Furnishing the abstract with the specific: teaching disciplinary practice

Curriculum theory is hard, for it asks us to take something very complex (such as an academic discipline) and to define it, give it structure and tease out its properties. This is a process that sociologists (following Bernstein) have called ‘recontextualisation’. I want to use this post to point towards a few concerns I have about recontextualising academic disciplines as subject curricula, particularly in terms of how ‘disciplinary practice’ – which might broadly be understood to be the epistemology and the methodology of the discipline – become curricular objects. I’m going to deal with this in both science and history.

Let’s start with history, for it is the subject I know best: I have spent the last eight years writing a doctorate on how history teachers have attempted the complex task of converting an academic discipline into a school subject. In history, the approach that has been dominant since the 1960s (most famously under the auspices of the Schools History Project) has been to define the characteristics and features of history as a discipline, and then to make these curricular objects to be learnt, both as methods (sometimes called skills – e.g. constructing a causal analysis) and concepts (often called second-order concepts – e.g. change and continuity). Under this approach, curriculum designers spent a great deal of time studying what historians do, and then tease out the general characteristics of the discipline. So we can see that historians answer causal questions, they answer questions about change and continuity, they use sources as evidence to support and challenge interpretations. These ideas then become aims for children in schools: children should learn ‘to use sources as evidence’ or ‘to construct causal arguments’.

I am not an expert in science education, but I think a similar approach has been used. Curriculum theorists in science look at what scientists do and identify what is common to them all: the methodology used, the logic of a scientific argument, the formation of hypotheses, or the way to design and carry out an experiment. The generic practices and ideas then get converted into a definition of ‘the discipline of science’, and these get turned into curricular aims that are then taught to children in schools. As with history, these are sometimes framed as skills, and sometimes framed as ideas about the discipline.

The following diagram is a back-of-an-envelope attempt to show this process.


I do however have a number of concerns with this approach to curriculum theory. I’ll try to set these out as succinctly as I can

1. Disciplines are characterised as much by their internal differences as their similarities.

Every year sees another book published on ‘what is history?’ Historians (particularly if that term is used broadly to go beyond professional historians) do not all agree on what the discipline is, how it works, and what its underlying principles are. Even where two historians might agree on some broad-brush principles, the type of history being produced often forces historians to treat their discipline differently: a medievalist’s approach to using sources is distinct from that of a twentieth-century specialist, and the approaches of environmental historians are different from those of historians of high politics. Much the same can be said for the natural sciences: astrophysicists, inorganic chemists, molecular biologists, geologists, and so on, all have distinct approaches to studying the natural world and, although it might be possible to draw out generic commonalities between them, a definition of ‘science’ based on that generalisation will always fall short. This is not to say that no comparisons can be drawn: rather, is to say that generalisations ride roughshod over distinctions, and, if a discipline is in part characterised by those distinctions, then a generalised definition of the discipline is unlikely to suffice

2. There is no Platonic ideal of each discipline

When we try to say ‘this is history’ or ‘this is science’, invariably we end up – for the reasons outlined above – creating an ‘ideal’ model of the discipline. The problem is that the academic disciplines do not exist above reality: to the contrary, they are part of the reality we inhabit. There are living phenomena that change over time. The question ‘what is history?’ or ‘what is science?’ will not be answered in the same way today as it was fifty years ago, or in fifty years’ time. Disciplines vary not just temporally, but also geographically. Different ‘schools’ of history often emerge in university departments, or in different countries of the world. To define a discipline is to kill it: the moment I say “science is x” I have fossilised it and, notwithstanding frequent curriculum reform, a generation of school children are likely to grow up with this fossilised model of the discipline.

3. Generalised models of disciplines rarely reflect what happens on the ground

I hear this most commonly from scientists, whose day-to-day practices do not seem to correlate particularly well to what a school definition of ‘the scientific method’ looks like. The same is true of history: how many undergraduate students have been told, as I was, that they needed to put aside what they had been taught at school about ‘how history work’s. Whilst practising historians might look upon a school definition of ‘history’ and recognise something of what they do in that definition, it is perhaps seen through a glass darkly: it is somewhat removed from what those historians do on a daily basis.

All of these points lead me to great scepticism about curriculum theories in history, science or other disciplines that work by distilling the ‘essence’ from those disciplines, and teaching those. I am not all convinced that we can teach children ‘the scientific method’ in a general sense before they have learnt a number of cases of scientific research in practice. Similarly, I would not ever want to teach a ‘what is history?’ scheme for pupils who have just started studying history, for I think many of the complex conceptual ideas associated with the discipline do not make sense unless one has previously learnt a number of real examples of where historians have conducted research into the past. This is not an argument against teaching children abstract disciplinary ideas: it is rather an argument for letting the abstract emerge from the specific.

History teachers have produced numerous examples of this over the last few years. Steve Mastin, for example, designed a scheme of work in which he taught his pupils how one historian (Eamon Duffy) had worked with a particular body of source material to answer questions about the impact of the reformation in England. Rachel Foster has a similarly well-cited example where she designed a scheme of work around the way two different historians (Goldhagen and Browning) had interpreted the same source material (a report from a police battalion involved in the Holocaust) in quite different ways. In examples such as these, children are taught about a specific example of where historians have undertaken research. Over time, as pupils learn more and more cases of disciplinary practice, we can then teach them the similarities and differences between different approaches: we thus end with abstract ideas, rather than beginning with them.

I know some science teachers do this, but it strikes me that the same process works well for teaching about different forms of research in the natural sciences. There are a number of ‘classic experiments’ that can be taught to pupils and, once pupils know enough about these specific cases, they can then be introduced more and more over time to more abstract notions of the scientific method. In practice, some teachers do this already. But the way we design curricula does not tend to reflect this: it is rare indeed to see listed on a curriculum ‘twenty classic experiments’ for children to learn, or ‘ten cases of historical research’ which pupils might be expected to know at the end of their time in school. Instead, we tend to list the abstract ideas (e.g. ‘forming hypotheses’ or ‘using sources as evidence’): in a worse-case scenario, these abstractions get taught as ‘skills’, divorced from the specific examples that might furnish the abstractions with meaning.

This means that I would suggest the following as an alternative way of teaching disciplinary practice to school children. Rather than distil some general, abstract ideas about ‘how the discipline works’, we would be better off specifying a range of specific cases of disciplinary practice for children to learn, from which we can as teachers tease out the similarities and differences in approach that characterise our respective disciplines.


In many ways this post is a development of my previous post on teaching children about giving children anthologies of sources – rather than unseen sources – in history exams, and if you have found this post interesting, you might also want to look at that.

Picture: Dedication to Ceolwulf, king of Northumbria, Royal 13 C v, f. 2. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/TourHistoryLatin.asp

6 Comments on Furnishing the abstract with the specific: teaching disciplinary practice

  1. How would this fit with KS1/KS2? Would you still want to teach (separately or as part of a unit) what we presently have? I can’t envisage a history curriculum which would just follow the work of historians but not cover the period of time, events, etc more generally. I guess the use of sources would go someway towards that.

    • Michael Fordham // 20 December 2016 at 21:54 // Reply

      As I’ll be involved with KS2 next year I need to work this out! I’m not suggesting only teaching work of historians – indeed, this is only one part of what we should be doing. But I might want to introduce Y5 or 6 to a couple of examples of how historians found out about the past.

  2. You have clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about these issues therefore I am intrigued to follow your series of posts to see where they lead.

    I am mindful of Dan Willingham’s ideas about teaching schoolkids to be scientists, historians etc but you clearly think you are onto something.

    I have a suspicion that in order to control the thing you are building in an enormous amount of complexity where it need not be, and as Freud didn’t say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    I will continue to read with interest.

    • Michael Fordham // 21 December 2016 at 10:42 // Reply

      It’s possible you slightly misunderstand the post – currently, history teachers, science teachers, etc. are explicitly required (in National Curriculum, in exam specifications) to teach children the skills of the scientist or historian. I am suggesting that, rather than do this in the abstract (e.g. teach ‘forming hypotheses’) I would teach numerous examples of scientific or historical research, and, over time, use these to draw out the specific practices of each. So rather than ‘teach how to be a historian’ I’m advocating ‘teaching how historians have worked’. There is nothing particularly complex about the idea of teaching twenty famous experiments!

  3. Michael, do you feel the model you are suggesting is akin to learning through inductive reasoning as opposed to a deductive approach, where we might begin with generalities and then examples?

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