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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Vertical, horizontal, hierarchical, cumulative, integrative, discursive

The disciplines and school subjects are different from each other in important ways, and we must understand these differences in order to lead and empower excellent curriculum work. The discussion around these differences was started by the work of Emil Durkheim, followed by Basil Bernstein, with recent work by Karl Maton and the Legitimation Code Theory research programme.

However, there is not yet, at least to my knowledge, a standardised set of definitions or referents for these terms, particularly as applied across the range of subjects and considerations we have in schools. In order for further discussions to be as enlightening as they can be, we need to be clear on what each of these terms means, and what they do and don’t apply to.

Basil Bernstein’s thinking is laid out in the table below:

Bernstein characterised discourse in general as having two types: horizontal discourse which is everyday or common-sense, and vertical discourse which is rarefied, with specialist terms and concepts. So physics and sociology, his two focus discourses for comparison, are both vertical discourses. Maddeningly, he then discusses another, different layer of analysis – the structure of the discourse – in which one of the types is termed hierarchical but the other type is horizontal – even though he had already used horizontal for another, different, analysis. Already this feels a lot more confusing than it needs to be. On these terms, then, physics is hierarchical, since its knowledge is structured according to principles that unite a lot of otherwise disparate things. So for example classical mechanics explains moments, trajectories, explosions, collisions, and so on. In contrast, there are no unifying principles in sociology, only competing or co-existing schools of thought such as structuralism, Marxism and post-modernism. Sociology therefore has a horizontal structure, according to Bernstein.

Bernstein then moves on to considering how new knowledge is added or generated in a discipline. In physics, either new observations are integrated into an existing theory, or a new, more powerfully integrative theory deposes the incumbent. Thus physics is an integrative endeavour. In sociology, on the other hand, when new knowledge is produced, it is not integrated but either added under an existing banner, or as part of a new approach which is itself added to the set of competing/coexisting approaches in the field. Bernstein calls this characteristic accumulative.

One thing I have not come across is a description of cognitive ascension in the subjects, although this is often what is needed. In some subjects, certain things simply must be mastered before other things can be – but this is by no means mirrored by either the level of fundamentalness or when that piece of knowledge was added to the discipline as a historical event. In mathematics, for example, it is really imperative to master things like the place value system and number bonds before most other things. In other subjects, such as history, you can learn about Victorian England without having first done Reformation England – there aren’t as many, or as strict, threshold concepts. Yet place value is not more fundamental than set theory, and it was added to Western mathematics many years after trigonometry, for example. So this is a distinct category from “structure of discourse” above.

As curriculum thinkers, we need vocabulary to help us think about the following things:

  1. The ontological structure of the knowledge in our subject, in other words how the knowledge is linked and organised, in order for us to draw out the structure to plan sequencing and interweaving.

  2. The ascension rules in the subject: to what extent must certain things be mastered before other things can be unlocked?

  3. The epistemic rules in the discipline: how is new knowledge added? This will be included to a greater or lesser extent in the disciplinary aspect of the curriculum.

For discussion, then, here are some suggested vocabulary:

These should be seen as things to be more or less, not one or the other: history is more horizontal than chemistry, for example, but there are still some fundamental principles, though their grip is perhaps not as strong.

Using these ideas to plan, discuss, and defend curriculum

When we plan curriculum, we can map out the knowledge and its links, as informed by the ontological profile of the subject. If we are mapping physics, we know we should be mapping out a vertical structure, with fundamental principles unifying lots of other things. If we are mapping sociology, we know we don’t need to be attempting to unify things in this way.

Then as we plan our sequence, if we have a hierarchical subject, then we know we must play close attention to the required order. If it is a cumulative subject, we can look to other principles to build our sequence, such as chronology, proximity, or narrative.

Finally, the epistemic nature of the discipline may feature in our curriculum in our teaching of how the discipline works, i.e. the disciplinary strand of the curriculum.

Then, when we have planned our curriculum, as Michael Fordham says, that is our progression model. The curriculum is informed by considerations of several aspects, aspects which are different for different subjects. Any discussion over what is right for a subject must ultimately come down to the design of the curriculum, which must be intentional, and based on a clear understanding of the nature of the subject. A shared language will help us to have these discussions.

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