowing how to get assistance is crucial to success in academia, and, if only certain students have access to the knowledge needed to acquire help, we need to find ways to get that knowledge to those who lack it. So we need to transform the question — “How hard is it to raise one’s hand, to approach an instructor after class, or to come to office hours to discuss a difficult assignment?” – from a complaint about students’ lack of commitment to the subject of an empirical investigation.
Fortunately, some of this work has been done for us by sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco, who observed hundreds of third- through fifth-grade students facing tasks that they found difficult. In “`I Need Help!’ Social Class and Children’s Help-Seeking in Elementary School,”* a study that is must reading for anyone concerned about this issue, she points out that by this early age some of the students had already acquired the social skills and the confidence needed to interrupt the flow of the class activities, to put their requests at the head of the agenda, and to get the feedback they needed. Other students lacked these abilities. They rarely asked for information or showed teachers their work-in-progress. Instead, they continued struggling on their own, as they applied inappropriate strategies to the tasks at hand.
Calarco argues that the ability to manipulate the system to get one’s learning needs met requires a type of cultural capital that students brought into the classroom from their lives outside, presumably from their families. And the possession of this practical knowledge was not distributed randomly across the student population. When she correlated help-seeking strategies with the social class of the students, she found that those from upper class families were more than six times more likely to ask for help than those from working class families (7.75 requests for assistance vs 1.2). Clearly the upper class students had amassed cultural capital outside the classroom that allowed them to negotiate the complex social world of elementary school to get what they needed. Those who came from particular kinds of families knew how to formulate the right kinds of questions and grab their teachers’ attention in ways that the students from poorer backgrounds did not. In the process positive feedback loops developed for these students through which effective learning strategies were reinforced and internalized.
Thus, there are clear reasons to suspect that, long before students arrive in college, some of them have been given special knowledge about how to make educational systems work for them – knowledge that has been denied their non-elite classmates. It is important to note that Calarco emphasizes that these differences are visible within the same classroom, and it is to be assumed that the chasm in access to these crucial skills would be even greater, if the comparison were between students from radically unequal school districts. This possibility challenges the notion that higher education is a level playing field in which success is determined solely by determination and innate ability. To mix a metaphor, there is no level playing field if some of the students have been given the intellectual equivalent of steroids.
Still, it might be objected that the challenge of getting help from the larger educational system evaporates by the time that a child has become old enough to go to college. Many things that are difficult at age 10 are no problem for those 18 or older. So, if getting assistance in a college class were not really all that complex, we could assume that the class differences observed by Calarco will have disappeared by the time that a student arrives at a university.
That possibility was permanently closed for me in the summer of 2015, when a chance question in a workshop I was running at the Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaften in Wolfenbüttel, Germany changed my thinking about this question forever. I had been sharing the Decoding the Disciplines process with a group of German academics, and I had explained how the approach could be used to make explicit the hidden steps that students must master to overcome common bottlenecks to learning. I suggested that the group practice the decoding interview technique by using it to reveal what students needed to be able to do to get passed an obstacle to learning in one of the participant’s courses. [For more on this process see the Decoding the Disciplines website or this video of an interview.] I was expecting a bottleneck, such as “My students can’t move their attention back and forth between data and a graph.” Instead, one of the instructors asked if we could work on trying to understand the steps that students must have mastered to be able to get assistance when they became confused.
Thirty or forty-five minutes later we had dispelled any illusion that getting help in higher education is simple. As we imagined how we ourselves, as seasoned experts at navigating academic waters, would respond to this challenge, there emerged a complex decision tree, in which our imaginary student faced some thirty complex choices about how and when to act, beginning with the seemingly simple decision of whether one was seriously lost or just temporarily confused, through evaluations of the openness of the instructor to interruptions in class, considerations of the etiquette to pressing for an explanation when students from the next class were entering the room, to practical questions about what tutoring might be available or whether the instructor had office hours. Making a choice at every one of these decision points required the kind of complex cultural capital that was likely to be denied to some groups of students.
At the end of our collective interview, we imagined a student, having finally made it to her instructor’s office hours, only to find the door closed. Unsure whether it was culturally appropriate to knock and afraid to offend, she left, and we imagined her teacher on the other side of the door, saying to himself “How hard is it to raise one’s hand, to approach an instructor after class, or to come to office hours to discuss a difficult assignment? These students just don’t care.”
Not one of the experienced and dedicated instructors at the Wolfenbüttel workshop, including myself, had ever modeled any of these processes for students, and we were certainly not alone. But, if we continue to do nothing to help more students gain the social skills they must master to get help, we are accepting and reinforcing an entire system of injustice and inequality.
To be sure, it may also be necessary to deal with the psychological damage done by decades of internalizing marginalization, and there is an important literature about cultivating self-actualization in students that give us guidance. And, it will be important to continue to critique forms of teaching, such as the traditional lecture, that create social structures that make it harder for students to make visible their learning needs. But, these efforts will not be sufficient, if students do not have a model in their heads of how to go about getting help. And we can give this to students only after we have decoded our own cultural capital.
Special thanks to my friends at the wonderful teaching center at Hochschule für angewandte Wissenschaften in Wolfenbüttel and to the insightful participants in the workshop described above.
* Jessica McCrory Calarco “`I Need Help!’ Social Class and Children’s Help-Seeking in Elementary School,” (2011) American Sociological Review 76 (6), pp. 862-882.
More on Calarco’s work is available at http://www.jessicacalarco.com/
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