Disciplinary (and substantive) knowledge: what are we really talking about?

This is the third in a curriculum series I am writing for those who are relatively new to curriculum design, theory and leadership. It would make most sense to read this third post having first read both previous posts. You can find them here.

Last week we thought about the central place that knowledge could – and should – hold in a curriculum. We thought about knowledge as an underpinning philosophy. Knowledge as the bricks and mortar that hold students’ understanding together. And the teaching of this knowledge so that it is remembered.

But this emphasis on knowledge only raises further questions. Specifically, what knowledge? And who’s knowledge? As I noted in my first post in this series, building a curriculum is an exercise in power. The choices that are made around what is (and isn’t) included in a curriculum are innately political. And even the knowledge that is selected and sequenced is a product of human creation. It is not fixed and nor is it definite. It is produced, challenged and probed in academic institutions.

I remember being told that it was important my students understood this. That they left my classroom with an understanding of knowledge as a fluid and dynamic creation. I was perplexed. How on earth was I going to communicate something that I myself found difficult to get my head around? My students struggle enough with remembering the knowledge specified in the curriculum. How, on top of this, were they to comprehend the provisional, revisable, and flexible nature of knowledge within a specific subject?

The key, I was told, was to ensure that my curriculum included both substantive and disciplinary knowledge. Substantive knowledge I was clear about. I had heard the term in my trainee year and knew that it meant the knowledge that was accepted as fact. Knowledge that could be treated as given. On the disciplinary front I was on shakier ground. And though many years later my understanding is more secure, I still wrestle with the nuances of disciplinary knowledge. What it is. Where we see it. How we teach it.

ACADEMIC DISCIPLINES – THE PARENTS OF OUR SUBJECTS

Wrapping my head around the idea of disciplinary knowledge has taken a long time. It has been helped immeasurably, however, by the work of Ruth Ashbee. Like Ruth, I think a useful starting point is to recognise the origins of the subjects we teach at school.

History, maths, physics, geography, and art are not simply the preserve of school children. We don’t teach within these brackets on a whim. They are ways of thinking. They derive from grander academic disciplines that we – humans – have used to make meaning of the world and establish what is and isn’t accepted as truth. Understanding the relationship between these academic disciplines and our school subjects is critical if we are to achieve the knowledge goals outlined above.

Let’s start with the basics.

Academic disciplines are branches of learning associated with universities. They are concerned with research in a particular field. They deal with different aspects of knowledge, and are concerned with making meaning in different ways. It may seem obvious, but the object of study for a historian (the past) is different to the object of study for a biologist (the natural world). Equally, the product of study for a historian (a reasoned interpretation of the past) is different to the product of study for a biologist (a scientific thesis). The latter, at least until proven otherwise, can be said to be objective fact. A historian will never be able to achieve this.

Each discipline also has its own very particular way of doing things. So not only do these disciplines have very different aims, but their methodologies are also unique. Their attempts to make meaning are defined by particular routes and thresholds. To cross these would be to breach the walls of the discipline. A scientist who relies on historical source material to form a scientific conclusion can no longer be said to be doing science. In science, meaning is made via controlled experimentation, observation, and analysis of the resultant data.

It is this process that allows certain things to be accepted as ‘truths’ in science and beyond. And it is this process that allows for the production of distinct and specialised knowledge within a discipline. We might call these truths, this specialised knowledge, this meaning, substantive knowledge. I think it should lie at the heart of our curriculum. And we might call these processes that allow meaning to be made (and challenged) within a particular subject, disciplinary knowledge. I think it should feature within our curriculum. It should be present.

It should come as little surprise to hear that Christine Counsell explains the distinction far more eloquently than I ever could:

“Disciplinary knowledge… is a curricular term for what students learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised scholars, artists or professional practice. It is the part of the subject where the pupils understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth.”

CHRISTINE COUNSELL, “TAKING CURRICULUM SERIOUSLY,” IMPACT.

Honouring the disciplinary knowledge within a curriculum is vital for two reasons. Firstly, doing so allows our students to see the contested nature of knowledge. By understanding how certain things come to be accepted and rejected as truth within a particular discipline, the relationship between students and the curriculum shifts. They are no longer passive receivers of knowledge, and we are no longer simply transmitters of knowledge.

Beyond this, however, I think there is a secondary impact of equal significance. Once we understand that our subjects are linked to academic disciplines, we begin to see that the teaching of these subjects is, in some ways, preparing students for their induction into these academic communities. To borrow Clare Sealey’s phrasing, we need to teach children the rules of engagement that exist within each discipline so that they themselves “can join in the conversation about the significance of the content we are teaching them.” I believe we are duty bound to do this.

WHAT ABOUT IN PRACTICE?

There are some subjects with a long legacy of carefully-blended substantive and disciplinary knowledge. Take history, for instance. Trainee teachers are often taught from the outset to build historical enquiries around second order concepts. These are ways of thinking that are unique to history as a discipline. The lessons themselves may be dominated by ‘knowns’ such as 1066 and the Battle of Hastings (including the various events, people, and places encountered before and after), but they are also punctuated by things that are not given. The causes of William’s victory are contestable. The change (or continuity) wrought by the Norman conquest is up for grabs. And the significance of the invasion itself is (to some) disputable. These are ways in which historians (and now pupils) think and establish claims about the past. Their inclusion in the curriculum (along with careful examination of source work, the consideration of competing interpretations of the past, and countless other pieces of disciplinary knowledge) move this from the transmission of facts about the past to the study of history.

But this does not mean that we should be asking our students to think like, and behave like, academics across all of our subjects. As stated above, we can view our school subjects as the children of these academic disciplines. They share a common DNA and may often look and feel the same (as in some ways history does). But they are also different. And in some cases the differences are both profound and important.

Many reference Basil Bernstein’s ‘fields of recontextualization’ when drawing this distinction. I like sociologist Karl Maton’s suggestion that knowledge is “curricularised” (condensed, prioritised, sequenced) from fields of production (e.g. Universities) and that educational knowledge is in turn “pedagogised” (made digestible, concrete) into sites of teaching and learning (e.g. classrooms).

Whatever the case, what we must understand is that school subjects may behave differently to their parent disciplines. And that this process of recontextualistion will look different across different subjects. This has a bearing on the blend of substantive and disciplinary knowledge required in the subject. Take maths, for example. It exists as an age-old academic discipline and a school subject. They share the same name. The two are closely related. But what students do in a maths class at school bears little resemblance to the research undertaken by mathematicians at universities.

As Ruth Ashbee has handily pointed out, the very vertical nature of knowledge in maths means that students at school spend most time learning fundamental theories and codes that underpin the discipline at large. In some ways, learning maths at school is more akin to learning a new language. Only when the language is mastered can students engage in the discipline at an academic level. So almost everything that students learn in school maths is what we might consider established fact – or substantive knowledge.

Understanding this distinction helps us avoid (well-intentioned) efforts to have students ‘act like mathematicians.’ Year 10s engaging in mathematical enquiry are unlikely to yield ground-breaking results. But that doesn’t mean we should negate the discipline entirely. Though we may not want students acting like mathematicians, we might still wish to have them know how mathematicians think. This, surely, allows them to see how knowledge is made and produced within the discipline of maths? Ruth Ashbee (yes, again) has applied this thinking to the teaching if disciplinary knowledge in science. I think this is an interesting approach:

“I think a good way of looking at it is this: Science hasn’t always been around. It’s not like music or language. It’s not a natural or obvious way of doing things. Think of the people who fought to establish science! Think of Francis Bacon, meticulously collecting data about the natural world, in order to inductively find relationships between things! Think of Lavoisier, staying up all night, week after week, refining his measuring instruments to achieve ever-increasing precision! Think of Galileo, imprisoned under house arrest because he sought to draw conclusions from his observations! In teaching our students these things, we are honouring our inheritance from these great pioneers.”

RUTH ASHBEE

This is not to say that we should build our entire science curriculum around the history of science (this would obviously be mad). Substantive knowledge should form the bedrock of science teaching, and most disciplinary knowledge will be introduced via careful experimentation and explanation of the scientific method. But there is clearly scope to have students hear how the knowledge they learn was produced. To feel its contestable nature via stories and narratives. Or even to see (via experiment) replicas of the great eureka moments.

Final thoughts

So we now arrive at a critical juncture where (ideally) we see three things. Firstly, we appreciate what disciplinary knowledge involves (think academic disciplines, truth claims etc.). Secondly, we see the significance of this knowledge. And finally, we see that this will look different across school subjects. This final point is of critical importance.

I recently came across a whole-school policy in which teachers were asked to list the substantive and disciplinary knowledge that would be taught across a year in their subject. The proforma was presented as a 50:50 split. All subjects were asked to complete the form.

There is no doubt that this was a well-intentioned endeavour by school leadership, but like almost any generic curriculum policy it is deeply damaging. It is wonderful that so many leaders are now using these terms and engaging in the debate, but they must resist the urge to impose collective strategies that straight-jacket school subjects. Leaders would be better served understanding the origins of these subjects. This way, they might meaningfully observe the disciplinary course that the subject must take in school. A useful exercise (pinched from Kris Boulton) might be to sit down and plot each subject on a graph of disciplinary vs. substantive.

I really like this idea from Kris Boulton. Though I don’t necessarily agree with all of his placements, the idea of carefully considering the time you might devote to teaching substantive and disciplinary is a good one. And the exercise is one that I think all senior leaders should go through.

Going through this exercise would shine a light on the lunacy of homogenised 50:50 disciplinary/substantive splits. It may also lead to powerful revelations. As a teacher or line manager of modern languages, you may realise that your current curriculum devotes too much time to disciplinary knowledge, where there should really be a focus on the substantive. As a history teacher, you may realise the inverse, and see that you are neglecting the second order concepts that underpin the discipline. Whatever the case, knowing the relationship between your subject and its parent discipline, and establishing the ratio of substantive to disciplinary knowledge within your subject is critical.

In the next post in the series, we will be thinking about curricular coherence. Selecting knowledge is only half the battle. Working out how this will be sequenced so that it builds the deep and robust schema I mentioned in the second post is no easy thing. I’ll explore some theory, before offering some practical suggestions across a few different subjects.

Further reading

As stated above, the aim of this series is not just to offer an accessible introduction to curriculum, but to concentrate much of the brilliant work of others in one place. With that in mind, below is a short reading list to accompany this week’s post. I will be posting similar lists each week. This list also functions as a set of references for the above post.

Christine Counsell, Taking Curriculum Seriously, https://impact.chartered.college/article/taking-curriculum-seriously/.

Clare Sealey, How to speak truthfully about what it means to be human: a user’s handbook, https://primarytimery.com/2020/06/09/how-to-speak-truthfully-about-what-it-means-to-be-human-a-users-handbook/

Kris Boulton, What Are Disciplinary and Substantive Knowledge? https://tothereal.wordpress.com/2015/11/22/what-are-disciplinary-and-substantive-knowledge/ . I would recommend reading the entire series that Kris published, as well as the contributions in the comments section.

Ruth Ashbee, “Reach out and touch knowledge” – Analysing curriculum in science with Legitimation Code Theory, https://rosalindwalker.wordpress.com/2019/01/07/reach-out-and-touch-knowledge-analysing-curriculum-in-science-with-legitimation-code-theory/

Ruth Ashbee, “Why it’s so important to understand school subjects – and how we might begin to do so, The ResearchEd Guide to Curriculum.

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