Bringing Together the T and E of STEAM in Early Childhood Education: Robot Programming as an Approach

Dr. Weipeng Yang, Education University of Hong Kong

Seminar: 12:00 – 13:00 Friday 15th September, 2023, Charles Street, Sheffield Institute of Education: Recording

Educational smart devices such as programmable robotics provide children with a playful learning experience to optimize their development in cognitive and physical abilities, social skills and emotional well-being. Across the globe, educational policy and curricula have led to a focus on the role of computing education in promoting early childhood learning and development. Dr Weipeng Yang will share the theoretical and empirical underpinnings for developing a story-inspired robot programming (SIRP) curriculum for young children. These key considerations altogether present an innovative pedagogical approach to STEAM education in early childhood. This pedagogical approach will inform a new way to engage young children in quality STEM/ STEAM education and understanding the digital world.

Presentation RP STEAM – SHU (PDF)

Key References

Rusk, N., Resnick, M., Berg, R., & Pezalla-Granlund, M. (2008). New pathways into robotics: Strategies for broadening participation. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 17(1), 59-69.

Su, J., Yang, W., & Zhong, Y. (2022). Influences of gender and socioeconomic status on children’s use of robotics in early childhood education: A systematic review. Early Education and Development.

Sun, L., Hu, L., Zhou, D., Yang, W., & Wang, X. (2020). STEM learning attitude predicts computational thinking skills among primary school students. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.

Yang, W., Ng, D. T. K., & Su, J. (2023). The impact of story-inspired programming on preschool children’s computational thinking: A multi-group experiment. Thinking Skills and Creativity47, 101218.

Yang, W., Ng, D. T. K., & Gao, H. (2022). Robot programming versus block play in early childhood education: Effects on computational thinking, sequencing ability, and self‐regulation. British Journal of Educational Technology53(6), 1817-1841.

Yang, W., Luo, H., & Su, J. (2022). Towards inclusiveness and sustainability of robot programming in early childhood: Child engagement, learning outcomes and teacher perception. British Journal of Educational Technology53(6), 1486-1510


Dr. Weipeng Yang ( is an Assistant Professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong. He specializes in early childhood curriculum and pedagogy, with a focus on STEAM education, computational thinking, and sociocultural effects. Dr. Yang serves as an Editor of the Journal of Research in Childhood Education (JRCE) and an Associate Editor of the Journal for the Study of Education and Development. He is the Founder of the Early Childhood Learning Sciences (ECLS) Lab. He is also a British Curriculum Forum Steering Group Member, and Curriculum, Assessment and Pedagogy SIG Convenor at British Educational Research Association and serves on several editorial boards, including Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Early Education and Development, The Curriculum Journal, ECNU Review of Education, and SN Social Sciences.

New Book:

Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) Education in the Early Years: Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Edited By Weipeng Yang, Sarika Kewalramani, Jyoti Senthil

ISBN 9781032405681

December 5, 2023 by Routledge

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Knowledge and quality across school subjects and teacher education

Author: Brian Hudson, Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Sussex and Guest Professor, University of Karlstad, Sweden

The KOSS Network Knowledge and Quality across School Subjects and Teacher Education has been supported by a grant from the Swedish Research Council since 2019. The network brings together cross-disciplinary educational research groups from Sweden, England and Finland specializing in different school subjects. The research groups involved are ROSE (Research on Subject-specific Education) at Karlstad University in Sweden, SSRG (Subject Specialism Research Group) at the IOE University College London in the UK, and HuSoEd (Research Community for Humanities and Social Sciences) at the University of Helsinki in Finland. The network is hosted by the ROSE research group at Karlstad University and network application builds on the position paper by leading members of the group published in the London Review of Education in 2018 (Gericke et al., 2018). Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic the network held face to face meetings in Stockholm, Helsinki and London. Subsequent meetings have been held online or in hybrid from and the network hopes to resume face to face meetings from the Autumn term 2022 and to extend the life of the project into 2023.

We have recently celebrated the publication by Bloomsbury Academic of two books arising from the work of network[1]. Firstly, International Perspectives on Knowledge and Curriculum: Epistemic Quality across School Subjects and secondly International Perspectives on Knowledge and Quality: Implications for Innovation in Teacher Education Policy and Practice. The first book features contributions from England, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Scotland and Sweden that address a range of classroom subject-specific and cross-curricular contexts which include mathematics, physical education, language learning, migration studies, literature, social science, natural science and sustainable development. The second one features contributions from Australia, England, Finland, Norway, Scotland and Sweden that address subject teaching in general, social studies, economics and the teaching of English, geography, history, mathematics and religious education. We seek to draw together the various contributions to each book by developing a number of integrative themes. Firstly, we offer reflections on what we see as ‘trajectories of epistemic quality and powerful knowledge’ across school subjects. These trajectories are related to the specialised knowledge arising from both research-based academic disciplines and cultural and artistic practices as this knowledge is transformed into school subjects. Also, we discuss the idea of ‘subject-specific educational content knowledge’ as illustrative of critically important aspects of teachers’ powerful professional knowledge (Furlong and Whitty, 2017). We propose that this idea might be expressed as an insight into the basic knowledge structure of the discipline and the school subject, and in reflected experiences of what it really means to acquire the specific knowledge. In turn we see this as having significant implications regarding the crucial role of university-based higher education in both initial teacher education and continuing professional learning.


Furlong, J. and Whitty, G. (2017), ‘Knowledge Traditions in the Study of Education’ in Whitty, G. and Furlong, J. (eds), Knowledge and the Study of Education: An International Exploration, Oxford: Symposium Books.

Gericke, N., Hudson, B., Olin-Scheller, C. and Stolare, M. (2018), ‘Powerful Knowledge, Transformations and the Need for Empirical Studies across School Subjects’, London Review of Education: Special Issue on Knowledge and Subject Specialist Teaching, 16 (3): 428–44.  UCL IOE Press.

[1] Note: Full versions of the books International Perspectives on Knowledge and Curriculum: Epistemic Quality across School Subjects and International Perspectives on Knowledge and Quality: Implications for Innovation in Teacher Education Policy and Practice are available online and  in print via the SHU Library

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Curriculum for inclusion: Case of immigrant students

Author: Dr. Max Anthony-Newman, Lecturer, Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University

Social justice in education requires redistribution[1] of material resources, recognition of cultural differences, and political representation in decision-making  for all students and their families. Curriculum plays a crucial role here, because a socially just curriculum can provide (“redistribute”) rich knowledge to all students, ensure that the culture of all students is recognized, and all educational actors (students, teachers, parents) are represented in decisions about the curriculum. Socially just and inclusive curriculum should work for all students without erasing their differences.

Increased mobility in the context of “superdiversity” makes the inclusion of immigrant and refugee students in schools not only a matter of practical importance, but also a crucial social justice issue. So, how can a socially just and inclusive curriculum work for immigrant students? Bajaj and Bartlett (2017) offer a critical transnational curriculum for immigrant and refugee students. The first tenet of such a curriculum is diversity as a learning opportunity, where students can learn from each others’ cultures and history. Secondly, a critical transnational curriculum encourages ‘translanguaging’, i.e. a dynamic and integrated use of multiple languages represented in a particular classroom. Thirdly, civic engagement as curriculum, allows students not only to learn about monarchs, presidents, and battles, but also get involved in civic issues that matter for their communities. Finally, this type of curriculum fosters multidirectional aspirations to prepare students for multiple possible futures, including work and post-secondary studies in different countries.

Including students’ home languages and representing diverse ethnocultural groups in the social studies curriculum is important in its own right, but we need to go further and ensure that inclusion starts at the level of nature and goals of education. A key concept that can help us in achieving this goal is curriculum orientations[2], understood as a set of relatively stable beliefs about the nature, goals, and content of curriculum.

First introduced by Elliot Eisner and Elizabeth Vallance in 1974, four curriculum orientations are commonly established.  Academic rationalism focuses on the transmission of disciplinary knowledge as the main goal of education, social efficiency shifts main focus to equipping future citizens with socially desired skills and knowledge, humanist orientation pays the utmost attention to the personal fulfilment and development of individual learners, while social reconstructionism views education as the main tool to change and improve society.

Why do curriculum orientations matter for the inclusion of immigrant students? As far as children spend 80 percent of their time at home and 20 percent at school, the role of parents and guardians cannot be underestimated. Immigrant parents have been socialised and educated in their home countries before moving abroad. They bring in a distinctive set of beliefs and expectations about education, which might not always correspond to those of teachers in the host nations. When curriculum orientations of immigrant parents and non-immigrant teachers are misaligned, family-school communication can be negatively affected, which in turn lowers parental satisfaction with schooling, and diminishes the benefits of parental engagement.

Here, I would like to provide an empirical example. In my study of parental engagement among Eastern-European immigrant parents in Canada, I found that interviewed parents were evenly split between the supporters of academic rationalism and those who favoured social efficiency with elements of humanism. As far as elementary school teachers in Canada predominantly follow social efficiency and humanist orientations, immigrant parents who also believe that main goals of education are to develop children’s interests, acquire applied knowledge and skills necessary for the world of work, were satisfied with their children’s education. Subsequently, such parents adopted normative engagement expected by teachers and took part in activities that mostly benefited the school (e.g. volunteering in the classroom, attending school events, fundraising). Outside the school, parents arranged sports extracurricular activities for their children.

On the contrary, parents who believe that the main role of the school is to provide access to academic knowledge and “classical” culture, were not satisfied with their children’s education in Canada. They were critical of the curricular content and pedagogy, found family-school communication inadequate, and tried to compensate for this perceived lack by a range of activities at home. Such parents purchased additional textbooks and arranged tutoring for their children. Misalignment between the curriculum orientations of teachers and parents in this case negatively affected family-school communication and made it more difficult for parents to advocate on their children’s behalf.

How can such tensions be resolved? One possible solution is to increase awareness among teachers of the role curriculum orientations play both in their own work and in parental engagement. This can lead to better understanding of engagement practices among immigrant parents and ensure a more inclusive classroom experience for all students. A more ambitious solution could be to follow an inclusive curricular approach from the very outset. Young and Muller (2010) developed a 3 Futures curriculum model, where Future 1 is a vision of conservative education based on the transmission of dominant knowledge through the teacher-led instruction without taking into account the social context of education. If it shares some, but not all, elements of academic rationalism, then Future 2 is the combination of social efficiency and humanism: education is learner-centred, knowledge claims are relative, pedagogy is facilitative, and students are expected to acquire generic skills and competencies. The preferred curricular model here is Future 3, which combines rich academic knowledge with learner engagement. Bringing together elements of academic rationalism (disciplinary knowledge), social efficiency (attention to the social context), and humanism (active role of learners), Future 3 model has the genuine potential to offer a truly inclusive curriculum for all, where immigrant students will feel at home.

[1] Fraser, N. (2008). Reframing justice in a globalizing world. In K. Olson (Ed.), Adding insult to injury: Nancy Fraser debates her critics (pp. 273–291). Verso.

[2] Eisner, E. W., & Vallance, E. (Eds.). (1974). Conflicting conceptions of curriculum. McCutchan.

Antony‐Newman, M. (2020). Curriculum orientations and their role in parental involvement among immigrant parents. The Curriculum Journal, 31(3), 340–356.

Bajaj, M., & Bartlett, L. (2017). Critical transnational curriculum for immigrant and refugee students. Curriculum Inquiry, 47(1), 25–35.

Biesta, G. (2009). Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 33–46.

Hampden-Thompson, G., & Galindo, C. (2016). School–Family Relationships, school satisfaction and the academic achievement of Young People. Educational Review, 69(2), 248–265.

Mills, M. (2019). Towards an understanding of curricular justice: A provocation. BERA Blog.

Muller, J., & Young, M. (2019). Knowledge, power and powerful knowledge re‐visited. The Curriculum  Journal, 30(2), 196–214.

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.

Power, S. (2012). From redistribution to recognition to representation: Social injustice and the changing politics of Education. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 10(4), 473–492.

Vertovec, S. (2007). Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(6), 1024–1054.

Wherry, J. (2004). The influence of home on school success. Principal.

Young, M., & Muller, J. (2010). Three educational scenarios for the future: Lessons from the Sociology of Knowledge. European Journal of Education, 45(1), 11–27.

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Black holes, companion robots and an introduction to epistemic insight.

Author: Prof Berry Billingsley, Professor of Science Education, Canterbury Christ church University

What are the similarities and differences between a black hole and a companion robot?” – before you begin to assemble a response, I should add that it’s a rhetorical question that I ask to enable me to share some thoughts on the nature of knowledge and what it might be important to emphasise when teaching young people about knowledge.

So to respond to my own question, in my schooldays, black holes and companion robots were the stuff of science fiction but recently both have become a lot more ‘real’ – we have images of a black hole now which is a considerable leap from equations and artistic impressions. And a plethora of machines that are marketed as companion robots can now be found in homes for the elderly, daycare centres, and some people’s homes.

Secondly what’s similar about them is that both are a bit mysterious – maybe even spooky. Look at the face of a humanoid robot – look again – look again. Do those eyes hide a soul or an intelligence, or nothing other than components and code. As for the black hole – according to astrophysicists it swallows up light and has an infinite amount of gravity. What does that even mean?

And now let’s turn to some differences. Begin with the black hole. Which school subject (or scholarly discipline) would you go to if you want to know more about the black hole? You could visit any, but let’s say ‘physics’. In other words – when the media recently reported the first image of a black hole, physics teachers expected and hopefully had a surge of interest in their subject.

Ok – what about the companion robot – who is your scholarly guide and/or expert teacher for that one? I’m hoping that you have more than one discipline in mind and that you agree with me that it’s a question that should not be addressed by any one discipline alone.

This leads me to another difference that I perceive to exist between the black hole and the companion robot: I think secondary schools are generally better placed to teach students to ask and explore questions about black holes than to ask and explore questions about companion robots.

In the research and curriculum innovation work we do in the Epistemic Insight Initiative this is something we hope to address. We define epistemic insight as ‘knowledge about knowledge and in particular, knowledge about disciplines and how they interact’. It’s a construct intended for education and is associated with a learning progression. Tools and workshops to develop learners’ epistemic insight are being co-created and investigated by researchers, teachers, student-teachers and tutors in a wide range of educational settings.

These tools include the Discipline Wheel (DW) – two examples follow (see image above). A workshop facilitator can put a question into the DW and invite students to explore it through different disciplinary lenses. Some questions work well as ‘Bridging Questions’ – where the idea is to compare and contrast how two different disciplines help us to address the same question. Some other questions are Big Questions, like ‘What is a companion robot?’ which warrant investigation through many different disciplines.

At this point if your thoughts are – but an image of a black hole can also be investigated and discussed through the lenses of many disciplines – then I agree! Many questions are open to a wider exploration – beyond the discipline where arguably we first find them. Epistemologically I find it interesting to consider whether there are different preferred questions to ask about this image – as we move round the discipline wheel and engage with each discipline in turn. Big questions about personhood and the nature of reality are intertwined with real-world problems that affect individuals, societies and global communities- such as artificial intelligence, mental and physical health the environment and space travel.

Equipping students in school, further and higher education with the insight and skills they need to ask and explore Big Questions is a recognised curriculum priority nationally and internationally. Working out where and how to embed opportunities to ask and explore Big Questions within existing or revised curriculum frameworks is driving considerable debate. So too is the challenge of how to define the learning objectives and assessment. This is the theme of our Epistemic Insight Conference 2022 (23-24 June 2022) Transforming Interdisciplinary Learning through Epistemically Insightful Curricula – all welcome!

We are also keen to find and/or recruit researchers and educators to work with us. Please visit if you would like to see more about our work or email us at


Prof Berry Billingsley
Faculty of Arts, Humanities, & Education, Canterbury Christ Church University, North Holmes Road, Canterbury, Kent, CT1 1QU.
Professor of Science Education
The Epistemic Insight Initiative
LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion)

Further information:

Epistemic Insight: Engaging with Big Questions (TED talk)

 The launch of the Epistemic Insight Initiative, ‘Big Questions Day’ was filmed by BBC Breakfast –


Billingsley, B., Heyes, J.M. & Nassaji, M. Covid-19 as an opportunity to teach epistemic insight: findings from exploratory workshops on Covid-19 and science with students aged 15–17 in England. SN Soc Sci 1, 260 (2021).

Billingsley, B., Nassaji, M. Secondary School Students’ Reasoning About Science and Personhood. Sci & Educ (2021).

Billingsley, B., Abedin, M., & Nassaji, M. (2020). Primary school students’ perspectives on questions that bridge science and religion: Findings from a survey study in England. British Educational Research Journal, 46(1), 177-204.

Billingsley B and Nassaji M. (2019) Exploring Secondary School Students’ Stances on the Predictive and Explanatory Power of Science. Science and Education, 28 (1), 87–107.

Billingsley, B., Nassaji, M., Fraser, S., & Lawson, F. (2018). A Framework for Teaching Epistemic Insight in schools. Research in Science Education. 48(6), 1115-1131.

Billingsley, B. (2017). Teaching and learning about epistemic insight. School science review, 98(365), 59-64.

Billingsley, B., Brock, R., Taber, K. S., & Riga, F. (2016). How Students View the Boundaries Between Their Science and Religious Education Concerning the Origins of Life and the Universe. Science Education, 100(3), 459-482 doi:10.1002/sce.21213

books: Science and Religion in Education, Springer

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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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