The Structure of Knowledge: Does Theory Matter?

By Vernon, Esther | Geography, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

The Structure of Knowledge: Does Theory Matter?


Vernon, Esther, Geography


Introduction

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). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Structure of Knowledge: Does Theory Matter?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.