Schools have often been lauded as the great equaliser for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds (e.g., low-SES families) to have quality learning experiences. However, decades of research has illuminated just how little progress has been made in eradicating socioeconomic inequality in education (Hanushek, 2016). With all the resources invested in the education system, the knowledge and skills that school leaders and teachers are equipped with, and the ever-rising expectations we have for student learning, what else can schools do to level the playing field?
A divergent solution to this quandary is perhaps to ask the corollary: what resources do students from high-SES families have from their families that enable them to enjoy better learning outcomes? If we can identify these resources, then we can explore how schools can replicate these resources to provide equalising experiences for students from low-SES families.
My quest to unravel these resources starts from a serious reading of Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural capital theory (Bourdieu, 1977). According to Bourdieu (1977), parents from high-SES families inculcate in their children a habitus comprising specific dispositions that the education system emphasises and rewards in students. But what exactly is habitus?
Sociologist have long been investigating the role of habitus in student learning (Reay, 2004). However, we do not have a comprehensive understanding of the plethora of functions of this elusive concept in student learning.
To address this knowledge gap, my colleague and I undertake an ambitious research project to systematically review 37 studies dated 2000-2020 that seek to provide insights on the nature of habitus (Tan & Liu, 2022).
Our review reveals that habitus serves not one but at least five important functions benefiting student learning. These functions are about habitus socialising students into the world of academic learning, motivating students in their learning, facilitating students’ content learning, enabling students to develop a self-identity that legitimises and incentivises learning, and helping students to develop academic aspirations.
With the benefit of these diverse functions of habitus, it is little wonder that some students (e.g., those from high-SES families) are more privileged than others in their academic pursuits. The good news is that while students usually develop their habitus from the family, the review also clearly shows that schools can contribute to student learning in three powerful ways.
First, schools can cultivate a positive environment (or institutional habitus; Byrd, 2019) to methodologically inculcate pro-learning habitus in students. For example, teachers can assume collective responsibility for student learning, nurture close relationships with students, set high educational expectations for students, provide guidance programmes for students, and develop positive perceptions of the usefulness of learning.
Second, schools can explicitly inculcate pro-learning habitus in students (i.e., explicit pedagogy; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977). For example, teachers can teach students useful classroom learning procedures, address student challenges and provide learning opportunities, and design educational programmes that provide students with authentic learning experiences.
Third, schools can work with the community to help disadvantaged families (parents and students) acquire cognitive and learning skills. They can collaborate with community groups to provide distance learning and life-long learning programmes to supplement formal school learning opportunities for parents.
With these insights gleaned from the study, we can continue to have the hope that our schools can play an important role in equalising learning outcomes for low-SES students. Beyond the best pedagogies and resources that many schools already enjoy, perhaps it is time for policymakers, principals, and teachers to shift their focus to include intangibles that may make a difference in student learning outcomes. To this end, schools can cultivate their institutional habitus, develop their explicit pedagogy, and help low-SES families to acquire skills to enable students from disadvantaged families to acquire the habitus that they really need in their learning.
After all, if habitus matters for student learning, then perhaps our schools should at least give it a try?
Cheng Yong Tan is Associate Professor and Research Leader in the Academic Unit of Social Contexts and Policies of Education (SCAPE), Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong. He is also International Associate at Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, University of Glasgow and Associate Editor of Frontiers in Psychology. His research programme critically investigates how different influences give rise to educational inequality and other complex issues that require comprehensive educational solutions in the form of educational policy, leadership, and practice. It adopts an ecological perspective encompassing three strands involving sociocultural, home, and school factors to unravel this complexity.