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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Thinking about school subjects: Legitimation Code Theory and Subject Character Plots

The universe is unimaginably vast, yet life is only present on one planet that we know of. Evolution has brought about the human brain; human culture has emerged from brains in plural and their interactions in, and over, time. Human culture: our stories, music, art, our glimpses at the logic of the universe through maths and science and our tributes and questions to that universe through our arts. The ingenious devices we have for existing as a society: our buildings, infrastructures, economics and agriculture. Our study of ourselves, in psychology, history and sociology: we look in and we look out, and we create the conditions to make this possible.

This breathtaking scope, this, richness and sophistication of human culture is possible only because of specialisation. Specialisation allows depth, detail, and insight. Our greatest human achievements, the symphonies, sonnets and skyscrapers, the sewers and the supermarkets, are all possible because as humans we train as specialists in a certain area. An architect could tell you little about farming, because the time and investment needed to become an architect excludes other pursuits unless as a hobby. Specialisation is almost uniquely human and it is key to civilisation.

And yet civilisation is also a collaborative effort. The architect communicates with the supermarket CEO to agree how the new building will look. The supermarket coordinates with farmers for the distribution of produce. And the architect picks up her groceries on the way home from work. We are specialised, but not silos.

We have several common languages to allow us to communicate across our specialisms. Money. Facial expression. Numbers. Pictures. And of course, language itself.

Our schools are, or they should be, microcosms of this picture. It is imperative that we honour the integrity of each subject, and do not force each into a generic mould or dictat.  The quality of education that comes from having specialist teaching can only be delivered if we respect the differing natures of subjects. But equally we must have a common language or languages to communicate across subjects. This is absolutely critical for anyone with a whole-school teaching, learning or data responsibility. If we just let subject specialists do their own thing without dialogue or accountability then we are abdicating as leaders. Potentially we could be letting very poor practice carry on unchallenged, at our students’ expense, yet we hesitate because to tell another subject what to do feels like hubris.

Legitimation Code Theory offers a starting point for the common language we need to talk across specialisms and honour their differences. It’s a sociological model devised by Karl Maton and is described on its website thus:

“Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) first emerged as a framework for the study of knowledge and education and is now being used to analyse a growing range of practices across diverse social fields, including education, law, politics, art, and public understanding of science.”

“LCT integrates insights from a host of approaches from sociology, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, natural science, and cultural studies. Most explicitly, the conceptual framework extends the sociological ideas of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as building on the ontological and epistemological foundations of critical realism and critical rationalism. However, LCT draws widely for inspiration, including often surprising sources from sociology, anthropology, linguistics, cultural studies, physics, and other disciplines. Since 2005 LCT has been engaged in a particularly close and productive dialogue with systemic functional linguistics.”

Legitimation Code Theory seeks to present a framework with which to understand discourses, in particular with regard to knowledge and education. It rejects the dichotomous models that hitherto have described disciplines as either “hard” or “soft”, “objective” or “subjective”, and various other “Two Cultures” characterisations. Instead, it presents a series of codes which can be shown as pair of axes. Disciplines and discourses can then be plotted on these axes and a much more sophisticated understanding is developed as disciplines can be seen to have areas of more and areas of less of a characteristic, and also to have the facility to move across the plane in time.

Maton identifies several characteristics that can be explored in this way, and these are all very relevant for our consideration of school subjects. “Semantic gravity” is a measure of how much the concepts in the discourse are tied to a context. So it is rather like the opposite of abstraction. Science then has a weaker semantic gravity than engineering, as the rules are more absolute rather than applying to e.g. a particular kind of steel.

“Semantic density” is a measure of how much and how tightly the knowledge in a discipline is linked. So in science we have a high semantic density as everything explains everything else or near enough, whereas in maths there is I think a lower density as the links are fewer.

If we return to the axes then, we can see how interesting a discussion comes from this thinking:

We can begin to plot our subjects on these axes, and are forced to think deeply about them in doing so. We can plot them as a block rather than a single point, as they contain a range of knowledge types and structures.

LCT discusses other aspects of the nature of subjects, namely the relationship between the knower and the knowledge, and the autonomy of the field and how it functions. One of the very appealing things about the model is that there are no hierarchies, and in fact it throws light on some of the perceived hierarchies that do exist in the discourse today. Chiefly though for me, is that we have a language that can be shared and can capture the crucial differences between our subjects.

I’ve adapted this aspect of LCT for use in a school setting. I’ve created a series of axis pairs that allow deep reflection on the nature of subjects and an explicit description to allow dialogue across the subject divides. I am still thinking about these pairs so I may well add more or make changes as I develop the model – I am trying to work out how to do something about the function of the subject and also the gaze of the knower –  but I am sharing them here because I am hopeful that they can improve leadership across subjects in our schools, and because I am keen to get the discussion going. Below I have posted the axes that I have been using. In my next post I will explore the insights that can be gained from using this model.

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