Do human and cultural capital lenses contribute to our understanding of academic success in Russia
Authors: K. Bodovski, V. Chykina and T. Khavenson (Pennsylvania State Univ. Univ. of Michigan and National Research Univ. Russia)
Summary: Dr Stephen Whitehead
What makes a student successful?
As an international educator you will have pondered why some of your students sail on to academic glory while others flounder in the shallows.
There are of course no single answers to that question, or at least no single answers which are applicable to all students. But there are indicators you can use, sociological tools which might be deployed to examine differential academic achievement.
This article uses two such tools, or sociological theories, to address this question in the context of Russian students’ success:
Human Capital Theory (Schultz, 1961): This refers to the skills and knowledge that people acquire through individual effort. It is a theory which draws heavily on a rational/economic approach, closely aligned with neo-liberal (conservative) values which posit that investment in education, by the individual, family, state, brings material returns in the form of higher earnings over a life course. Whether as a private or public investment, investing in education leads to increased productivity, social stability and healthier lifestyles.
An example of this theory applied in practice would be parents investing in private education, international schooling, and Higher Education students being prepared to take out long-term loans to pay for their university education in the expectation that this investment if worth it, financially.
Cultural Capital Theory (Bourdieu, 1986): This theory argues that elites create and reproduce the educational system that serves the interests of the privileged by ensuring the advantage of upper-class children in school. The two key concepts within this theory are habitus and field.
For example, an elite private education can be understood as a field within which cultural capital is generated to the benefit of those students who partake in it, thereby ensuring privilege is reproduced for the younger generation. Students who graduate from elitist international schools, for example, will have appropriate internalised skills and attitudes (habitus) in which will ensure their continued elite status through adulthood.
Aims, Context and Methodology
The two research questions informing this study were:
1. What role do various activities under the umbrella of cultural and human capital play in determining students’ mathematics and Russian language standardised scores?
2. What role do these activities play in predicting the likelihood of students’ matriculation into a selective institution of higher education?
The authors used data from the Trajectories in Education and Careers Study (TrEC), the first longitudinal study on a representative sample of high school students in Russia. The data was first collected in 2011 and 2012 and followed the same students as they progressed through the eighth and ninth grades, through the 11th grade, and finally a year after the students graduated from high school.
Discussion and Findings
The findings provide evidence to supports both the Human Capital Theory and the Cultural Capital Theory.
Human Capital: Students who studied mathematics and Russian language on their own for more than a year were more likely to matriculate into a selective university. Those students who also undertook preparatory courses in mathematics experienced increased scores.
‘This suggests that studying on one’s own and taking a preparatory course can be understood through the lens of human capital perspective because students make direct efforts to increase their ‘marketable value’, that is, receiving higher scores leads to continuing education in a (more prestigious) university.’ (p. 403)
Cultural Capital: What a Russian student needs to possess to gain entry to a university changed in 2009 to standardized examinations. The research suggests that successful students are adapting to this new requirement because the change affects the capital (what a student needs), the habitus (how to go about acquiring it) and the field itself.
‘Students and their families are adapting to the new field; they have developed new habitus and active new (or modified) forms of capital. Increasing self-effort to study the material for a particular subject unsurprisingly increases the performance on the examinations in that subject.’ (p. 405)
As the authors point out, this suggests that while ‘human and cultural capital originate from different epistemological traditions’ they can and do coexist and can be both useful in understanding student academic achievement.
However, the research did throw light on one aspect of cultural capital which revealed itself to be a significant variable in student success.
‘We found that the number of books that a family possesses is positively associated with the increased likelihood to matriculate into a selective university.’ (p. 405)
I imagine this outcome will not surprise most educators – those students who are surrounded by quality literature at home are much more likely to develop the intellectual skills, knowledge and attributes required for prestigious higher education.
In that respect, having many books at home and available to a child, signals cultural capital in that it immediately places the child at an advantage over those children who are deprived of such intellectual stimulus.
Of course, the child still has to make the individual effort to read the books.
And in the 21st century that means spending less time on social media and more time sitting alone in one’s room and delving into the world of fiction and non-fiction. I do wonder how many of Gen Z around the world have that motivation.
Summary: Dr Stephen Whitehead
Katerina Bodovski, Volha Chykina & Tatiana Khavenson (2019) Do human and cultural capital lenses contribute to our understanding of academic success in Russia, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 40:3, 393-409
Since 2017, Dr Stephen Whitehead has answered over 10,500 Quora questions, mostly on relationships, education, sociology, life and living, and philosophy. To date, his answers have received approximately 3.2 million views increasing at the rate 60,000 views a month. He has nearly 1,000 followers.
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