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 http://legitimationcodetheory.com/ 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 https://www.slideshare.net/dorianadenlove/making-semantic-waves-in-the-classroom

[9] Pountney, R. (2019) Seeing and framing mentoring through the lens of knowledge practices CollectivEd 7,  Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University [online: https://bit.ly/2W1PABo ]

[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 (https://www.bera.ac.uk/the-bera-podcast-who-owns-the-curriculum-now) 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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