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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Whole-school curriculum thinking: SCM2: Structure of Knowledge

The second subject character matrix (SCM) in the series is concerned with the structure of the knowledge of a subject. There are two axes: vertical or clustered organisation; and extended or localised links. These axes draw on Bernstein’s horizontal and vertical structures and Maton’s semantic density respectively.

In a knowledge-centred approach (the best way overall), we are concerned with the nature of the knowledge but also its structure. The structure of the knowledge is so important because it is very closely aligned with an expert schema. We know that links and organisation are what make expert schema different from those of novices, so the ways we guide our learners to build their schema, in other words how we teach, should be informed by the structure of the knowledge. We need a common language that non-specialist leaders and subject specialists alike can use to discuss, inform and develop this teaching.

Let’s look at some of our subjects on this matrix. For each subject I have also drawn a diagram to try to illustrate what I mean by these descriptions of the organisation.

The knowledge in our science curriculum has extended links and is vertically organised. Everything is related to everything else: atoms are to do with charge is to do with electricity is to do with energy is to do with chemical reactions… you get the idea. These links are vertically organised because of the explanatory relationship between concepts. Charge explains current and forces explains charge. Natural selection explains adaptation and adaptation explains ecological relationships. The route through the web is orderly.

The knowledge in maths is very vertically organised. The whole of geometry, for example, can be derived from Euclid’s five common notions. The links are extended too: ratio is relevant to geometry, algebra, probability and number.

Some things in French are vertically organised. There are principles of grammar that dictate what can happen in the language. But then there are exceptions, irregular verbs and peculiarities that don’t fit the normal rules. This knowledge has a clustered. structure. Alongside the grammar is vocabulary. Some aspects of vocabulary are vertically organised, such as the cognates and near-cognate suffixes like able, ation, and if which give the same meanings as their English cousins. However lots of vocabulary has a much more clustured structure. There is of course a logic to every word in every language, but the story of a word is a historical one, and history, as we know, can be haphazard and hidden. Lots of words are linked, as in morphological derivations. But then so many words or sets of words seem like islands, not part of a pattern or tree. Of course the more you learn the more patterns and structures you can see – but that is little help to the novice.

In art I think there are extended links: Tone is linked to mark-making is linked to colour is linked to mood; and all the work of the greats is linked to all of the techniques and principles. If you look at a Piero della Francesca you are looking at composition and geometry and anatomy and narrative. The organisation is clustered: there aren’t fundamental principles that inform or dictate the knowledge structure. Or rather: principles like these do exist but are redefined by every movement: “Do whatever it takes to get realism” (Renaissance) “Try to give an impression of the scene in a way that a camera never could”; “Mess with the rules of time and space but limit your palette so the effect is not overwhelming” (early cubism). These are interesting but they are not universal to the discipline. This aspect of how “up for grabs” defining features of a subject are will be explored in later matrices.

The links in geography are extended: cities link to populations link to resources link to climate… the structure seems scattered as there are no fundamental principles of geography. Or maybe there are, and as a non-specialist I can’t see them. Hopefully a geography teacher will tell me, and then I will have a better understanding- and this is what this model is all about! We must have more dialogue and use a shared language to get clearer and more accurate pictures of our subjects.

The specification for design technology seems clustered and localised to this non-specialist. Topics such as crowdfunding, respecting people’s different faiths and beliefs, nanomaterials, and levers and gears, seem to me very separate and not united by organising principles – but again I may just not be seeing links or organisation because I’m an outsider. And again if a dialogue arises from my misconception then these SCMs will be doing their job.

Curriculum Leadership with SCM2

The following questions arising from SCM2 can be used for meaningful dialogue when discussing curriculum planning and implementation:

What are the links like? Are they clustered or vertical? Are they localised or extended? How do you make these links explicit? Where will you give students the opportunity to practise making and using these links? How can dual-coding support the explication and practising of them? How can writing techniques such as those in “The Writing Revolution” be used? What do the links tell us about sequencing? Which knowledge needs to come before which in order for the learning to build? If there are links missing from the specification, can we go beyond the specification to add them in to make more meaning, and therefore make the learning more rewarding and durable? Are there other structures we can use, such as topics, case studies or mnemonics, to support a lasting schema where links are scarce?

From these questions will come the conversations we need about curriculum.

These are the structures of six of our subjects:

What questions will you ask?

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