Enquiring minds: building a picture of how children learn to understand subjects
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 14 January 2019
Over the last year and a half or so, my colleagues and I in the UCL Institute of Education’s Subject Specialism Research Group have been thinking together about schooling and about how children develop and build their knowledge. We have been doing this in collaboration with colleagues from research groups in Karlstad and Helsinki, drawing on differing curricular experiences and traditions of thinking about schools and schooling – work that began to bear fruit in the London Review of Education and that we continue this week through an open seminar at the Institute.
We are fortunate to be engaging in enquiries into subjects and knowing subjects at a time of curriculum innovation and renewal apparent, for example, in the Chartered College’s journal Impact and in Ofsted’s curriculum research. All of this is very encouraging – particularly in contrast with the enthusiasm for generic competencies and the breaking down of‘subject silos’ that was in vogue 10 years or so ago.
I worry about some contemporary messaging about curriculum, however: particularly messaging that makes too strong a distinction between ‘what’ is to be taught and learned and ‘how’ it is to be taught and learned, and messaging that models curriculum in terms of a contrast between substantive ‘bodies of knowledge’ and ‘skills’. Both are present, for example, in some of Ofsted’s recent training slides on curriculum.
These contrasts aim – and succeed no doubt – to do good work by, for example, drawing attention to the importance of a deep foundation of factual knowledge to reading comprehension and to the mastery of subject disciplines. If pushed too far, however, these messages may do as much harm as good – particularly as they become subject to processes of simplification that inevitably occur as messages are telegraphed through something as complex as the school system. There are at least two reasons for concern, I think.
First, subject disciplines are complex entities – not simply ‘bodies’ of knowledge. They have form as well as body. Knowing a subject discipline involves understanding questions as well as answers as well as understanding the kind of enquiry that a discipline represents and how it can be conducted. Crudely put, this involves understanding such things as the differing roles played by Bunsen burners and discursive prose in the sciences and in the humanities. It also involves – for example – understanding both knowledge and ideas about knowledge: understanding what ‘evidence’ is in history, the kinds of ‘proof’ that are possible when making knowledge-claims about the past and how one can establish such claims.
Too strong an emphasis on ‘bodies of knowledge’ may result in a neglect of disciplinary concepts and processes that are integral to making sense of information about the middle ages, about climate change, and so on. Focusing on disciplinary form only would be ill-advised – form without body is spectral; equally, however, body without form will, inevitably, fall apart.
It is useful, of course, to distinguish between what one wishes to teach and how this is to be taught and learned. The distinction is intuitively obvious but, ultimately, analytical – reality is messier than this. Coming to know history or maths or any other subject entails processes of reasoning – this ‘what’ can only emerge through particular kinds of ‘how’. Knowing that there was a ‘revolution’ in France – for example – means exploring forms of change and continuity present in a complex narrative of events and not simply knowing that ‘this happened’, then ‘this happened’ and then ‘this happened’.
It also entails binding together historical particulars (e.g. the Tennis Court Oath, the storming of the Bastille, the abolition of Feudalism, and so on) into a larger ‘whole’ (‘The French Revolution’). The subject matter that we want children to learn when they learn disciplines is integrated subject matter – not isolated items that stand alone but material linked through inferential bonds. What one is doing, when one learns it, is building a representation. This representation is not a picture or copy of something ‘out there’ but a web of mental connections forged through processes of reasoning and knowledge building. Whatever is possible analytically, in practice the connections cannot be separated from the process of making them.
Photo: neurons by Mike Seyfang via Creative Commons