Seeing is believing: making explicit the knowledge and values that shape the discourse

There’s nothing like a national crisis to challenge existing structures and catalyze change, and COVID-19 appears to be no different. Several commentators have already summoned analogies with WWII and post-war changes to Britain, outlining how COVID-19 should lead to significant changes in the education system.

And perhaps it should. Most working in our education system recognized long before COVID-19 that changes needed to be made. Indeed, some of these were already in train.

The early career framework and the proposed Ofsted ITT framework are just two examples of things which are seeking to create meaningful change. None of this to say that these alone are sufficient in addressing the issues within education.

We know, for example, that the pressure of accountability has not gone away because of the changes Ofsted has brought in – there are good arguments around why and how we might go further in reducing the weight of accountability. We know there are deeper issues too regarding the recruitment and retention of teachers, some of which are emergent from long term changes in the public perception of the profession.

However, as we look optimistically towards a post-covid future we need to be conscious of the path we choose. As we think about what might come next we need a sharper understanding than ever of where we are and where we have been. In part this means being aware of the systems of meaning and values that underpin the discourses we have.

Cosmological analysis is an aspect of Legitimation Code Theory (Maton 2014) which seeks to expose the relationships that exist between knowledge, meaning and values. It can show how particular views and terminology align in complex constellations, often set up in binary opposition to one another, and how these influence what is and is not – and who is and is not – deemed to be legitimate within a field.

The terms ‘cosmology’ and ‘constellation’ are useful because they immediately draw to mind their conceptual basis. Just as celestial bodies seem to cluster together in solar systems and galaxies, so too do ways of thinking about and being in the world.

Doran (2020) writes, “by choosing, valorizing or emphasising any particular word or concept involved in a constellation…other meanings in that constellation will likely be invoked. That is to say, depending on how tight the constellation, if you indicate that you hold one set of values, it will often be assumed that you also hold a range of others.”

In this study Doran explores a complex network of associated meanings, assembled in constellations, illustrating how meaning is built and layered over time through the complex and sometimes subtle integration of texts.

I think this has particular importance for policy making. What might appear superficially to be disparate and unrelated positions on a range of policy ideas often seem to, at some subconscious level, cluster together so that it is often assumed that if we think X on issue 1 then we probably believe Y about issue 2. We are encouraged by the cosmology to think in particular ways. This is what Bourdieu (1991) referred to as ‘the space of possibles’.

We’re used to how this feels in the discourse – the twitter spats and blog tennis – but I’m not sure how explicitly we actually see it as it really is.

LCT’s concept of mapping constellations gives us a way of revealing these for analysis and, therefore, potentially moving beyond some of the binary positions our established cosmologies encourage us to take.

This explains, I think, why Michael Young’s (Young & Lambert 2014) idea of ‘Future 3’ was so provoking and interesting when I first read it. It challenges some of the long established binary constellations in education which make us feel like we have to choose between, say, teaching conceptual (academic) knowledge and the humane vision of a curriculum that is socially negotiated (Jonassen & Land 2000).

Young’s notion of powerful knowledge is born of deep thinking into the nature of knowledge. However, as Young (2020) notes, the meaning of powerful knowledge has sometimes become distorted, in some cases misunderstanding the characteristics and potential of the ‘power’ he is referring to.

My supposition is that some of this might be because Young’s work straddles aspects of two dominant binary constellations in our education system; it is subject to a form of axiological and epistemic pull which allows it to be claimed by either side and viewed as part of its own constellation, when perhaps the promise of Young’s work is in helping us to form a different way of understanding and valuing educational knowledge.

Thinking in terms of constellations requires that we are clear about what it is that we are looking at, in terms of its scope and its characteristics, and how it is related to other phenomena – some of which work in combination to shape what we deem to be legitimate stances. This might allow us to get closer to understanding what Maton (2014) describes as the ‘rules of the game’. Exposing these for observation and analysis might open up space for new policy possibilities.

We will inevitably want to think about changes to education post-COVID-19. But the cosmology of our education system will almost certainly pull the policy discourse towards the dominant binary constellations and it will be to the detriment of our ambition if we unconsciously drift back to things that we know have let children down before.

Big questions will inevitably be on the agenda over the coming months. What should accountability look like? What should a curriculum do for young people? How should we assess pupils and what should an examination system look like?

This is not an argument against reform; it’s a call for us to have clarity about the stances we take, why we take them, and for us to ensure any reforms are the right ones and that we try to look beyond the old binary arguments.

By identifying the dominant constellations and understanding what they consist of then we might be in a better position to broaden the ‘space of possibles’, make better policy as a result and avoid the pendulum-swing we all know only too well.

References:

Bordieu, P. (1991) The peculiar history of scientific reason. Sociological Forum 6(1): 3-26

Doran, Y (2020) ‘Seeing Values’ in Martin, J.R, Maton, K. & Doran, Y. (Eds) (2020). Accessing academic discourse. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Jonassen, D.H. and Land, S.M. (2000) Theoretical foundations of learning environments, London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and Knowers. Oxfordshire: Routledge

Young, M. & Lambert, D. (2014) Knowledge and the Future School. London: Bloomsbury

Young, M. (2020) ‘From powerful knowledge to the powers of knowledge’ In Sealy, C. (2020) (Ed) The researchEd guide to the the curriculum. Woodbridge: John Catt

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