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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

“Reach out and touch knowledge” – Analysing curriculum in science with Legitimatio

I want to talk about curriculum and knowledge – – this is something I think about a lot! If we’re going to give our students the very best education, we can’t begin with pedagogy, or assessment, or exercise books- we have to begin with our subjects.
All  subjects have their own knowledge structures, they are made in different ways and they behave in different ways. It’s our responsibility to understand these things if we want to do the best for our students. But this is really hard to do! Knowledge is a thing but it’s not a concrete thing, you can’t point to it, it’s not made of atoms. And it’s so big as well, you know, no subject has anywhere near all of its knowledge held in the head of one person. And yet we have to understand it, or we will fail our duty as teachers.

 When I’m thinking about knowledge, I have this constant feeling of reaching out in the dark and trying to find out about something by touching it –  I only get glimpses or rough outlines of the thing I’m trying to find out about, I can’t work out the real shape or what it’s made of, from the information I get from these touches. And it reminds me of this quote, because I know that if I can just persevere, if I can get past the darkness,  I’ll see something, truly beautiful.

Legitimation Code Theory or LCT is an intellectual movement really, led by sociologist Karl Maton, that gives us an amazing power to find out a whole lot more about knowledge and curriculum. It’s fascinating, and can I just say it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever read, so if   any experts here please help me out if I’ve got anything wrong!  LCT is a tool of analysis, and it works by considering discourses in terms of a number of planes. Each plane plots a different set of characteristics, and as we consider each in turn, we can begin to see the knowledge in our subjects.LCT builds on the work of sociolinguist Basil Bernstein, and I think this is a really useful insight from him:

Bernstein points out the three fields of any academic discourse: there’s the field of production, where new knowledge is made, so this is universities and research labs. There’s the field of reproduction, where novices are prepared for potentially going and producing new knowledge themselves and also just for joining the big conversations of humanity, as educated individuals – so this is basically our schools. And there’s the field of recontextualisation, where the decisions are made on what should be taught here. So this is places like the DFE, the textbook publishers, that kind of thing. So this is not just a mini version of this. You can’t just do the same stuff here as here and expect students to arrive here well prepared. You can’t just discuss the knowledge here and expect to have the same points hold for here. We need to distinguish the fields. If we’re talking about school curriculum then we’re talking about the field of reproduction.Back to LCT then, and these planes of analysis. The first plane I’d like to talk about is called the semantic plane.

The semantic plane is all about what the knowledge is like, trying to get at the nature of the knowledge. The vertical axis is semantic gravity. This is a measure of how much the knowledge is tied to its context. So if it is very tied to its context, you plot down here, and if it’s not, in other words it’s quite transferable, like a principle that can apply to many situations, it’s up here.** So like science is here, because it has lots of principles, laws etc, that aren’t tied down to one particular context, they apply across basically infinite situations, so the semantic gravity is low. One of the reasons that science is amazing is because a few fundamental principles explain infinite phenomena. This is what it means to have low semantic gravity.The X axis is what Maton calls semantic density. This is a measure of how many links there are between the pieces of knowledge in a discourse. If there are lots of links, you plot over on this side. If there are few, you plot over to this side. The other reason why science is so cool is because literally everything links together. Everything’s made of atoms, everything happens because of fields, energy is conserved in every event, entropy increases in every event…This is what it means to have high semantic density.So science is very much in this quadrant.So what does this mean for us?SLIDE 7.We need to be acutely aware of these features when we plan our curriculum.The high semantic density of science needs to inform our sequencing of the curriculum. We need to follow a path that is informed by the links, and helps them to be built in the minds of our students. Our sequencing needs to follow a logic dictated by the semantic density. I don’t think there’s one optimum route for sequencing, I think there are probably several, but they have to be intentional, they have to be informed.The low semantic gravity of science means we need to plan for lots and lots of concrete examples of abstract principles. Actually one of the things Maton found in his research is that students from less advantaged backgrounds struggle more with applying principles to new situations, regardless of ability. So there’s an urgent moral imperative actually for us to plan our examples carefully to develop this ability.  So for conservation of momentum in explosions we have a canon being fired, and two trolleys exploding apart, and two iceskaters pushing off each other , and a boat pushing away from a jetty. We need to be explicit with our students that underlying principles manifest themselves in many ways in the concrete world. So this fits in with the cognitive science findings that “far transfer” is impossible, and that exposure to multiple examples is the best way of extending a student’s transfer horizon. But I think it’s a bit more than that, I do think there’s a wider point we should be teaching as well, this idea that single abstract principles can flower off into infinite real-world examples – I don’t think that’s obvious to all our students, and we need to teach it. And it’s not enough for us to just show our students all of this, they have to practise it, using short questions, long questions, calculation questions, writing questions… in other words, they need Shed Loads Of Practice.There are a couple of other planes from LCT that I think we need to look at.

The specialisation plane is all about how knowledge is validated, and defined as belonging to that particular discourse. So like if I say “The Smiths are the best band ever” – that is a great statement, but it doesnt belong in science. If I say “protons have a negative charge”, that also doesnt belong in science, but for a different reason. So the epistemic relations is about how much the knowledge is defined by, or sort of accredited by, its relationship with the outside world. So if your subject is bothered about the objective world, objects and events or whatever, then the epistemic relations are strong. So subjects like science, maths, history and geography. If your subject is more about internal thought, like art or music or literature, the epistemic relations are weaker. And then theres the social relations, which is to do with how much we are concerned with who produced the knowledge. So science falls into this area here: it has strong epistemic relations as science knowledge is very much affected by the world outside of the knower. And science has weak social relations, in theory anyone can come up with a contribution to science knowledge: you can’t just be famous and expect any old thing you made up to pass peer review. And we have quite high profile examples of scientists who are thought to be wrong on certain things, so like Einstein on quantum mechanics for example, that’s one of the defining features of science. Not all disciplines behave in this way!

And then we also have the epistemic plane. Ontic relations is to do with the ontology of the subject – in other words how much it is considered to refer to something out there in the world. So science obviously has strong ontic relations: science proceeds under a realist paradigm, even if realism is hard to justify. No-one goes to build a particle collider saying “of course we can’r really commit to the existence of atoms since they are not directly observable. No. Scientists, whatever philosophers say, have a commitment to the realness of their objects of study. Discursive relations is a measure of how much knowledge is open to discussion or how much it is open to debate. So its interesting for science here actually, science knowledge in the field of production has fairly weak discursive relations, like there’s not exactly an ongoing debate about “do cells exist” , compared to in maybe philosophy, no-one can ever agree on anything, but then of course there is this kind of sacred commitment to the fact that discursive relations are non-zero, we have to be committed to the fact that our theories could change, it’s not like a religious dogma. But then in school science, so going back to that field of reproduction, actually the discursive relations are zero. No school student gets educated by challenging the established theory. And this is about necessary conditions isnt it, you cant push at the frontiers until you’ve mastered the basics.So the reason I’ve shown these two planes together is that they concern what we’ve been calling disciplinary knowledge in science.All disciplines have these two strands of knowledge: the substantive and the disciplinary. With substantive knowledge we’re talking about the content and claims of the discipline, the facts and objects.And with disciplinary knowledge, we’re interested in how knowledge is produced how it’s made and how its approved.Going back to Bernstein’s fields of production and reproduction, in the field of production, both substantive and disciplinary knowledge are explicit for all disciplines. In the maths department of a university, staff could tell you about maths and they could tell you about how they contribute to the field of maths knowledge – how they work, how their work is peer reviewed and all that. And that would go for any department. But in the field of reproduction, so in schools, the balance of substantive and disciplinary knowledge varies between subjects. So in maths lessons, for example, students learn number, algebra, and geometry but they don’t learn about how new knowledge in maths is produced. School maths is all substantive knowledge, no disciplinary.  But in science we have both – and here we come to a very interesting thing. What we are talking about here is absolutely fascinating. The disciplinary knowledge of science defines science. No other discipline can connect us to the universe in the way science can. And this connection is possible because of the legitimation and knowledge production criteria of science -because of the disciplinary knowledge, because of how science works.So why is it then, if science’s disciplinary knowledge is so cool, that when people say “How science works”, I die a little inside?Now. There are a number of reasons why people like me cringe when we hear the phrase How Science Works:How Science Works was pushed at a time when there was a lot of educational nonsense around. I remember going to Local Authority training, for days on end, you know they paid for us to stay at the hilton hotel for this, and we did loads on investigations, and we did also did , making a stop-motion animation with plasticene to demonstrate asssessment for learning, making a slide show with google images and a song with a related title to play as a hook when students were coming into the classroom, we even dressed up as pirates, I’m still not really sure why, it was something to do with there was once a SATs question on scurvy… We didnt spend a single minute of substantive knowledge, on explanations, models, or meaningful practice for students. It was a bad time.This was the time when you could get like a level 5 on the KS3 SATs with no substantive knowledge at all, as long as you could plot some graphs and label a beaker basically, it was part of the knowledge-bad-skills-good ideology.I think the thinking was that we should not really have much substantive knowledge, or at least not spend hardly any time on it, because disciplinary was better.And finally there was this batshit idea that because science proceeds by enquiry, scientific education should do so too. Absolutely ridiculous. Imagine if we did that for other subjects. “For the autumn term, all students taking art will relocate to a bedsit in the Latin quarter in Paris, where they will smoke opium, read russian novels and drink only black coffee. Come to think of it we might as well send all the literature students as well. Maths students will be asked to lock themselves away in a tower until they’ve solved a theorem. Hey – if it worked for Picasso, Joyce and Andrew Wiles on Fermat’s last theorem, why the heck wouldnt it work for Year 9” – it’s mental but people gobble this stuff up.  The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls this the scholastic fallacy – the idea that methods in the field of reproduction should mirror those in the field of production.These are all good reasons why people are tired of How Science Works.But I am saying we need to bring How Science Works in from the progressive cold. Yes it was made rubbish by educationalists in the past, but that’s superficial not fundamental. How Science Works, or science disciplinary knowledge, should be a valuable and noble aspect of our curriculum.  So this is what I think we need to do:1. Understand it as different from substantive- valuable but not better or higher. It’s important and wonderful, and it’s different. It’s not higher level because skills and it’s not a poor cousin because skills.  It’s incommensurable. It should certainly not take up more or even the same curriculum time or attention as our substantive knowledge, our biology, chemistry and physics.2. We need to understand the fact that there is an element of genericness or transferrability to some aspects of HSW. So like graphs for example, there’s a superficial but nonetheless important level of transferable knowledge, in how to draw them and recognise the types of proportion. And that’s not bad, I think we instinctively recoil from anything transferable but actually we teach laying out calculations as transferable across all units and we’re fine with that. 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 achive 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. If you think the name “How Science Works” is just too cringe because of what’s been done in its name, how about a rebrand? You could call it Science Disciplinary Knowledge. Or SDK3. But we need to also be clear that there is more to HSW, that is both contingent on, and constituent to, the substantive content. You can’t plan a good investigation or explain a graph unless you understand the substantive knowledge. And then the relationship goes back the other way, a lot of the time we teach substantive knowledge best when we can furnish with a key experiment, or a historical vignette, or a graph or whatever. So while there is a small amount of HSW that can be taught discretely and is transferable, most of HSW has to come with substantive knowledge.4. I think we have to be absolutely explicit as well that to teach How Science Works, including the processes of enquiry, is not to teach through enquiry methods. We know now about the wealth of research that shows again and again that enquiry learning fails, and it fails our most disadvantaged students the most. It is entirely consistent to teach How Science Works, and to teach it through explicit instruction and shed loads of practice. In fact I’d argue this is what we must do if we want to open up powerful knowledge for all our students.SLIDESo what kind of things should we include in a curriculum that contains this kind of knowledge? I think the historical stories are so important, to show how science has progressed, how experiment relates to theory, how science relates to the world in a deep sense.. We need these historical stories planned into our curriculum, and Bill Wilkinson is doing a great job curating a set of stories on his blog, if you haven’t seen it already do check it out.And then experiments – practicals and demonstrations. I think part of our students’ induction should be a re-enactment of key experiments. Oxidising magnesium in a crucible: Lavoisier did that actual experiment! Young’s double slit experiment. Hooke and the cells under the microscope. All of these things played a valiant role in the development of science, and students all over the globe, since the discovery was first made, have studied these same experiments. And there are other experiments that are more made for teaching, the air track, the feather and the penny, the exploding can. But these are well-designed and equally part of the richness and the reality of science in the field of reproduction. We have to teach substantive knowledge explicitly before or with these experiments. We can’t say – off you go and discover the wave nature of light. It sounds ridiculous but that’s what we did that time at the Hilton, and that was not unusual, and we have still got teachers, leaders and teacher educators saying this sort of thing up and down the country and we must fight it every day if we want all of our students to succeed.I think we need to teach students to plan their own investigations around key substantive concepts. I think these must only ever come after explicit teaching of the substantive. So if you’ve taught about respiration and circulation, then do the investigation into the star jumps and pulse rate. Students know what should happen – there are no surprises. Students can experience and practise investigating a phenomenon, with all the variables and resolution and everything, and there is no risk that their understanding of the substantive concepts will be interfered with – because they have already learned the science and so can predict the outcome with certainty. If we go back to the magnesium in the crucible – quite often the mass goes down doesnt it – think of the problems our students could face if they are tasked with “find out what happens to mass in oxidisation” – we have to plan to make sure understanding is secure before introducing the uncertainties associated with investigations.But there’s still something missing. I think students should experience the feeling of asking a question you don’t know the answer to, working out how to find the answer, and how to be sure of your answer, and of interacting with the world in order to find that answer. This process is wonderful and no other discipline has it in the same way. So I think we must have some investigations where students don’t know the answer – but these must be very carefully selected so that substantive knowledge is safe from harm. I’m describing these experiments as having “good hygiene from substantive knowledge.” So things like “Which material is the most absorbent?”, “Which rock contains carbonate?” “Which surface has the highest friction?” – I don’t think we need millions of these investigations maybe one or two a year, but I do think we should have them, so our students can feel what it’s like, to investigate a question, to seek and find, to touch the world in the way scientists do.I feel a bit worried that because I’ve spent longer talking about disciplinary knowledge that I’ll give the impression we should give more time to it in our curriculum – so just to be clear – NO! I’d say at a guess we should spend 90% of our curriculum time on substantive, including the elements of disciplinary that directly support the substantive, and perhaps 10% on the generic things, the graphs and variables and things that can fit in pretty much anywhere. I think that’s a pretty flexible figure, but I think we do need a starting point and it needs to be at that end of things.I think if you’re thinking about curriculum then LCT is a really great tool.  I think if teachers can start to really think about the nature of our subjects then we have got a really exciting time ahead of us in education. Our subjects are everything: curriculum is king. Thank you very much for listening!

*We might not include all of the great vocational subjects in our secondary curriculum, but this should be because they naturally fall later in a logical sequence, and not because they are inferior or less a part of human culture.** SG+ is down on the vertical axis, this is because the more gravity something has, the more it is pulled down – according to Maton!

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