The activist curriculum and global climate change education: interruption, intervention, or integration?

Author: Richard Pountney, SIG Lead

This article was published in the BERA Research Intelligence Special Issue #148, International Perspectives on the Curriculum: Implications for teachers & schools’, Autumn 2021, edited by Richard Pountney and Weipeng Yang, convenors of the BERA Curriculum, Assessment and Pedagogy SIG.

In an era of sweeping changes, accelerated by a pandemic that is driving nations to make rapid responses in their systems of schooling, the question arises, how is the fundamental purpose of education being altered? The realities of global effects on work, travel, and access to learning have brought home a key message: that national dilemmas cross boundaries and are shared. One such concern is for the climate and the future of the planet itself and our place on it. How can the curriculum itself be the means of reshaping and giving voice to this?

Activist movements have garnered significant global attention on a range of societal issues, involving collectives of citizens coming together (Niblett, 2017). However, the role schools should take on climate education is often contested by curriculum stakeholders, who tend to disagree not just on learning about the climate, but also about the individual and collective response that might be possible. Here, the curriculum delivered in schools serves to either maintain or interrupt the status quo, and any interruption begs the question of whether to change the curriculum, or to see curriculum as change itself. The latter position argues for a curriculum that is the source of, and vehicle for, change through transformative activist curricular movements (Gorlewski, & Nuñez, 2020). Below I introduce two cases that illustrate this division.

The first case, the Climate Action Project (CAP), exemplifies a curriculum approach to teaching climate change in schools that is taken by organisations, such as Take Action Global. The aim is to address how to teach environmental awareness and provide resources and initiatives for schools to get involved.  CAP, founded by Koen Timmers in 2017, held a six-week event in October 2020 focused on climate change, involving 2.6 million young people across 140 countries.  Children worked collaboratively on solutions and meaningful action, to stimulate positive thinking about change. Working with Ministries of Education in 15 countries, the project created a curriculum for climate change, co-authored with the World Wildlife Fund International. Teachers became part of a networked community of practice and were guided by facilitators, and the project made an impact in many countries, culminating in a 2020 webinar “Climate Action Day” hosted by Sir David Attenborough, involving scientists from across the world.  While, this approach might be characterised as an intervention, in that the effect on the curriculum may not be permanent, it raised awareness of the need for curriculum action.

Curriculum overview for XP School

The second case is one of curriculum integration, in which schools make longer-lasting and more far-reaching changes to what is taught. XP in Doncaster, UK, is a small multi-academy trust, that follows a curriculum based on cross-curricular, project-based learning, where the curriculum is taught via ‘expeditions’, that last 6-12 weeks. In recent curriculum planning, the schools have decided that climate change is an existential threat and an imperative part of the curriculum. They have identified ‘Climate Emergency’ as one of 3 key ‘strands’ in their curriculum (see Figure 1), and teachers have designed expeditions in all years of the secondary schools that address this theme.

One expedition, ‘RE:VOLT’, in year 8, has the guiding question, ‘Could harnessing the power of the wind uplift developing countries?’ Taught through case studies and field work, the final product is the design and testing of wind turbine blades. Students build circuits that transfer the energy stored first in the wind into something useful – light. They also study an inspirational extract by William Kamkwamba about ‘The boy who harnessed the wind’, in which he describes how his curiosity about dynamos led to him making his own wind turbine for his home in Malawi.

XP Pupils work on their turbines

However, the idea of climate emergency as a problem that schools and the curriculum need to respond to is challenged by a view of environmental and climate change as distant or future problems, rather than immediate and local ones. Adding to this, is the complication of climate change as a ‘socioscientific issue’, one that requires specialised scientific knowledge and a critical interpretation of the issues (Hodson, 2020). Here, the preparation of students to learn through and from an integrated, or embedded, environmental curriculum approach invokes the idea of citizens informed by a curriculum that is deep, as well as broad. It raises the question of whether education is preparation to take action that emerges, not from a common-sense understanding of everyday life, but rather from a deep political understanding of the world – one that is underpinned by a level of civics knowledge that provides the intellectual basis for engaging in public discussions and planning citizen action (Jerome, 2018).

Returning to the question of the purpose of education, the ability to deal with cultural objects and to self- and co-determine one’s place in the world is closely related to an active curriculum. The European notion of Bildung arises here, as the formation of the educated person in which the learner asks what a prospective object of learning can and should signify to them, and how they themselves can experience this significance (Hudson, 2007). While the case for schools being responsible for developing the knowledge, skills and dispositions for active citizenship remains to be made, what is clear is that teachers who are active in curriculum and policy creation are empowered as teachers and activists. This posits the school as both democratic and open, in the sense of having boundaries that are fluid and permeable to the concerns of society (Pountney and McPhail, 2019). The open flow of ideas is thereby, important in order that people can be as informed as possible, in which they have faith in the individual and collective capacity of people to solve problems, and, ultimately, that they have concern for the welfare of others and the common good. This rests on the principle that democracy is not so much an ‘ideal’ to be pursued as an ‘idealized’ set of values that we must live by and that must guide our lives. Moreover, to achieve this teachers need to nurture democratic and caring classroom communities, where ‘to be a teacher is to be actively engaged in a social movement that is shaping the future of our society and our world’ (Gorlewski & Nuñez, 2020, p.14).

Disclaimer: Richard Pountney is Chair of Trustees of the XP Schools Trust and leads the Curriculum Committee as a director.


Gorlewski, J., & Nuñez, I. (2020). Activism and Social Movement Building in Curriculum. In Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Education.

Hodson, D. (2020). Going beyond STS education: Building a curriculum for sociopolitical activism. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education20(4), 592-622.

Hudson, B. (2007). Comparing different traditions of teaching and learning: What can we learn about teaching and learning?. European Educational Research Journal, 6(2), 135-146.

Jerome, L. (2018). What do citizens need to know? An analysis of knowledge in citizenship curricula in the UK and Ireland. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education48(4), 483-499.

Niblett, B. (2017). Facilitating Activist Education: Social and Environmental Justice in Classroom Practice to Promote Achievement, Equity, and Well-Being. Research Monograph66, 1-4.

Pountney, R. and McPhail G. (2019) Crossing boundaries: exploring the theory, practice and possibility of a ‘Future 3’ curriculum, British Educational Research Journal, 45: 483-501 DOI 10.1002/berj.3508

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Five reasons to give curriculum theory a place in the classroom …

… (or why you should read some Stenhouse)

Author: Eleanor Hotham, (@EleanorHotham) SHU White Rose Doctoral Student, 2019-, researching ‘Curriculum making and professional learning: interactions in teacher practices’

Curriculum is central to the education we offer our children. It defines what we choose to value, what we choose to share. It is heartening therefore to see a greater emphasis on curriculum in educational policy, such as through the Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019). From my own teaching experience, opportunities to make and develop curricula have been among the most creatively driven and rewarding moments in the classroom. But what of the theory behind the practice? Where theories of learning from the likes of Vygotsky or Piaget are widely known, curriculum theory does not provoke such universal recognition.

Beyond a minority of practitioners who explore curriculum theory during initial teacher education or a professional qualification, this rich area of research is often undiscovered. Indeed it was only through my personal foray into research that I realised all that it offers to our classrooms. Which is not to say that principles from curriculum theory do not guide practice, or that there are not pockets of expertise utilising this professional knowledge. There will certainly be some who give due consideration to selecting, sequencing and pacing curricula, drawing on the principles of Bernstein (1975). Indeed looking forwards, calls for wider inclusion of curriculum studies within teacher education (Pountney, 2020) offer much hope for the future. But for those teachers, school leaders, teacher educators, and researchers who will not benefit from such developments, theorist Lawrence Stenhouse, who was president of BERA  1979-90, offers an excellent jumping off point into curriculum theory.

Lawrence Stenhouse (1926-82)

First published in 1975, Stenhouse’s “An introduction to curriculum research and development”, presumes a level of curriculum autonomy at both school and practitioner level that is not so readily realised today. How then can such theorising inform our current practice? In addition to offering a curricular lens beyond our accepted status quo, Stenhouse presents principles for an ideal type of curriculum, timeless theoretical ponderings to guide curriculum developers, five of which I outline below.

1. An objectives model is limiting.

Stenhouse (1978) critiques an objectives approach, where curriculum success is measured through predetermined, prescribed student outcomes, rather than how knowledge is actually organised. He is sceptical that such assessment-led practice can offer a ‘systematic solution to our curricular problems’ (ibid., p. 71). One wonders what Stenhouse would make of the current national curriculum tied so closely to national testing strategies.

2. Curricula should be ambitious.

As an alternative, Stenhouse proposes a knowledge-rich curriculum, developed through the expert selection of knowledge. Realising that this may appear unattainable, he also recognises that an ambitious curriculum will necessarily ‘produce unique blends of success and failure’ (ibid., p. 116). It is heartening to think of curriculum development as an ongoing process, with shades of success, rather than zero-sum outcomes.

3. Teachers are key to a successful curriculum.

Stenhouse argues that teachers are centrally placed within the classroom to design, test and review curricula, and therefore key to the realisation of an ambitious curriculum. They should have the opportunity to develop and evaluate curricula, and so ‘be the critics of work in curriculum, not docile agents’ (ibid., p. 75). It is worth considering where curriculum development happens, whether it is removed from the classroom context entirely, and who, or what external body, evaluates its outcomes.

4. Collaboration between teachers (and researchers) is important in supporting curriculum development.

Although individual teachers are seen as key actors, Stenhouse sees collaboration as an essential part of curriculum development too. Indeed he recommends that ‘each classroom should not be an island’ (ibid., p. 157).  Encouraging teachers to work together to realise the best possible curriculum, Stenhouse also suggests that educational researchers are well-placed to support this process. If curriculum design is an ongoing process of exploration and evaluation, we gain when we learn from one another.

5. It all comes down to teacher professional learning.

Critiquing curriculum development that does not focus on developing individual teachers, Stenhouse asserts that ‘the use of objectives laid down from the centre is a kind of teacher proofing’ (ibid., p. 83). For Stenhouse then, if teachers are to be successful, autonomous curriculum developers, opportunities for accessing quality CPD are fundamentally important, as ultimately ‘there can be no educational development without teacher development’ (ibid., p. 83).

Although it may feel idealistic in today’s education system, Stenhouse’s work offers an opportunity to think beyond our current curriculum context. He argues for teachers’ work in curriculum making as a form of action research as “systematic enquiry made public” (Stenhouse 1981, p104). This is teacher enquiry whose value lies in its potential for broader institutional dissemination, for example, through discussion of findings with colleagues. Indeed, if he speaks of a curricular approach we would like realised, his theory offers the tools to do so.


Bernstein, B. (1975). Class, codes and control, Volume 3. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ofsted. (2019). Inspecting the curriculum. Retrieved from

Stenhouse, L. (1978). An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann Education Books Ltd.

Stenhouse L. (1981). What counts as research? British Journal of Educational Studies, 29(2): 103-114.

Pountney, R., (2020) Curriculum makers and thinkers: the case for curriculum studies in teacher education (video), BERA British Curriculum Forum online event, Researching curriculum subjects: how teachers plan, design, and lead the curriculum. Retrieved from:

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Curriculum makers and thinkers: the case for curriculum studies in teacher education

Author: Richard Pountney, SIG Lead

A presentation made as part of the BERA British Curriculum Forum event: Researching Curriculum Subjects: understanding how teachers plan, design, and lead the curriculum

Teachers’ planning and design of the curriculum often brings into question how teachers learn to do this important task and how they understand the purpose and their role in curriculum making. In this talk I discuss the role that teachers currently have in producing and enacting the curriculum, and the degree of autonomy they have and how this affects participation and engagement. The influence of initial teacher education and the proposed Early Career Framework (ECF) in England on how teachers approach this work is examined. The problem of the ‘pedagogical imperative’ is considered and the notion of teachers as curriculum thinkers is proposed as a way forward to provide teachers and schools with a principled approach to curriculum work. To advance this notion the case for curriculum studies as an integral element of teacher education is made.

[excerpts from the talk] I want to start with some observations on this being ‘a time for the curriculum’. First there is I think a re-emergence in curriculum thinking about the purpose of education. Second, there is a concurrent shift in what we understand as the quality of the curriculum, in which teachers have an important part to play as curriculum makers. This is evident in the new schools’ inspection framework and the emphasis on the importance of children developing a deep body of knowledge. So how do teachers produce the curriculum and to what extent does the mandated curriculum promote or hinder teachers’ participation in this?

Teachers as curriculum makers

The day-to-day work that teachers do is mainly in delivering the curriculum that is made by others, particularly early in a teacher’s career. Syllabuses are followed, and national curriculum adhered to and this is the default position for most teachers. Given the time pressures of busy schools, timetables, and classrooms, it is perhaps not surprising that teachers’ repertoires of curriculum production are limited to schemes of work and lesson plans. But we need to know more about these practices, how teachers enact the curriculum, what this entails, when it takes place.  The first statutory National Curriculum for England and Wales was introduced by the Education Reform Act in 1988. Welcomed by teachers initially, as the inclusive means to develop the curriculum, it has become perceived as state-control over content matter to be taught, and an associated, reduction of teachers’ agency in deciding what their pupils need.  The idea of the curriculum as process rather than product resonates with Stenhouse’s ideas on the curriculum: which he says is a function of knowledge … that does not determine behaviour but liberates it’. Teachers might also take heart from the statement that Ofsted inspectors will ‘judge schools that take radically different approaches to the curriculum fairly. They will assess a school’s curriculum favourably when leaders have built a curriculum with appropriate coverage, content, structure and sequencing and implemented it effectively.’

However, teachers main concern is with the delivery of the curriculum – the day job as they might see it. This involves interpreting national curricula, developing schemes of work, and making sets of, or individual, lesson plans and this is essentially an individual task, based on a repertoire that the teacher builds up over time.  The main activity in curriculum preparation is the selection, sequencing and pacing of subject content knowledge into forms suitable for teaching, such as schemes of work, topic plans and individual lesson plans. A recent US report shows that teachers spend 7-12 hours per week searching for and modifying materials. Teachers often equate the materials, or artefacts, they use to content, and these material realisations of curriculum work, as curriculum objects, are not all made by the teacher themselves.

Traditionally, especially in secondary education, teachers have used course ‘textbooks’, authored by subject specialist experts (often other teachers). Increasingly, however, teachers are becoming reliant on materials created by third-parties, including free resource banks of teaching materials, and more recently by paid-for subscription to academic publishers. This positions teachers as consumers as well as producers of education material, that they accommodate into their work. The quality control and coherence of these materials can vary, and this leads to the argument that this is better left to authorised producers of educational content.

National schemes are being commissioned for core subjects to be provided as ‘oven-ready’ to schools. Behind this is the DFE report on curriculum support resources in schools in 2018, suggesting that teachers commonly adapt resources to tailor content particularly for pupils with SEN or EAL, but less commonly tailor resources to provide challenge for higher ability pupils, especially at secondary level. While reducing the workload of busy teachers, there are negative outcomes in the outsourcing of the oven-ready curriculum, including the lack of local context, important for student engagement – it might also be seen a cynical political move to build the case for subject specialism in order that out-sourcing of the curriculum can take place and where the capacity and competence of teachers to deliver the curriculum is called into question.

Curriculum expertise

The argument that ‘good’ teachers are adaptive ones, suggests an expectation that ‘good’ teachers can knock up a good curriculum on the hoof. It assumes that teachers know the curriculum well enough – to have fluency in it and to be able to exercise judgement in what is appropriate and what works – and have the basics skills to select, sequence and pace. However, these basics are not easily acquired – for example knowing how long to spend on a curriculum topic, and critically, when to move on is an essential pacing skill developed over time. Left to chance these sequencing and pacing skills become predominantly in-the-moment, pedagogical decisions – they are focused on delivery – on what I have to teach the next day. Teachers also feel they have little control over the curriculum, and this contributes to a low sense of job satisfaction, with effects on teacher retention.

The importance of teachers’ subject knowledge is recognised in England in the DfE’s Early Career Framework (ECF), introduced to provide a professional development programme for early career teachers (ECTs) at the start of their careers. This provides an entitlement to two-year programme of professional development mapped to the Teachers Standards, designed to help early career teachers to develop their practice, knowledge, and working habits. The ECF asks teachers to articulate their understanding of how subject knowledge is developed over time and techniques they have used such as sequencing of content and assessing understanding. A key point here is that all subjects are structured by key ideas, concepts, or collection of ideas, including specific subject skills, that shape how the subject is understood and developed, and this is important at all phases of schooling. Notable, also, is the emphasis on ensuring pupils have relevant domain-specific knowledge, especially when being asked to think critically within a subject. This is often short-circuited by the need for expediency in busy classrooms. Again, the idea of the adaptive teacher arises, one whose secure subject knowledge can help pupils to build increasingly complex mental models.

Teachers as curriculum thinkers

It is not surprising that when planning schemes of work and lesson plans teachers are concerned with how they will teach, including how to motivate and engage pupils. However, the degree to which the teacher can individualise a lesson is limited, leading to a tendency towards generic learning-focused activities. Topic planning and systematic attention by the teacher to the topic’s proposition, tends therefore to be circumspect leading to weaker coherence between the concepts and content. While this pedagogical imperative is ever present it is the demands of teaching that dominate the here and now, or at least restrict foresight in planning to the near future, rather than  teachers lacking concentration on curriculum and its structure. I would also acknowledge an alternative view that teachers are exerting their autonomy when they focus primarily on how they teach over what they teach, as a sphere they have most influence over.

Noticeable here then is the notion of Pedagogy as proxy for curriculum (pedagogy trumps curriculum – As Dylan Williams articulates,  ‘… pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught”. This disregard is exacerbated by the current pluralism in pedagogy – that all flavours of pedagogy are OK as long as learning is taking place. There is a swing back against this arising from the EEF evaluation tools, that discredit some of the more arcane pedagogies and pedagogical strategies, whilst also possibly promoting an outcomes-based focus over teachers’ decision making, leading to an instrumental process.

The pedagogical imperative however is a pragmatic response rather than a principled one. It has a particular impact on teachers’ capacity and willingness to engage in curriculum making especially in curriculum subjects where the structure of conceptual knowledge is less clearly defined. For this we need the scholarship and language of the curriculum, and skills in leading the curriculum.

Curriculum leadership in schools is often associated with middle leaders as in history coordinator, or head of Science. While linked to subjects the emphasis is on management rather than idea of subject curation.  Nurturing subject knowledge, and its integrity, is key to helping learners’ to develop their own subject knowledge. Teachers, often, have to research and deepen their own knowledge, as a ‘trial and error’ process that runs the risk of missing students’ misconceptions. While Teachers as Learners is an important principle in any school this is especially challenged in induction, especially of newly or recently qualified colleagues.

The case for curriculum studies

So, what form of curriculum thinking do we need? Curriculum studies needs to be regarded as a distinctive field of practice in its own right, with its own topics and preoccupations and its own unique ways of theorising. Furthermore, curriculum thinking requires a kind of boundary crossing that makes possible (and thinkable) new forms of the curriculum including interdisciplinary ones, that takes account of the realities of schools and classrooms. Rethinking how we theorise the curriculum in order that we can reform practice leads to the questions we can ask about the curriculum. In teacher education these questions become critical in order that  trainees can subject the curriculum to the strongest critical scrutiny possible.

Here the professional identity of teachers can include curriculum maker, as active participants in creating the curriculum, rather than merely reproducing it. By shifting to being recontextualisers of the curriculum, teachers can actively engage with plans, designs, and the curriculum materials as systems of meaning that they assign to their work, rather than mere ‘content’ – where non-participation is an absence of meaning, and a reduction to their work as a performance. Finally, if teachers can resist, or overcome, the pedagogical imperative they will prevent a loss of meaning of what the curriculum is for, and how it can be different. Left unchecked teaching will continue to drift towards the pragmatic and the instrumental. A bold curriculum, therefore, is a principled one.

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‘Driving learners to abstraction’ – KERU turns 11

Author: Dr. Graham McPhail, University of Auckland, New Zealand (  @gjmcpauck)

A small group of academics at the bottom of the world in Aotearoa New Zealand have been beavering away for 11 years concerned with the idea of what knowledge counts in education. This issue of what knowledge should be taught in educational institutions has become a key research programme internationally among realist sociologists of education and the purpose of the Knowledge in Education Research Unit (KERU) is to ensure New Zealand’s involvement in this programme. Our aim is to provide research for policymakers and teachers in order to strengthen the argument for the place of disciplinary-derived knowledge in the curriculum. Our argument is that students from all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds should have access to the type of knowledge that leads to success at school (e.g. McPhail & Rata, 2019). KERU is committed to improving educational results for Māori and Pacific students and children from low socio-economic communities.

We have been a productive unit with our leader Professor Elizabeth Rata and myself publishing regularly and widely (see here). Established in 2010, KERU is based in the School of Critical Studies, Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland but includes researchers from across the Faculty. Our theoretical approach is derived from Durkeimian and Bernsteinian traditions using realist methodological approaches (Lourie & Rata, 2017; McPhail & Lourie, 2017; Rata, 2014) . The focus is on types of knowledge in the curriculum and the connection between curriculum design and progressive pedagogies. In addition to promoting research-based educational interventions, KERU provides a vehicle for postgraduate students and contributes to research at the University of Auckland.

We have had a particularly fruitful collaboration exploring knowledge-based approaches to the curriculum and learning with Dr Richard Pountney, Principal Lecturer and Teaching Fellow at the Sheffield Institute of Education (SIOE), Sheffield Hallam University. Since 2015 the two universities have built a sound research collaboration through ongoing knowledge exchange activities. These include symposia by Richard Pountney (SIOE) in Auckland and by KERU’s Graham McPhail and Elizabeth Rata in Sheffield. The co-authored papers and co-research projects in United Kingdom and New Zealand schools have been generative (Pountney & McPhail, 2017, 2019) and have contributed to the model for teacher professional development (see below) which is being used with pre-service and practising teachers in New Zealand and in England by Di Swift at the Keele and North Staffordshire Teacher Education (KNSTE) unit.

Our most recent work has been centred on the Curriculum Design Coherence Model (CDC Model) and Richard Pountney’s humorous and pithy phrase ‘driving my students to abstraction’ (see blogpost Waving not Drowning)  sums up the essence of the Model. Abstraction lies at the heart of creative thinking and deep learning and so  is central to the model. We argue the development of abstract thought comes from using disciplinary-derived concepts, so concepts rather than content should be the starting point for curriculum design (download CDC Model Short Outline Feb 2021)

The CDC Model aims for deep learning by placing disciplinary-derived concepts (or subject concepts for short) at the center of the design process. Subject concepts are identified by ‘surfacing’ the epistemic structure of a lesson, topic, or learning programme. Sufficiently abstract subject concepts are powerful tools for learning because of their generalisability. The subject concepts also act as cohering mechanisms as conceptual and applied knowledge are brought together by being linked to subject content. The Model is designed as a series of four sequential Elements but the design process is iterative, a movement back and forth between (i) selecting and sequencing subject concepts, (ii) connecting subject concepts to content, (iii) connecting ‘knowledge-that’ (concepts and content) to ‘know-how-to’ (applied knowledge) and finally (iv) evaluating the knowledge-that and know-how-to. The essence of the lesson, topic, or programme is encapsulated in a proposition that claims what the nature of the relationship is between the topic and the key concepts (see my video Curriculum Design for Deep Learning)

We consider the model particularity important because of the context in which teachers work in New Zealand with a high degree of design autonomy. This is also an international challenge as curriculum specification worldwide has become more generic and less specific in nature.  The CDC model has been developed in response to the growing expectation that teachers will be capable of designing for the ‘deep learning’ demanded for future-focused or 21st C education. The focus of our 11th symposium at the end of last  year was on how the CDC Model can be applied to Initial Teacher Education. Watch this space for upcoming publications.

Emeritus Professor Michael Young was the inaugural visitor in 2010 and encouraged the formation of KERU. Since that time we have been visited by Professors Joe Muller, Leesa Wheelahan and Karl Maton, and Chris Corbel and Richard Pountney. Richard was to be with us again  in New Zealand but sadly due to the Covid pandemic we will be holding the 11th symposium without him as our international guest. We are certainly together in spirit as we work to deepen our knowledge of knowledge and share our findings internationally.


Lourie, M., & Rata, E. (2017). Using a realist research methodology in policy analysis. Education Philosophy and Theory, 149 (1), 17-30.

McPhail, G. (2020). Twenty-First Century Learning and the Case for More Knowledge About Knowledge. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies. doi:10.1007/s40841-020-00172-

McPhail, G., & Lourie, M. (2017). Getting Real: Is Realism a Blind Spot in Research Methodology?. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 52(2), 285-299. doi:10.1007/s40841-017-0087-y

McPhail, G., & Rata, E. (2019). The knowledge democracy connection and music education. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 27(2), 112-132. doi:10.2979/philmusieducrevi.27.2.02

Pountney, R., & McPhail, G. (2019). Crossing boundaries: Exploring the theory, practice and possibility of a ‘Future 3’ curriculum. British Educational Research Journal, 45(3), 483-501. doi:10.1002/berj.3508

Pountney, R., & McPhail, G. (2017). Researching the interdisciplinary curriculum: The need for ‘translation devices’. British Educational Research Journal, 43(6), 1068-1082. doi:10.1002/berj.3299

Rata, E. (2014). The Three Stages of Critical Policy Methodology: an example from curriculum analysis. Policy Futures in Education, 12(3), 347–358.

CDC Model Reading

McPhail, G. (2020). The search for deep learning: a curriculum coherence model. Journal of Curriculum Studies. doi:10.1080/00220272.2020.1748231

Rata, Elizabeth (2021) Context and Implications Document for: The curriculum design coherence model in the knowledge-rich school project, Review of Education,

Rata, Elizabeth (2021) The Curriculum Design Coherence Model in the Knowledge-Rich School Project, Review of Education,

Rata, E. (2019) Knowledge-rich teaching: A model of curriculum design coherence, British Educational Research Journal, 45(4), 681–697. https://doi:10.1002/berj.3520.

Rata, E. (under review). Virtual Conversations: Provocations for Aotearoa New Zealand 2020. New Zealand Annual Review of Education.

Rata, E., & McPhail, G. (2020). Teacher Professional Development, the Knowledge-Rich School Project and the Curriculum Design Coherence Model. In J. Fox, C. Alexander, & T. Aspland (Eds.), Teacher Education in Globalised Times: Local Responses in Action (pp. 311-329). Singapore: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-981-15-4124-7_17

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Round pegs in square holes: dilemmas in choosing our research methodologies

Author: Richard Pountney (SIG Leader)

‘The officer and the office, the doer and the thing done, seldom fit so exactly, that we can say they were almost made for each other’ [1]

We all know the saying about square pegs and round holes, and how they mis-align, but it is also true that round pegs will fit into (some) square holes. I am reminded of this when I am working with postgraduate researchers (PGRs) who are looking for a methodology. They are often very clear on the problem, and the problem space. Sometimes they haven’t yet problematised their object of study. By this, I mean that new(er) researchers may be stuck at a point where they are not yet ready to give up on things they  take for granted – as Pat Thompson explains, ‘problematising simply means making something problematic, not taking it for granted, questioning assumptions, framings, inclusions, emphases, exclusions‘. Before I go on to unpick some of the implications of this, I should acknowledge that early stages of postgraduate research are subject to all of the uncertainties and doubts that we all face when starting research, and that PGRs look to their supervisors to guide them. And, I remember the frustration when my supervisors bounced this back to me: ‘… what do you think, Richard?’ Faced with this, it is not surprising that some researchers go searching for that square hole to put their round peg in.

A puzzle without clues?

I should say that there are a lot of square holes out there, and some are more signposted and available than others. Sometimes these square holes are contextually favoured – they dominate the discourse in doctoral schools and they become the measures of success in research. A straw poll of education professors and doctoral supervisors in my own institution show that socio-constructivist, sociomaterial, and ethnomethodological interests predominate. Well, hats off to these colleagues, of course, and their eminence in their research areas is well deserved. But, think about that for a moment. The established community of researchers is led by research leaders, each with their own repertoire of interests and problem spaces, creating a reservoir of intellectual capital and resources. This is the well that supplies the drinking water to researchers. The struggle over these resources is more than who in the institution is named in the Research Excellence Framework (a key factor in funding for research) – it also affects how doctoral scholarships are determined, how supervisors are allocated to new doctoral students (who, often, are yet to decide on a research methodology), and how funding is allocated. Therefore, while I would hesitate to label these research leaders as gatekeepers, it is not much of a stretch to suggest that there is potential for reproduction of the status quo in this scenario.

A matter of taste?

So what has this to do with this SIG ? The knowledge in education field is referred to as a ‘coalition of minds’ – the intersection of the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, Basil Bernstein, and Karl Maton, referred to as (Social) Realism (see the post Waving not Drowing). This field has eminent and influential researchers, including Professors Michael Young, Johan Muller, Leesa Wheelan and Elizabeth Rata (the Cambridge Bernstein Group) and Karl Maton (Legitimation Code Theory), who have published a significant corpus  including hundreds of doctoral studies that have used these theories (see, for example, the database of LCT publications here). These theorists are linked with international centres of excellence associated with this SIG (for a list see About) and there is a growing interest in these ideas in the Sheffield Institue of Education (and hence this SIG), but this is not without its own struggle. Over what, you might ask?

It is perhaps a given that any curriculum has knowledge, of some kind, at its foundation and that the acquisition of knowledge is a ‘key feature that distinguishes education (general or vocational) at any level from all other activities’ (Young, 2003: 553). However, this does not sit comfortably with those who draw on understandings of the curriculum as social practice (Brown and Duguid, 2001), and who criticise curricula that are seen as knowledge-based (Pinar, 2006). In this sociological point of view the word knowledge is reserved for what is collectively endorsed or granted with authority by groups of people (Bloor, 1991). Edwards and Usher (2001: 280) refer to the ‘unruliness’ of knowledge owing to the lack of rules and the sense that it is ‘up for grabs’ epistemologically. This view of knowledge as constructed and contested downplays the notion of disciplines as bodies of canonical knowledge to be transmitted in favour of generic and transferable skills (ibid). Gibbons et al. (1994), for example, argue for a mode 2 form of knowledge that is ‘trans-disciplinary’, context-driven and problem-focused. This contrasts with the traditional, mode 1, form of knowledge that is academic and discipline based. However, there is a value-laden implicit message here that mode 2 knowledge should replace mode 1 in which for ‘mode 1 read stuffiness; for mode 2 read avant-garde and glitzy’ (Barnett, 2009: 431).

The sum of its parts?

One outcome of this purely social, and socialised, approach to curriculum and pedagogy is the situation where ‘the mantra of ‘learning how to learn’ arises … [in which] Knowledge recedes from view’ (ibid 430). This prevailing aversion to knowledge, that to rely on knowledge is to be ‘didactic, a didact, or even worse a pedagogue’, is, Barnett suggests, held by academics both ethically and pedagogically. Maton (2007; 2013; Moore and Maton, 2001) refers to this as a kind of knowledge blindness, or at the least a ‘blind-spot’, that limits knowledge structures being theorised in empirical research. Young (2008: 14) goes further to suggest that we need insights into knowledge structure in the curriculum to distinguish between ‘knowledge of the powerful’ and ‘powerful knowledge’ – in terms of what it tells us about knowledge itself – e.g. the fact that some curriculum knowledge, such as esoteric knowledge, is higher status (Beck, 2013).

Therefore, if you are someone who is thinking about researching curriculum and/or professional learning there are three reasons, drawing on Wheelahan (2010), I would like to give you as to why knowledge is important in your study:

The first is that the notion of knowledge and its acquisition has implications for learning and teaching. It resonates with Meyer and Land’s (2005) work on threshold concepts and knowledge that students (and teachers) find ‘troublesome’. The implications of this are echoed by Donald’s (1986) study of knowledge concepts in HE courses, including physical science, social science, applied disciplines and humanities. She identifies disciplinary differences occurring at four levels: in the nature of the concepts used; in the logical structure of the discipline; in the truth criteria used; and in the teaching methods employed in the discipline.  Her study indicates that students in social science subjects (horizontal and segmented knowledge structures in Bernstein’s terms) were required to have a greater ability to make inference, while physical science (hierarchically structured) require less inference. This focus on knowledge and concepts matters, therefore, because it aims to bridge the gap with understanding and skills by emphasising that constructivist approaches, which aim to ‘scaffold’ learning, are important as a means to an end (i.e. learning), not the end in itself (the process of learning).

The second reason why knowledge is important is because of the argument that teachers have epistemological beliefs, related to their disciplinary understandings, about knowledge and knowing (Hofer and Pintrich, 1997) and that these beliefs shape how the discipline is taught and what is required of students (Buehl and Alexander, 2001). These beliefs range from naive to sophisticated, involving beliefs of whether ability to learn is innate, how knowledge is acquired, the source (and authority) of knowledge, its certainty, and its inter-relatedness (Schommer, 1993; 1994). Where these epistemological understandings are underdeveloped or unclear this can lead to students’ surface learning: this also has an effect on how teachers develop their pedagogy that in turn influences learners’ own epistemological beliefs (Nielsen, 2012). Attention to knowledge, therefore, can offset the ‘pedagogic imperative’ that otherwise restricts teachers’ thinking to the realities of the classroom.

The third reason is that attempts to deny knowledge as important in the curriculum also deny the social basis of knowledge as a condition of its own possibility (Young, 2013). Furthermore, it excludes the possibility of something other than itself, as a ‘doxic’ experience of the world (Schiff, 2009).  Knowledge blindness (Maton, 2007; 2013; Moore and Maton, 2001), therefore, opens the door for those, including curriculum reformers, who seek to develop ideological conceptions of the curriculum, such as competence-based training and genericism (Wheelahan, 2010; Young, 2008), and to project a prospective neo-conservative identity for children and future citizens (Beck 2012).  Social realism, on the other hand, promotes the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ (Young, 2008), and the potential to ‘regenerate’ the curriculum (Beck, 2013).

The reasons I give above make the case for using sociology of knowledge concepts in researching curriculum practices and are aligned with the notion that the concepts enable the identification of the problem as well as its explanation, while the empirical data provides the illustration, even evidence, of both problem and explanation. As Rata (2012) advises us, such a  methodology is within the Kantian rationalist tradition where the “united operation” of concepts and content (Kant (1781, p. 69) avoids both the idealism of concepts alone and the restrictions of empiricism.

I argue, therefore, that a realist, or conceptual, methodology of curriculum and professional learning is a round hole for researchers who have round pegs shaped by their problematisation of their objects of study. Of course researchers might still decide to use the square holes more-readily available to them, possibly because of their concern for complexity – and their research projects will fit in very nicely. My concern is that on the completion of their studies they may have a beautiful rendering of the problem, but still have complexity.

So, yes, research is complex – but need it be complicated? I will return to how a realist, conceptual methodology can simplify problematics and what this entails in a later post.

To be continued …

[For opportunities in doctoral scholarships in curriculum studies in 2020-21 see details here]


[1] Smith, Sydney, Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy, Delivered at the Royal Institution, in the Years 1804, 1805, and 1806 (London, 1850), p. 111, quoted in Bell, Alan, Sydney Smith: A Life (Oxford, Oxford UP, 1980), p. 58.
Barnett (2009) Knowing and becoming in the higher education curriculum, Studies in Higher Education, 34:4, 429–440
Beck J. (2012) Reinstating knowledge: diagnoses and prescriptions for England’s curriculum ills, International Studies in Sociology of Education, 22(1), 1–18
Beck, J. (2013). Powerful knowledge, esoteric knowledge, curriculum knowledge. Cambridge Journal of Education43(2), 177-193.
Bernstein, B. (2000) Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: Theory, research, critique. Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield
Bloor, D. (1991) Knowledge and social imagery. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Brown, J. S., and Duguid, P. (2001) Knowledge and organization: A social-practice perspective. Organization Science12(2), 198–213
Buehl, M. M., & Alexander, P. A. (2001). Beliefs about academic knowledge. Educational Psychology Review13(4), 385-418.
Cook, S. D., & Brown, J. S. (1999). Bridging epistemologies: The generative dance between organizational knowledge and organizational knowing. Organization science10(4), 381-400.
Donald, J. G. (1986) Knowledge and the university curriculum. Higher Education15(3–4), 267–282
Edwards, R., and Usher, R. (2001) Lifelong learning: a postmodern condition of education? Adult education quarterly51(4), 273–287
Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., and Trow, M. (1994) The new production of knowledge: The dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies.
Hirst, Paul H., ed. “Curriculum integration.” In Knowledge and the curriculum. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974
Hofer, B. K., and Pintrich, P. R. (1997) The development of epistemological theories: Beliefs about knowledge and knowing and their relation to learning. Review of Educational Research67(1), 88–140
Kant, I. ([1781] 1993) Critique of pure reason. London, Everyman
Maton, K. (2007) Knowledge-knower structures in intellectual and educational fields. Language, Knowledge and Pedagogy: Functional Linguistic and Sociological Perspectives, 87–108
Maton, K. (2013) Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a Realist Sociology of Education. London: Routledge
Meyer, J. H., and Land, R. (2005) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373–388
Moore, R. and Maton, K. (2001) Founding the sociology of knowledge: Basil Bernstein, intellectual fields and the epistemic device. In A. Morais, I. Neves, B. Davies and H. Daniels (Eds.), Towards a Sociology of Pedagogy: The Contribution of Basil Bernstein to Research, New York, Peter Lang: pp. 153–182
Muller, J. (2009) Forms of knowledge and curriculum coherence. Journal of Education and Work 22: 205–26
Nielsen, S. G. (2012). Epistemic beliefs and self-regulated learning in music students. Psychology of Music40(3), 324-338.
Pinar WF. (2006) The synoptic text today and other essays: Curriculum development after the reconceptualisation. New York, Lang
Rata, E. (2012). The politics of knowledge in education. British Educational Research Journal38(1), 103-124.
Schiff, J. (2009) The Persistence of Misrecognition. In Political Theory Workshop (Vol. 12) [Online at: Visited 30/6/13]
Schommer, M. (1993). Comparisons of beliefs about the nature of knowledge and learning among postsecondary students. Research in higher education34(3), 355-370.
Schommer, M. (1994). Synthesizing epistemological belief research: Tentative understandings and provocative confusions. Educational psychology review6(4), 293-319.
Wheelahan, L. (2010) Why Knowledge Matters in Curriculum: A Social Realist Argument. Abingdon, Routledge
Young, M. (2003) Durkheim, Vygotsky and the curriculum of the future, London Education Review, 1(2)
Young, M. (2008) Bringing Knowledge Back In: From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education, London and New York, Routledge
Young, M. (2013). Overcoming the crisis in curriculum theory: A knowledge-based approach. Journal of curriculum studies45(2), 101-118.

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The early childhood curriculum and its situatedness in society and culture: a view from the East

Author: Dr. Weipeng Yang, Singapore University of Social Sciences, Singapore

It is perhaps a ‘given’ that educators deliver cultural traditions to learners through the teaching and the curriculum content that they choose. Despite their similarities across different countries, the early childhood curriculum (ECC) for educators is often context-specific. In this blogpost I would like to discuss this and suggest some considerations that might frame this debate.

ECC is the core of early childhood care and education (ECCE). The presence of a well-planned and coordinated curriculum is crucial to prioritise learning settings and provide learning goals and content for early childhood educators and centres (see for example Starting Strong Key OECD Indicators on Early Childhood Education and Care).  ECC can act as a tool to improve early childhood educators’ professional development as well as adequately supporting children’s continuous growth in the early years.

The extent to which children are the products of a given society and culture will vary according to the strength of the different experiences and values of their communities, and consequently their learning may have differing trajectories. In 1987, developmentally appropriate practice (DAP)  was first adopted in a position statement proposed by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), in the United States. Since then, it has become one of the most influential theoretical ideas in the field of ECCE throughout the world. Children’s agency is recognised as having an essential role in effective learning, constructed in play, social interaction, and community participation (Yang et al., 2020). Research shows that despite the mutual interactions and similarities, ECC policies and practices have been developed in context-specific ways across countries. For example, Australia’s  and New Zealand’s  (Te Whāriki) ECCs emphasise the development of the culturally competent child on top of the holistic development of a capable child, without segregating children’s learning into domains (Yang et al., 2020).

Research on the cultural aspects of curriculum tends to regard the educator as a bearer of dominant cultural ideologies who delivers the local traditional culture to learners through teaching styles and curriculum content. For example, Chen et al. (2017) studied the ‘Hong Kong style’ of the Project Approach and found that the underlying mechanisms were contextually and philosophically driven. Contextually, there were real challenges, such as time pressure and curriculum demands, parental expectations for academic success, professional competence, emotional tensions and culturally driven pedagogical beliefs. Philosophically, these challenges were confounded by a set of different cultural beliefs about early education and a long-held tradition of practising teacher-directed Chinese pedagogy.

However, there is still a dearth of research on how culture may influence curriculum development in diverse contexts. It remains to be addressed whether culturally relevant and diverse content has been used in ECC, and what kind of ‘culturally sensitive curriculum development’ has happened in a particular society.

My research indicates a need of proposing a more inclusive and balanced framework for understanding ECC against the political and sociocultural backgrounds. This framework is supposed to integrate diverse orientations towards promoting children’s learning and development, not only by themselves as human beings, but also situated within the complex and changing sociocultural context. A fusion of developmental and cultural perspectives will require a hybrid model for ECC, which can be entitled ‘curriculum hybridization’ in ECC policies and practices (Yang et al., 2020).

‘Curriculum hybridization’ model in ECC policies and practices (Yang et al., 2020)

A hybrid model of curriculum that reflects cultural conflicts and fusion is aligned with the important need to support early childhood educators and children with the access to cultural tools and diverse understandings of social issues. This will in turn equip them with the cultural self-awareness and intercultural understanding and competence over time. Understanding and and competence in cultural interchange will also enable early childhood educators to position and critically reflect on the curriculum policy requirements that they work with and transcends them as professionals (MacNaughton, 2003). The model of curriculum hybridization can provide a coherent analytic framework for achieving both cultural inheritance and cultural development in ECEC, which allows children’s learning experiences to be culture-sensitive and highly relevant to the changing society.


Chen, J. J., Li, H., & Wang, J. Y. (2017). Implementing the project approach: A case study of hybrid pedagogy in a Hong Kong kindergarten. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 31(3), 324-341.
MacNaughton, G. (2003). Shaping early childhood: Learners, curriculum and contexts. Open University Press.
Yang, W., & Li, H. (2019). Changing culture, changing curriculum: a case study of early childhood curriculum innovations in two Chinese kindergartens. The Curriculum Journal, 30(3), 279–297.
Yang, W., & Li, H. (2018). Cultural ideology matters in early childhood curriculum innovations: a comparative case study of Chinese kindergartens between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 50(4), 560–585.
Yang, W., & Li, H. (2020). The role of culture in early childhood curriculum development: A case study of curriculum innovations in Hong Kong kindergartens. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 1463949119900359.
Yang, W., Xu, P., Liu, H., & Li, H. (2020). Neoliberalism and sociocultural specificities: a discourse analysis of early childhood curriculum policies in Australia, China, New Zealand, and Singapore. Early Child Development and Care, 1-17.

Author Bio:

Dr. Weipeng Yang is a Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the Singapore University of Social Sciences. He is currently the Co-Convenor of the Curriculum, Assessment and Pedagogy SIG at the British Educational Research Association (BERA). He is also an Associate Editor of the Journal of Research in Childhood Education and guest editors of three international academic journals.

Contact:        email: –              Twitter: @Dr_Weipeng_Yang

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Waving not drowning: helping learners to apply theory to practice.

Author: Richard Pountney, SIG Lead

It’s a strange kind of question, ‘does my teaching ever flatline?’ I was reminded of it recently when introducing my students to curriculum theory, in a masters module I lead, Curriculum Design and Innovation. Their reactions to the theory ranged from ‘it makes my brain hurt’ to ‘this has unlocked my thinking’ [1]. Mostly, they say, ‘we have never been asked to think about our practice in this way before’. It left me wondering what can explain this variation, and how can I help students with theory.

But first a story [2].

An academic walks past a homeless man every day on the way to work. One day the homeless man shouts out, ‘I had a dream about you last night and you gave me a hundred pounds! What do you think it means?’ The academic hesitates, thinks for a moment, and then says: ‘Tomorrow, you will find out’. The next day the academic stops at the beggar and gives him a package. The man excitedly opens it. Inside he finds Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.

Social Realism: a coalition of minds

The basis of this joke is in the mismatch of expectations, as Freud himself might have analysed. In response to a request for material contribution, the means of understanding those needs was offered. The story raises the question of whether the ‘gift’ of knowledge, in this context, was practically useless. But, as Kurt Lewin [3] famously surmised ‘There’s nothing so practical as good theory’ – because good theory guides effective action by turning knowledge into wisdom. We can agree that theories are good to inform, explain and predict practice – but mostly they are good to think with. However, what we mean by theory and its relationship with knowledge needs to be unpicked.

I should start by professing my theory. I am an educational sociologist and my sociology is a realist one. Social realists, like me, conjecture that knowledge is socially constructed and has real properties. It is a kind of coalition of theories including Field Theory (Pierre Bourdieu), Knowledge Code Theory (Basil Bernstein), and Legitimation Code Theory (LCT, Karl Maton). As a theory of knowledge, it can be used to examine innovation in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment [4]. I talk about knowledge practices and the need to get ‘under the bonnet’ of social activities such as teaching and learning, to examine the underlying basis of practice. I argue for epistemic justice as the purpose of higher education, despite claims that my discipline, Education, does not have an episteme [5].

Legitimation Code Theory Semantic Plane

But what kind of social theorist would I be if I didn’t use my theory to examine the problem of the place of theory in learning?  One dimension of Legitimation Code Theory [6] is semantics and the two symbolic codes: density and gravity. Semantic Density (SD) is the degree of complexity of a thing, knowledge or practice. Semantic Gravity (SG) is the degree of abstraction, or distance from context. So strong gravity (written as SG+), and weak density (shown as SG-) is close to context and simple – this is practical knowledge and a good example would be playing conkers. On the other hand, weak SG and strong SD (SG-,SD+) is abstract and dense – this is theoretical knowledge and Quantum Physics is a good example. You can plot this as types of knowledge on the continuous plane below [7].

A Semantic Profile of a practice

Returning to my flatline question, variations in semantic gravity and density can be plotted in a timeline, as a kind of semantic profile of any activity such as the teaching of a whole course or an individual lesson [8].  I have used it elsewhere [9] to show how it can differentiate between novice and expert knowledge. In the example of a profile  I can map my lessons on theory. The dotted line C is my preference: I invite students to talk about their practice (context) and to simply state their problems (strong semantic gravity and weak density). When I introduce theory, the gravity decreases and density increases. By giving real-life examples of how the theory can be applied the curve drops down again (it waves) [10].

Giving practical examples and waving semantically between the actual and the abstract may seem like common sense but people say being mindful of this when you teach is really helpful. It avoids being too theoretical all of the time (flatline A on the profile) or overly simple (flatline B). It is the connection, and waving, between theory and empirical examples of the application of the theory that is helpful for students, so that they can plot their own waves.

Thinking about it now, I was probably driving my students to abstraction. What is your semantic range and have you ever flatlined? I know I have!  You could probably plot a semantic profile of this blogpost. . But maybe I am getting too theoretical …


[1] I should add that students did very well on the module and there were several distinctions

[2] My version of a joke told by Wayne Hugo in Hugo, W. (2014) Editorial: Semantic density and semantic gravity, Journal of Education, 59

[3] Lewin, K. (1951). Problems of research in social psychology. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers (pp. 155-169). New York: Harper & Row. (p169)

[4] Pountney, R. and McPhail G. (2019) Crossing boundaries: exploring the theory, practice and possibility of a ‘Future 3’ curriculum, British Educational Research Journal, 45: 483-501 DOI 10.1002/berj.3508

[5] Furlong, J. (2013). Education–An Anatomy of the Discipline: Rescuing the university project? London: Routledge.

[6] See for papers and explanations

[7] Shay, S. (2013) Conceptualizing curriculum differentiation in higher education: a sociology of knowledge point of view, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 34(4): 563–582

[8] For a great overview of Making Semantic Waves in the Classroom see

[9] Pountney, R. (2019) Seeing and framing mentoring through the lens of knowledge practices CollectivEd 7,  Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University [online: ]

[10] See Maton, K. (2013). Making semantic waves: A key to cumulative knowledge-building. Linguistics and Education24(1), 8-22.

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Who owns the curriculum now?

Author: Richard Pountney, SIG Lead

[This post was prepared as a podcast ( for the BERA Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment Special Interest Group]

Having recently been asked to say what had I thought has been the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the curriculum and the work of this special interest group, I am going to address this under three headings: the effects of the pandemic; the structures involved; and the responses being made. My overriding question is ‘Who owns the curriculum now?

The first of these is effects, and it is clear that there has been an interruption. But we are yet to fully understand the level of disruption.  Let’s consider the main factors of this interruption – [the impression that…] schools, colleges, and universities closed since March; examinations cancelled; pupils and students sent home and asked to learn at home; and teachers and lecturers being asked to work and teach remotely. Clearly, this is not ‘business as usual’, but I have seen incredible levels of adaptation by schools and teachers to the challenge. My own university and the school trusts we work with, have worked extremely hard to respond. On a personal level, I have seen this in the schools that the children in my family attend. The hard work of teachers in this period is often not reflected, unfortunately, in media reporting of what schools have been doing – schools have not been closed and teachers have not stopped working! The effects have been on the whole community and it has required a whole school response. The role of parents, and schools’ partnerships with parents, has been crucial. Parents have had, arguably, more influence over their children’s curriculum than ever before. I would say this is more a case of parents as proxy for teachers, rather than as replacement for them – but it is a noticeable shift, perhaps, from ‘in loco parentis’ to ‘in loco magister’.

One factor of the interruption has been teachers’ uncertainty about how long it will last and what will happen next – I know my own response started as ‘survive till Easter’ – and then became ‘manage till May’ and more lately, ‘hold on to the holidays’. I get a sense that that if we are locked down again, I will be better prepared! How about you?

I want to pause there, to think about structures. Schools are more than buildings – they represent a complex set of interconnected structures including, timetables, routines, and people, including parents – this is what Karl Maton calls a ‘constellation of practice’. This cosmology includes the reservoirs of physical things but also the intangibles – feelings, hopes and investments; also, our ways of doing and being are often tacit. These are our repertoires – including relationships between people, and between people and ideas. Schools are a fragile ecosystem, held together by habits of work and learning that persist because of and for the community. The curriculum is one structure that provides the ‘what’, aligned with the pedagogy of ‘how’, underpinned importantly by how we assess the ‘how well’.

In terms of pedagogy, teachers have shifted the emphasis towards remote learning, both synchronous and asynchronous. This is a shift in the dynamic – the polarity of learning and teaching. It raises the visibility of teachers own subject knowledge, and, in many cases, along with their pedagogic content knowledge – that is, the expertise to understand the sequencing and pacing of learning, as well as how learners’ misconceptions are recognised and addressed. There is no doubt in my mind that schools have provided these forms of learning and this has been impressive. Interestingly, the lockdown has become a kind of ‘opening up’ – of the curriculum and pedagogy.  The open letter to ministers from the Research Libraries UK calling for a loosening of copyright laws suggests the need to rethink how we share and re-use curriculum resources, as well as strategies and techniques for teaching and learning. The difficulty, I feel, is ensuring teachers’ autonomy in curriculum making, while helping them manage the workload. This shouldn’t be too prescriptive.

The responses we continue to make, however, must take account of inequality heightened by the interruption. Recent studies indicate that those children most in need of school are those most likely to miss out on remote provision. Black, Asian and minority ethnic students are among those that are affected, increasing calls for an accessible and fair curriculum as a matter of social justice. In experiencing home learning, young people will want to make sense of Black Lives Matter and the calls to decolonise the curriculum and to understand the responses we, as educators, make to this. I know my own university is making huge efforts to offer extra resources and additional support to students and to pupils in our partner schools.

The announcement of the governments’ ‘catch-up premium’ and its emphasis on academic aspects of children’s return to school is important, but this needs to take account of the emotional aspects of the pandemic. Experiencing the world again as a safe space, and reaffirming connection and belonging is equally important, and sadly we may need to help pupils to acknowledge loss. Personally, I prefer the term recovery to catch-up – and it may be that we need to uncover as well as recover. Our curriculum research might throw light on what can be revealed by the drawing back of the established structures of our schools and the curriculum?

This is where we might need to hold on to our curriculum principles when they are stress-tested. Our response may be pragmatic, but it must also be informed. The pandemic will favour some ideologies over others, including those that further either a traditional or progressive idea of schooling. This is where the interruption becomes a ‘discursive gap’ – a space of possibilities. The special interest group for Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment can contribute to this space and to the debate. I look forward to being involved in this.

As to the question ‘who owns the curriculum now?’ – my answer for what its worth is ‘we all do!

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The knowledge whisperer

Author: Richard Pountney, SIG Lead

OK. Let’s be honest – the  Sheffield Institute of Education Knowledge in Education Research Group isn’t much of a group yet. But I am hoping that having a web presence will change that for the better. Along the way, I hope to persuade colleagues to lend an ear to some of the theories and methodologies associated with knowledge in education – namely those that relate to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment (Basil Bernstein’s three symbolic message systems). I guess that that statement puts me in the realism camp, and I aim to explain why that is. I have written elsewhere about this as a social justice issue (see ‘Epistemic Justice – is this what universities are for?‘) and as an emancipation issue (see ‘Are Teacher Educators the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists of the Academy?‘). And you never know, there may come a time when we don’t have to whisper it: ‘knowledge is important in education!’

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