Teaching English: Reproduction or Transformation?

By Nanak Hikmatullah

A long way there, but you can guide your students – Glenco, Highlands of Scotland
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” 
― Mitch AlbomTuesdays with Morrie

Sort of Background 😊

The idea of reading journal articles may sound exhausted for some or many of us. They discuss mostly boring and dull contents (really?) that are hard to understand. Theoretical notions and technical terms might contribute to this hard-to-understand issue, at least from the point of view of those who are new to the academic arena.

Do you agree?

High five if you think the same haha 😀


Even for a reading-geek like me, reading journal articles needs internal and external motivation, along with some snacks, a comfy chair, nice mood and colourful highlighters.

Too much, Nanak! 😀

Well, of course, not all journal articles trigger your sleeping mode. Apparently, reading journals is rather different from reading, say, fictions. However, once we know how to read them, they can be very interesting and engaging. They could give us pleasure as much as reading fictions. Of those many journals I’ve read, this one caught my attention.

Oh… you attention seeker now you’ve got me!

The article was written by Lin (1999) from the City University of Hong Kong, discussing mainly students from the elite and disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and the teachers in addressing the global spread of English. Specifically, it talks about the classroom dilemmas found by students and teachers, and how they dealt with those dilemmas in four different classroom environments.

The Dilemmas


What are the dilemmas you might ask?

Let me start from the theoretical notions the author drew as the analytical tools, and why I found this very interesting and relatable, to me particularly as an English lecturer.

You may think that the field of English teaching is nothing but talking about how to teach English. I used to think that way as well. Turned out, it’s only the peak of an iceberg. Deep down, tons of critical factors need to be addressed. We not only talk about teachers vs. students but also its multidimensional fields involving the curriculum, institutions, governments and the social world as a whole.

You may see a lot recently about the importance of English “campaign” in a globalised world. Many even come up with very strong taglines implying we might “die” without English skills.

Do we?

Is it true?

I think this is a little bit problematic. According to Bourdieu’s (1984) idea, it’s a symbolic violence resulted from a process of misrecognition.

Uggh… what are those things?

I know right! Haha.. 😀

The author, Lin, used the theoretical notions from Bourdieu, Passeron and Collins such as Cultural Capital, Symbolic Violence and Creative and Discursive Agency in the article. Lemme talk about these notions a little bit before we jump to the case.

1. Cultural Capital


Many believe that the place where we grow up shapes us a lot to be who we are now. The surroundings, family, friends and all shape the way we think and see the world. Bourdieu and Passeron in their concept of cultural capital pretty much say the same thing, that families and communities influence our language skills, orientation, dispositions, attitudes and perceptions. This notion is also called habitus. Our everyday life, family and community define who we are. I think that’s what makes people can be different from one another. It’s not just the culture but also the way we think.

An interesting discussion here is how Lin compared this cultural capital between children of the socio-economic elites and those from the disadvantaged groups regarding their views on learning English.

Logically speaking, those who are from the elite groups have wider access to resources than those of their counterparts. In addition, their family educational levels and professional backgrounds could help their kids have better “starting points”. Lin’s examples in her study show the elite group kids who live in an expensive residential area, speak their mother tongue language (Cantonese) and English at home, read English books and magazines and go to a good school taught by the best teachers. In other words, they have a better start of cultural capital for school success from the beginning.


Meanwhile, their counterparts are having the opposite world. Don’t think that they speak English at home because most of their parents’ working backgrounds are manual or service workers with low education levels. Their views toward English are predominantly negative. They lack aspiration to learn it, although, for some, they know English is very important for their future. This is somehow contradictive. However, their family, social environments and schools even the teachers influence their current mental and cognitive states.

2. Symbolic Violence


How schooling system affects the disadvantaged groups is an interesting question to discuss. Here, Bourdieu’s idea of symbolic violence lies in the effect of schooling system on these groups of people. While the elite group kids have more choices of school to attend to, the disadvantages may have to accept schools they can afford to go to. Moreover, the education system in modern societies is established on meritocracy and equal opportunity.

This may sound a good idea and fair (really?). However, since the disadvantaged kids lack access to resources, their choices are still limited.

Then is it an equal opportunity?

So what does it have to do with English?

This is another problem for the disadvantaged kids.


We live in a world where our everyday experiences are “guided” to believe in what those who are in power told us to believe. Through the process of misrecognition, our world representations and social meanings are imposed in a way that we would accept these representations legitimate.

We’ve seen, for instance, a job advertisement puts an emphasis on English skills, or English schools/ courses wrote in bold and capitalised words trying to attract us to learn English in order to have a bright future. Not to mention parents are competing to educate their kids in so-called international schools for they believe that English-medium schools are good schools.

But is it true? Or to what extent is it true?

Is it beneficial to the disadvantaged groups?

In Lin’s study, it is not entirely true.

While they experience the symbolic violence thinking that learning English is a must, the school system, education as a whole and even the teachers are not on their side. They lack the right kind of cultural capital for school success.


Sadly, oftentimes their failure in education is attributed to their lack of cognitive abilities or lack of effort. It’s hardly ever attributed to the unequal shares of cultural capital. In other words, they were beaten at the beginning while the world forces them to believe that English is important.

This leads to the main question asked in the article whether the students, teachers and schools were doing-English-lessons to reproduce (the disadvantaged will always be the disadvantaged groups) or to transform (the disadvantaged have better access and could potentially transform) their social worlds.

So who are the actors to make this transformation or reproduction?

It’s definitely all the stakeholders of education, particularly the teachers as the forefronts in education.

But why?

That’s the article mainly talks about. The role of teachers in either reproducing or transforming the students’ social worlds is essential.


This will be discussed through the notion of Collins: Creative, Discursive Agency.

3. Creative, Discursive Agency


Have you ever heard the phrase “the agent of change”?

The notion “creative, discursive agency” has, technically, similar definition to the agent of change. It emphasises social actors who are trying to be free from social forces and structures. In other words, instead of being the majority group of people under symbolic violence, these actors try to get themselves out of the circle and help transform people around them.

So perhaps now you understand why it is critical for the teachers?

Many studies show that teachers play a big role in students’ life. In this case, Lin is trying to discuss if the teachers help reproduce cultural capital for the elite groups or transform the disadvantaged kids’ social worlds.

It’s not easy, you may say, being a single agent in changing what so-called symbolic violence, which has been legitimised in people’s consciousnesses. However, Lin showed that it is rather not impossible. Following cases show what teachers and students can do to address the dilemmas they found regarding cultural capital and symbolic violence from four different English classrooms in Hong Kong, and how each teacher deals with the students in terms of using the first language (L1) in their classrooms.

Classroom A


Classroom A is situated in a school typical of children coming from elite backgrounds, a very prestigious school. There are 33 students in the class ranging from 14-15 years old. The teacher is fluent in English and can use English in different situations. The kids are exposed to English environment at home by their family, so the teacher hardly uses the first language (L1) to communicate with them.

In the class, the teacher seems not to have any difficulty in teaching and dealing with the kids. They know English is very important because their parents have them immersed in English at home. Here, they have the kind of cultural capital for school success. They also seem to be very engaging in the class and could follow the lessons smoothly.

Now you may think that the teacher of Class A is producing rather than transforming.

The story, though, tells something interesting. Teacher A in her class brings up social issues that those kids might not experience in their everyday life. She discussed a story about a lady who worked very hard in her life. The themes of the reading class are friendship, hard work and courage. The teacher understands that even if they come from the elite groups of people, they still need to learn about the reality out there, the importance of having friends, working hard and being courageous. Thus, we can conclude that she is reproducing and reinforcing students’ habitus. They are compatible and are not subject to any dilemmas. Through the example topic in her reading class, I would also say that she is transforming her students’ social worlds through English lesson.

Classroom B


Classroom B is placed in a school around government-subsidized public housing estate with family backgrounds are manual or service workers. There are 42 students in the class with the age ranging from 12-14 years old. The students are typical of children coming from the working class with disadvantaged cultural capital. They lack English immersion, but some, according to the interview, knew that English is very important. However, they do not find it interesting, rather boring.

Thus, the teacher seems to be struggling in dealing with them as some of them are resistant and hard to deal with. The large size of the class also contributes to the difficulty in class management. Moreover, the school system imposes English only environment without taking into account the fact that many students have less English ability, restricted teaching time and prescribed teaching methods.

As a result, students do not really follow the lesson. The teacher seems to be rushed and give little feedback. When students have questions, they are reluctant to ask because the teacher will answer them in English, which of course they don’t understand it. It’s, therefore, evident that they play with their peers rather than paying attention to the lesson.

In this class, both students and the teachers are caught in a dilemma. Hence, transformation seems to be far away. The teacher lacks “creative, discursive agency” understanding who doesn’t seem to try to change the classroom current state.

Classroom C


The school location and student backgrounds in classroom C are similar to those of Classroom B. There are 39 students in the class from 13-14 range of age. The students’ views regarding English are predominantly negative. While the teacher tried to use L1 in explaining parts of her lesson, she seemed not aware of her students’ interests and tends to fall for a fixed lesson. Oftentimes, the teacher controlled the classroom and gave little room for the students to flow their creative juices. This results in a class situation similar to Classroom B where the transformation might not occur.

Classroom D


The student backgrounds and sociolinguistic habits are like those in Classroom B and C. What makes this classroom different is the way the teacher teaches and approaches her students. Instead of being caught in a dilemma of using either full English or mix languages in the classroom, she builds a good rapport with her students instead. She tries to appreciate every work of her students and builds a strong relationship by talking and spending her time during recess, lunch and after-school hours with them. In the class, she tracks her students’ personal progress and gave awards to those who perform well. As a result, her classroom is very active and the students pay attention to her lessons.

The teacher of Classroom D seems to be aware that her students are not coming from the upper-class families, but rather from those that do not give much inspiration to them at home. Nonetheless, she constantly tries to motivate, inspire and transform them through English lesson and personal approach. Moreover, even though her school lacks fancy facilities, she is creative enough to make the most of her class.

Therefore, what teacher D does is transforming students’ social worlds. By giving an understanding that English is important (relating to their current conditions) and listening to the students’ aspirations, she might be changing their lives and the students might get a better future.

  • Classroom A: compatible habitus –> students and the teacher have good cultural capital. There are not any significant dilemmas. Everyone understands that English is important.
  • Classroom B and C: Incompatible habitus –> students don’t find English interesting although they think it is important. Through the rigid teaching methods, their interest in English fades away. They don’t have any confidence and belief that having English skills might change their lives. Worst, they don’t know to whom they should talk about this as the teachers don’t seem to build a good relationship with them.
  • Classroom D: Transforming habitus –> it is apparent that students understand the importance of English and have an interest in it. This is, specifically, has to do with the way the teacher teaches and builds rapport with them through creative, discursive agency.
Implications for us English teachers

English teachers who teach students who do not have the right kind of cultural capital encounter more challenges to find the appropriate teaching methods. We should be critical in observing and analysing classroom situations to have better judgments. The students in this socio-economic groups need to work harder to compete with those on the upper-hand, particularly, many of the rules are laid down by them.

We, after all, are the ones who know our classrooms better than any other school stakeholders. We should be flexible and pragmatic when it comes to teaching because the most important thing is how to build students’ confidence and gain a good understanding of the subjects we teach. They should believe it good for them. They should believe that it will help them transform their lives.

I know it’s rather contradictive to the symbolic violence and ideology imposition. But I guess the notion that English is important is not entirely wrong because IT IS IMPORTANT.

“Individual creative, discursive agency can make transformation of one’s social world possible despite the larger constraining, reproducing social structures outlined by Bourdeau (1977)” (Collin, 1993, cited in Lin, 1999, p. 410). 

We can do it English teachers/ lecturers!!

You can read the full article here


Moray House School of Education Library
University of Edinburgh
Autumn term, November 2016


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