The approach known as funds of knowledge (or FoK) originated in Tucson, Arizona, in the early 1980s. The project was aimed at countering what was described as deficit thinking in education; i.e., the idea that low school performance among underrepresented students was caused by underlying linguistic, economic and cultural limitations (González, Moll & Amanti, 2005).
The original authors of this approach, known as the “Tucson academics” (Hogg, 2011, p. 669), put forward their ideas with the purpose of contributing to the educational reform of public schools that serve US-Mexican populations in the southwestern United States (Gonzalez, Moll & Amanti, 2005; Velez-Ibanez & Greenberg, 1992).
In order to challenge the deficit thinking prevalent in education and the racist policies that misunderstand the inherent complexities of migrant people, it was argued that the households of students of Mexican origin living in Tucson did, in fact, have at their disposal a wide variety of skills, knowledge and competencies forged in their working lives and community history (Moll, Amanti, Neff & González, 1992). However, these intellectual and educational resources were essentially invisible in school practice and curricular structure due to asymmetric power relationships (Rodriguez, 2013). Therefore, school performance could be improved by having teachers visit the families of some of their students, identify their skills and knowledge and incorporate them into educational practice.
The idea involves an educational policy and concept which, by recognizing and legitimizing the lifestyles involved in the cultural practices of the students’ families, is expected to create relationships of “confianza” (mutual trust) between teachers and families in order to: a) build bridges of cooperation that can diminish the prejudices and stereotypes between the two contexts of activity (González & Moll, 2002) and b) link school curricula and educational practice to the lifestyles of students (McIntyre, Rosebery & González 2001).
The funds of knowledge (FoK) concept originated with the seminal works by Vélez-Ibáñez (1983) on U.S. Mexican households and their social and economic systems of interchange. Vélez-Ibáñez, together with Greenberg, were the first to propose the notion of FoK, in the context of the study into the forms and strategies that allowed immigrant families to survive and further their personal development in the United States. They understood the term to mean the “specific strategic bodies of essential information that households need to maintain their well-being.” (Velez-Ibanez & Greenberg, 1992, p. 314). However, the definition of FoK most-widely used in the literature (Hogg, 2011) is the one provided by Moll, Amanti, Neff & González (1992): “These historically-accumulated and culturally-developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being” (p. 133).
The first study to explore the educational potential of the funds of knowledge approach was the “Community Literacy Project”, initiated in 1988 (González, 1995). The main goal of this project was to help teachers to design new forms of education based on the literacy practices and funds of knowledge of the documented households.
After this experience, a pilot FoK study was initiated in 1990-91, with 10 teachers from three schools (González, 1995). The premise and the findings of the “Funds of Knowledge for Teaching Project” was the same as in the “Community Literacy Project” and in all the sister projects, such as the subsequent project BRIDGE (González, Andrade, Civil & Moll, 2001), namely, that the educational process can be greatly enhanced when teachers learn about their students’ households and their everyday lives (González, 1995).
In other words, low-income Latino families and communities have linguistic and cultural resources that can be employed to support children’s learning in school. Teachers can strategically connect the curriculum to these rich, culturally-based, out-of-school activities ranging from tasks involved in gardening and house construction to the commercial transactions taking place at “swap meets” (González, Moll & Amanti, 2005; McIntyre, Rosebery & González, 2001). For example, McIntyre, Swazy & Greer (2001) described how two teachers made visits to the homes of their students in rural Kentucky to better understand their particular funds of knowledge. As a result of these visits, the two teachers designed a series of reading, writing, and mathematics lessons around a major annual school event: the “Agricultural Field Day”. They connected the curriculum to students’ lives by uncovering the students’ and families’ extensive knowledge and abilities of farming (e.g., growth rates of various plants).
What is meant by culture?
It is important to note here that culture is understood to refer to socio-cultural practices, what people do (and the experiences associated with these practices), how people perceive what they do. Consequently, rather than assuming a static, homogeneous conception of culture (Japanese culture, corporate culture, and so on), the approach acknowledges the hybrid nature of culture (González, 1995). In other words, the focus is not on shared culture, but rather on families’ practices and lived experiences. It is a processual approach that focuses on the processes of everyday life, in the form of daily activities, as a frame of reference. These daily activities are a manifestation of particular historically accumulated funds of knowledge that households possess. Instead of representations of an essentialized group (Islamic culture, Mexican culture), household practices are viewed as dynamic, emergent, and interactional (González, Moll & Amanti, 2005). Hence the need to carry out an ethnographic analysis, i.e., to visit the homes of families in order to document the practices and life contexts through which each family’s particular abilities, skills and knowledge emerge (González, 1995).
The objective of the funds of knowledge approach is threefold: first, to improve the academic performance of those students considered underrepresented due to low income, racial/ethnic minority status, foreign origin, low fluency in English or being first-generation college students (Rios-Aguilar, Kiyama, Gravitt & Moll, 2011); second, to improve relations between teachers and families by creating ties of “confianza” (mutual trust) and third, to carry out curricular and instructional innovations by incorporating their funds of knowledge and their articulation within the curriculum and school practice.