Academic journal article Geography

The Structure of Knowledge: Does Theory Matter?

Academic journal article Geography

The Structure of Knowledge: Does Theory Matter?

Article excerpt


As a relatively inexperienced teacher of geography in a comprehensive school, I can attest that teaching is an intensely practical and human activity. Certainly teachers have to think on their feet. Yet, while acknowledging my own inexperience, I would assert that we should trouble ourselves to think more deeply about what we do. This article was inspired by recent debates about knowledge (including contributions by Firth (2013) and Young (2009)). Here, I put the spotlight on a theory by the late Basil Bernstein. While its brevity and simplicity is risky, it is my hope that readers might be persuaded to invest further effort in the issues and theories themselves. First, I have some questions concerning knowledge:

* Is some knowledge more useful than other knowledge?

* Is some knowledge more intrinsically generative than other knowledge?

* Does some knowledge have greater explanatory power than other knowledge?

* Does some knowledge offer more principled, transferable and sense-making capacity than other knowledge?

These are fundamental questions in education. They go to the heart of one of the biggest educational questions of all: what is the purpose of school? In my view, addressing this question goes a long way in helping us say why geography should be an English Baccalaureate subject. Indeed, why school subjects have an innate capacity to move students on intellectually (see, e.g. Young, 2009).

Debates about the nature of the knowledge may seem irrelevant in the context of the daily challenges and rapid, busy decision-making required of the practitioner. Yet, as I enter my second year as a school teacher, I am concerned about my ability to use geography to help the students I teach to come to know and understand the world more truthfully.

How might Bernstein's ideas help?

Bernstein's (1999) theory on the structure of knowledge provides a framework that may help us understand geographical knowledge - and therefore teach more effectively. Although his terminology can be difficult to grapple with, Bernstein has theorised knowledge in a way (if we are willing to listen) that helps us clarify what is central in our work: the nature of the knowledge we wish to impart and excite students with.

Bernstein conceives of two different 'forms of knowledge' (1999, p. 158). These he refers to as the 'horizontal discourse' and the 'vertical discourse'. The former could be thought of as 'common-sense' or 'everyday' knowledge (Bernstein, 1999, p. 159). This kind of knowledge is probably oral, it is certainly context-dependent and is, therefore, 'segmented' and likely to be contradictory (that is, one 'segment' may contradict another - although some might be more dominant than others).

An example might be the practical knowledge of how to change the inner tube on your bicycle or the procedural knowledge of 'what to do when...'. As such, this knowledge is gained from everyday life. It is unlike Bernstein's vertical discourse, which requires more systematic building and is usually considered to be the remit of education. The vertical discourse is knowledge that is explicit (as opposed to 'picked up') and is 'systematically principled' in structure (Bernstein, 1999, p. 159). As Bernstein reasons (1999), it is educationally essential to be clear about the difference between these two discourses. This is not to ascribe a difference in value, but rather a difference in role. As such, neither knowledge type should be appropriated for the ends of the other, for example, to make the vertical seem more relevant or the horizontal more educational (or vice versa).

Within the vertical discourse are, Bernstein (1999) argues, two 'types of knowledge' that exist through fundamentally different structures: the 'hierarchical' knowledge structure, and the 'horizontal' knowledge structure. The hierarchical can be easiest understood as describing the natural sciences. One can picture it as a triangle (Figure 1). …

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