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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

What does knowledge-rich mean when not all disciplines seek knowledge?

“Man lives in the meanings he is able to discern. He extends himself into that which he finds coherent and is at home there”

– Michael Polanyi, “Meaning”, 1975

What is the purpose of human endeavour? It’s not just knowledge. We seek beauty , expression, joy and delight. Art, music, literature and dance light up the world and lift up the heart, and it isn’t through knowledge, not in any standard or commonly shared meaning of the word.

There is a further issue with the term “knowledge”. The standard definition is “justified true belief” – but this doesn’t fit in pursuits like philosophy, theology and history, where interpretivism reigns.

“Making meaning” is a better term for what we do in our disciplines. We do the things we do to find patterns, rules, laws and principles, but also to make loveliness, humour, stories and sense. Out of the near-infinite data set of experience and the equally near-infinite number of possible combinations by a creative mind, we distill things down, coax things out, create, crystallise, conceive something that allows us to extend beyond ourselves, and simultaneously to find our home in meaning.

What does this mean for the knowledge-rich curriculum? It is useful to return to Bernstein’s fields here:

In the field of production, i.e. the disciplines, people working in the universities and other places, pushing forward the frontiers- meaning is made. What we teach in school subjects must be knowledge of this meaning.

What this entails is the two strands of knowledge: substantive and disciplinary. First we have the substantive knowledge of the meaning in the discipline. Depending on the subject, this knowledge could comprise any combination of the claims, pieces, techniques and works themselves, and the processes in applying these things. Then there is the disciplinary knowledge, which is knowledge of how humans operate, in the field of production, when they are making meaning, when they are contributing new content to the field. Again, this new content might be new knowledge, or beauty, or solutions; whatever is the product-type of that discipline.

What does this look like for individual subjects? Here are some suggested examples:

To sum up: not all disciplines create knowledge: they all create meaning. The recontextualisation of the disciplines to make the school subjects is in part a codifying of knowledge about meaning and its production. Recontextualised school subjects all cover knowledge of meaning, and knowledge of how the meaning is made – in other words, substantive and disciplinary knowledge.

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