2019 A Space Odyssey

I recently read that you can’t actually see the Great Wall of China from space with the naked eye. I’m not sure where I first came across that myth, but I’ve spent a good number of years believing it to be true. Fortunately, astronauts have done me a service by venturing into space and returning with this important clarification. You can, though, see where there are dense clusters of habitation, identified by vast expanses of light that are visible from space. Here it is the collective mass of light, rather than any individual lamp, that we observe. Sometimes you have to climb above it all to get the right perspective and see how it all fits together.

Which provides a rather forced link to what I’m writing about in this piece – namely what a zoomed-out view might reveal about what is going on in our education system at the moment. From up close we often see individual instances of change in policy and practice in schools. But, like the earth viewed from space, what does it look like if we observe the whole? What sense might we make of it all if we look at its organising principles and not just its constituent parts in isolation? To help me with this analysis I’ll be drawing on Legitimation Code Theory once again.

What has caught attention in 2019?

This is not an exhaustive list but things that seem to have been particularly prominent in the curriculum and assessment discourse of 2019 include:

  • The new Ofsted framework
  • Focus on the curriculum
  • The Early Career Framework
  • The ITT Framework
  • Cognitive science, including cognitive load theory
  • The importance of memory and building fluency
  • The curriculum as the progression model
  • Powerful knowledge
  • Knowledge organisers
  • Cultural capital
  • Comparative judgement
  • ‘The best that has been thought and said’
  • Subjects
  • Domain knowledge


This isn’t to say that any of these things are ‘new’, but it does feel like some of these have picked up more traction in the past 12 months. So, what, if anything, is it that underpins these? Is there a single thing we might point to as the reason why attention has drifted towards these in particular?

You might conclude that it simply illustrates the power of the Ofsted framework to dictate the educational agenda, and in some ways you’d be right. I have no doubt that a good number of schools have picked up on the fact that curriculum now matters a great deal more during inspection. It’s also fair to say that Ofsted’s framework encourages schools to think about how they support pupils to retain knowledge over time – resonating with, or even reflecting, the growing interest in cognitive science.

But I don’t think this explanation is sufficient on its own, in part because Ofsted’s new framework is as much a symptom of the shifting paradigm as it is a cause of it. For example, the removal of Levels in the latest national curriculum set a course towards viewing the curriculum as the progression model (or at least should have done). And its reference to Matthew Arnold’s oft-quoted ‘the best that’s’ been thought and said’ was 5 years before Ofsted adopted it. Moreover, many schools and writers were already beginning to challenge what had become the established practices, bucking the trend towards genericism and a skills-based curriculum in favour of subject specific knowledge and expertise.

What else might be at play? There are those who would characterise it as a resurgence of ‘traditionalist’ teaching in reaction to what had been a dominant ethos of ‘progressivism’. I wouldn’t wish to tell advocates of this debate that this is wrong; a number of people identify their values and approach in these terms.

But I know of many people who say the dichotomy of traditional vs progressive doesn’t resonate with them. For example, Michael Young’s ‘powerful knowledge’ is not easily reduced to one of these, meaning those who have adopted Young’s theory might struggle to see their own philosophy within this binary.

Getting at the underlying principles

I think something more fundamental is taking place. To understand it we have to take a look at where we were a few years ago. In 1999 the government said this:

“The function of education above all is to ensure that all pupils respond as individuals, parents, workers and citizens to the rapid expansion of communication technologies, changing roles of employment and new work and leisure patterns resulting from economic migration and the continual globalization of the economy and society.”

There are two really interesting things here. Firstly, the rationale for education from government was instrumental – it was about creating the means through which people can be economically successful. Secondly, it explicitly positions this as being at the level of the individual, suggesting that education might respond differently to all people as individuals. Together, this creates a philosophy in which education is validated based on how it is useful to the individual.

This was of course the era of PLTS and ‘personalised learning’. In making decisions about what to include in the curriculum teachers were encouraged to place a premium on individual pupils’ preferences and local contexts, adapting the curriculum as necessary to engage pupils. Coherence, content and commonality were, to some extent, less highly prized than the unique contexts, experiences and interests of the individual.

Compare this to what is said in the current national curriculum:

“The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”

In this rationale we see education recast as being about access to knowledge, not necessarily on the grounds of its economic utility, but in terms of social and cultural entitlement. This has, to some extent, changed the conversation around social justice & education – its conception looks quite different compared to what was written in 1999. The notion of entitlement to knowledge runs through the latest national curriculum, the new ofsted framework and what seems like a growing part of the sector. It was also captured in Ben Newmark’s wonderful blog a few months ago.

What we have here, I tentatively suggest, is a change taking place in the underlying code of education. Or at least, that appears to be the direction of travel – it doesn’t mean everyone is one the same page or that everyone agrees with it, but it is what is happening (I think).

Paradigm change – code shift

“In each social field, actors cooperate and struggle, both for more of what is viewed as signs of success and over what defines success. In other words, actors’ practices embody messages concerning what should be the dominant measures of achievement within a field – they are ‘languages of legitimation’. Put another way, LCT highlights that there is more to what we say or do than what we say or do.” (Maton & Chen 2019)

According to Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), discourses inevitably involve a tussle for legitimacy. LCT uses the notion of ‘codes’ to explore the organising principles through which particular practices gain legitimacy.

The previous paradigm of education, during which many of today’s leaders of schools and policy will have cut their teeth, was primarily based on a ‘knower’ code. In the struggles and decisions that inevitably face teachers and leaders, legitimacy tended to be based on the person. It didn’t necessarily matter which order things were learned, or indeed what was studied, as long as by the end pupils had developed the requisite skills and perspectives (or grades!).

To some extent the same could be said for teachers too. Innovation was encouraged on the basis that in and of itself this was virtuous because it would yield new approaches which may (or may not) be successful but would nonetheless develop the teacher. This is not to say that innovation is bad, just that it’s questionable as to whether it is inherently always the best bet (there may be more effective strategies one could use rather than seeking to do ‘the next big thing’).

For example, teachers were encouraged to do ‘brain gym’ and to consider the ‘learning styles’ of individual pupils and adapt their teaching accordingly. When we look at back now and cringe at how pervasive this unevidenced approach became, we might want to consider not just the lack of evidence of its efficacy but also recognise it as a product of its time: a paradigm which legitimized practices based primarily on the knower. You can see some of the same in the rush that took place towards highly differentiated activities and objectives. Even if learning styles had not been a dud, what exactly was it that we wanted pupils to learn through the various ‘kinaesthetic’ tasks teachers planned, and how did this relate to what was coming next week/month? This typified the tendency towards the search for an ‘approach’ rather than a deeper concern with the ‘what’ of curriculum and how knowledge should be sequenced over time.

In terms of leadership, the dominant narrative was one of leadership attributes. There were certain attitudes and dispositions that successful leaders had, and these formed the basis of much training at both middle and senior leader level. Throughout this period we saw a reduction in the importance placed on subject knowledge, after all the argument often went that ‘a good teacher can teach anything’.


The emergent code – knowledge

If we compare all that to where we are now and connect the dots we can begin to see a different picture emerging: a knowledge code. In this new paradigm knowledge itself is seen as being of greater importance. We can see this in the classroom and elsewhere. For example, schools using insights from cognitive science to help pupils remember content over the long term, and the very notion of the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum.

This means that the subject knowledge of teachers is being given higher status in many schools. A number of leaders have told me they’re now asking more questions at interviews that probe candidates’ subject knowledge.

There is a growing sense, too, that progression through a subject should make sense in terms of the subject itself, and its knowledge structure, not just in relation to generic assessment criteria or competencies. This means ensuring the curriculum is coherent over time and reflective of the knowledge of its root discipline. This requires subject specialists to be given the support and flexibility required to teach their subjects with fidelity. I’m seeing more schools grappling with how best to make this happen. I sense a return to prominence of the subject associations may be one manifestation of this in the years ahead.

The same knowledge code shift seems to be taking place elsewhere too. Tom Rees’ work at The Ambition Institute is exploring the domain knowledge of leaders and challenging the established notion that successful leadership is rooted mainly in particular skills and dispositions.

It’s easy to see how the growing focus on evidence-informed practice fits within the knowledge code. Whereas previously innovation for innovation’ s sake had been lauded, the new paradigm tends to assert that ‘what works’ is more important. Whether ‘what works’ happens to be centuries-old pedagogic practice, or the latest insight from cognitive science, what matters is that which carries the greatest weight of evidence.

This is not to say that the paradigm shift from a knower code to a knowledge code is inherently for the better. The observation I make here is intended as a dispassionate analysis rather than a validation of either position (if this is possible).

Also, it’s important to say that the two positions are relational – a matter of more/less rather than either/or. There is always knowledge, and there are always knowers, so this analysis is not the application of another blunt dichotomy. It is about highlighting a change of emphasis.


So what?

I think it’s important to recognise the apparent drift towards a knowledge code. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with it or accept it as some sort of universal truth but being explicit about the changes taking place might help us to consider where we, and our colleagues, are in relation to it. This is essential if we are to reduce unhelpful friction.

“Code shifts can have profound implications, such as rendering previously successful actors unable to continue to succeed.” (Maton & Chen 2019)

There will be people for whom this code change runs counter to their experience, views and instincts. This is not to say that such people simply need ‘educating’ to accept the new paradigm but it’s difficult for teachers, leaders and policy makers to mediate between different perspectives if they don’t understand where people are coming from. And mediate we must. There are crunch points where one can observe a code clash in action. For example, twitter tends to be a battlefield of sorts, strewn with the bloodied 280-character comments of those who displayed a preference for the wrong code in the the wrong thread at the wrong time. I wonder too if the code clash can be seen in some of the reaction to Ofsted’s new framework (which seems firmly rooted in the new paradigm). Thinking about how we and others relate the dominant code might help us to reflect more on the principles and how we might respond constructively.

At system level the code shift is likely to signal specific requirements and repercussions. For example, are all schools sufficiently stocked with subject specialists across the curriculum? We know they’re not, largely as a result of the current recruitment and retention crisis. Policy makers must tackle this, as well as funding, if schools are to receive the resources they need in order to deliver in the new paradigm. One can see how, within this code, the organisational structure of multi academy trusts might be a useful lever to aggregate and direct subject specialist expertise to where it is needed. Or, beyond MATS, how collaborative groups of schools of any structure might achieve the same.

Schools will also need to be wary of how the new paradigm might be interpreted on the ground. In particular, to guard against a reductive enactment of its constituent parts. There are likely to be new problems encountered by a system that drifts too far or too fast in any given direction, with proxies being used in place of deep understanding. For example, I have written previously about my concerns regarding how ‘cultural capital’ has been conflated with other theories and the problems this causes. There is work to do to ensure that ‘knowledge-rich’ does indeed lead to a rich curriculum and not a distorted and reductive reflection of it.

Most importantly, the emergence of a knowledge code need not mean that the knower should not be considered. There may well be aspects of a school’s local context that should inform the curriculum pupils study. Leaders and teachers will need to weigh this up and be explicit about when, how and why this is best done. Plus, it would be odd not to consider how we might develop the skills, attitudes and dispositions of pupils. The evidence on growth mindset and character education suggests development of the knower should continue to be a concern of schools: the knowledge code paradigm need not be the stuff of ‘empty vessels to be filled.’ Greater emphasis on knowledge does not require that we abandon the knower. This means thinking about whose knowledge we are teaching, how pupils locate themselves within the curriculum and where it is appropriate to make links to pupils’ own experiences. There is always knowledge and there are always knowers – we must consider how they intersect.


In summary

So, that’s my take on what we’ve seen going on in 2019. I don’t think the direction was set this year but it certainly feels like the code shift has firmed up. If you’ve found yourself wondering what’s been going on in 2019, and how the pieces fit together when viewed at scale, I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. From what I’ve seen in 2019, what you know is becoming more important. I wonder what 2020 holds…

Maton, K. & Chen, R.T-H. (2019) Specialization codes: Knowledge, knowers and student success. In Martin, J.R., Maton, K. & Doran, Y.J. (2019) Accessing Academic Discourse. Routledge, Oxon


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