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Why All Educators Must Adopt a Social Capital Centered Approach to Education

Young people from wealthy families see adults succeeding all around them. They see hard work paying off day in and day out. They have social proof for the things they have been taught in school. “If you work hard and play by the rules, you will be successful,” they are told. And it does work for them… or so it seems.

According to a 2019 report from Georgetown University, a kindergarten student with low test scores from an affluent family has over a 70% chance of being economically successful. Imagine a young Opportunity Seeker, age 5, being told “here are the steps to succeed” and then seeing those steps work for themselves and the people around them for over a decade throughout their most formative years.

So, what happens when young people don’t see these real-life examples of success from people who look like them? But they are still getting the same messages about how to succeed? A kindergartener student from a low-income family who has high test scores only has a 30% chance of being financially successful. So much potential, but no social proof.

A Social Capital Centered Approach to Education

Schools in low-income communities are talking about culturally competent education like it’s the new hot gossip, but they aren’t talking about the importance of social connections even though it’s an important aspect of culturally competent education. Culturally competent education acknowledges that lessons and standards are not universally relevant to all students. The American Psychological Association defines relevance as “the perception that something is interesting and worth knowing”. Social connections is the proof that shows young people that something is worth knowing.

If you work in a school setting and are ready to incorporate the missing link of social capital to help your students overcome barriers to success, check out our Foundations of Social Capital Literacy curriculum.

So where does social capital fit into all this?

Social proof is a cornerstone of a social capital-centered approach to education.

Studies show that social networks can improve people‘s mental capability to identify and access economic opportunities.

Social capital building can also enhance social proof by guiding young people to see why an adult’s opinion about learning objectives and experiences is valuable to them.

As we like to say at Social Capital Builders, knowledge is caught, not taught. And catching anything, from baseballs to common colds, requires exposure. You will never catch a baseball if you can’t see it coming, and you won’t catch a common cold if you aren’t around someone who has one. So if we extend this logic to economic opportunities, you’re unlikely to nab a great paying job if no one around you has one.

When Social Proof Is Missing

When I taught middle school students in South L.A., a predominantly low-income Latinx immigrant community, I made the grave mistake of not exposing my students to the social proof of what I was teaching them. My curriculum was culturally competent in that it included diverse authors, perspectives, and characters, but I was trying to teach my students that what I had to say was valuable rather than showing them that it was.

When I think back on that part of my life, I am embarrassed that on countless occasions I sent my students messages such as:

“If you work hard, you will succeed.”

“Just try your best.”

“Growth mindset is the key to success.”

These mini pep talks, while they may seem harmless to some, sent the message that any of my students’ failings were due to their own lack of effort rather than social systems beyond their control. I put all the onus of success on my students, ignoring the power of social capital and social proof. I tried to drill in the idea that they needed to work hard, believing that what they needed to be successful needed to be taught. When it was right there – ready to be caught!

Unfortunately, I am devastatingly certain that my strategy wasn’t widely effective and may in fact have perpetuated harm against my students. I expected them to believe that skills and information were worth knowing because I, an outsider, told them they were. There was no social proof.

The Bottom Line

Knowing that something worked for others makes youth more likely to invest in learning about that thing too. And, we know that social proof is most powerful when the young person sees that something worked for someone who is like them whether it’s someone of the same race or gender or someone from the same neighborhood. It is likely that the more a young person sees themselves in a successful adult, the more effective the social proof will be. This is not as simple as “you are the same race as me so I believe what you tell me is worth knowing”.

Adults who take the time to build social capital with young people will carry the most clout. This happens through sharing common interests and experiences, passing on relevant information, and engaging in reciprocal assistance. These strong social capital assets are the people that can provide the most validation of educational objectives.

Social Capital Builders has developed a state of the art system for adults to build social capital with young people. My Opportunity Hub, or MYOH for short, allows youth ages 16-24 to interact with six key adults in their lives in safe and strategic ways to increase social capital for the young person, the adults, and the greater community.

For those of us that see education as a tool for liberation, social proof is the missing link. It gives young people real-life examples of what types of tools, skills, and attitudes lead to success. It shows them what is worth knowing without anyone having to specifically tell them what is worth learning. In this way, self-discovery is an essential part of leveraging social proof. Imagine the transformation that is possible with a shift in educational frameworks to incorporate social capital literacy as a core principle.

Want to learn more about the power of social proof and the transformative social capital-centered approach to education? Contact us today to discuss the best way to bring this innovative approach to your community. Let’s connect!

Kim Dohner is the Director of Instruction for Social Capital Builders.