Return trips: A blog for Jonathan

LCT Dreams

The more I read about Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) the more I seem to be find myself applying it across a wider range of educational questions and debates. In fact, my use of LCT has seeped subconsciously beyond my professional life and into my home life – such as the time I spent wondering which specialisation codes my children were oriented towards. Truth be told LCT has even permeated my dreams, including one in which I moved to Sydney to work at the LCT Centre, which in my dreams at least was a shimmering contemporary structure of steel and glass.

Curriculum coherence

Today my LCT reflections were prompted by yet another excellent tweet by Jonathan Mountstevens in which he asked what people really meant by the notion of ‘curriculum coherence’ (you should follow Jonathan on twitter if you don’t already). Several people posted responses, many of which quite rightly emphasised the importance of sequencing. Teaching knowledge in an appropriate order surely must be a significant part of coherence. Without this building knowledge is likely to be harder or at least less efficient. 

But here’s a thought: what if we’re sequencing well but sequencing the ‘wrong’ stuff? Imagine a teacher in that nightmare scenario of teaching the wrong GCSE specification. They might have sequenced the taught content perfectly but that wouldn’t escape the reality that come exam day the students would be unprepared and, most probably, unsuccessful. We wouldn’t claim that to be a ‘coherent’ curriculum would we? Or, what if content was sequenced correctly (eg the right lessons in the right order) but it just didn’t hang together over time, appearing more of a succession of unrelated snapshots? Would that be coherent?

So, in response to Jonathan’s question I turn to LCT, specifically the dimension of autonomy. 

Autonomy Codes

Autonomy in LCT does not refer to autonomy in the sense of a school’s ability to make its own decisions. Rather, it refers to the relationships between knowledge and the purposes it is turned towards (link here):

“Autonomy explores relations among different sets of practices, such as different forms of knowledge (e.g. disciplines). It conceptualizes insulation between their constituents (positional autonomy) and between how those constituents are related together, such as their purpose (relational autonomy). These concepts come together as autonomy codes. These concepts are particularly powerful for showing the basis of integrating different forms of knowledge.”

As ever, the LCT theoretical foliage is dense and hard to traverse in a short blog. Moreover, I’m still wrestling my way through much of it, so I offer some glimpses I’ve acquired with the honest caveat that I might be wrong. 

For the sake of brevity I’ll trim it down but hope to preserve something that is accurate and, as I’ll hope to show later, potentially useful to the question Jonathan raised about coherence.

Among other things autonomy in LCT can help us to theorise how teachers bring together knowledge relating to a particular ‘target’ they want pupils to learn. This might sit at a granular level, perhaps a specific concept, at a broader topic level, across a curriculum, or anywhere on such a continuum. The point is that there is particular knowledge that is to be taught by the teacher with the intention that pupils learn it. Autonomy codes are a way of thinking about how knowledge is, or isn’t, integrated and brought to bear in the pursuit of this. 

In simple(ish) terms ‘positional autonomy’ relates to where the knowledge in question is from. Is it from inside (stronger positional autonomy) or outside (weaker positional autonomy) our object of study? Is it from the context we are trying to get pupils to understand or is it from elsewhere?

‘Relational autonomy’ is to do with the purpose underpinning our knowledge practice; are we using it to teach a specific ‘target’ or is the purpose up for grabs? Have we intended to use it for one purpose but inadvertently shifted the purpose towards something else?

Varying strengths of positional autonomy (PA) and relational autonomy (RA) can be plotted on a cartesian plane and be described as one of four codes:

  • Sovereign
  • Projected
  • Introjected
  • Exotic

I won’t go into the details here but it’s worth a look at this paper if you want to know more. 

(Diagram can be found here)

An example: The English Civil War 

To illustrate how we might use LCT’s autonomy dimension let’s take a particular curricular item as our target, such as ‘The English Civil War’. Knowledge that is from that particular topic (roundheads, cavaliers, Charles I, parliament etc) can be said, in LCT terms, to have strong ‘positional autonomy’ because it is from the same context as our intended target. If we integrate knowledge about the English Civil War for the purpose of pupils learning about that particular topic this is strong ‘relational autonomy’. This is a fairly straightforward idea – using content from the topic for the purpose of pupils learning about the topic. This is a ‘sovereign’ code. 

However ,this could be contrasted with us teaching about the execution of Charles I for some other purpose, for example as part of a comment on the history of art (there are a range of paintings and illustrations about his execution) – a ‘projected code’. 

This is not to say that our teaching of the English Civil War should be limited only to content from that particular context (content with strong positional autonomy). Teachers often skilfully weave together knowledge from other contexts (weaker positional autonomy) to illustrate and exemplify, sometimes through analogy or by drawing temporal and spatial links with the target knowledge. For example, it’s not uncommon to see History teachers using material previously studied, such as medieval monarchs, or from children’s own experience, such as modern democracy, in their teaching of the changes and continuities that followed the English Civil War. In the history curriculum this helps pupils to place this event within a wider chronological and conceptual framework. 

More troublesome in a school curricular context can be when knowledge inadvertently takes pupils on a path away from the teacher’s intended target without it being brought back and integrated therein. LCT research characterises this as a ‘one-way trip’. You can sometimes see this in open-ended research lessons where the focus of the lesson can end up being drawn more towards generic research skills than the target knowledge, or indeed pupils end up researching the wrong thing! I might set my pupils to work to research the New Model Army but lose my pupils in information about a rock band of the same name. This would seem to fall under the banner of incoherence.

Note, this is not to say that necessarily nothing would be learned by pupils in such a situation, but the knowledge practice is less closely related to the teacher’s target and as a result there is the possibility that pupils will not learn what the teacher intended. This might have consequences down the line when the teacher assumes pupils would have learned that intended item. The point here is not to make a value judgement about pedagogic practice but to illustrate how knowledge can be woven together, or on occasion be allowed to move in a different direction.

You can see this too when a teacher tries to relate a target to knowledge from elsewhere, such as an analogy from popular culture, and pupils disappear down a rabbit hole about that particular thing (the movie/song/tv show etc). 

The point here is not to advocate that knowledge from other contexts, such as analogies, should not be used (these trips into an ‘introjected code’ can bring extremely useful collateral to bring to the table, particularly when we need context-specific examples that children are familiar with). Rather, we need to be mindful and deliberate in how we help pupils to integrate such knowledge. I think it’s in this area of how we bring together knowledge that we might find some of what we refer to as ‘coherence’.

Returning to Jonathan’s question about coherence

If we zoom out a touch and return to Jonathan’s question about curriculum coherence, I think LCT’s notion of autonomy provides an interesting lens. Is it that coherence resides only, or primarily, in sequencing – the order in which things are taught? Or, might it be that one aspect of coherence is the extent to which knowledge is brought to bear and integrated towards particular intended targets?

In many subjects these ‘targets’ might look like core concepts, or perhaps the aims and objectives specified in the national curriculum or a GCSE specification. But it might be something else too. In my subject, history, a key target over time is the development of chronological understanding. But building this requires more than sequencing; it’s not just teaching events in the right order, it requires weaving them together in an ongoing iterative back and forth. 

Whilst we have to ensure that we give proper attention to sequencing it is possible that without integrating knowledge effectively we hit all the right curriculum notes in the right order without bringing them together to play the right tune. 

So, what might it look like to use this insight from LCT to help us think about curriculum coherence over time? Some ideas:

  1. We need clarity over our target. This will usually be in what LCT terms a ‘sovereign code’. We have particular knowledge from a particular context we want pupils to learn. If we are fuzzy on what this is it’s difficult to turn knowledge towards this purpose.
  2. This does not mean that every lesson or sequence will be turned towards the same target. But, where it is appropriate, we should be explicitly and proactively helping pupils to bring knowledge together so that, over time, more granular targets can be integrated within broader curricular aims. In the example above this means not just teaching the English Civil War but bringing it together within a wider understanding of substantive concepts like ‘democracy’, developing such narratives over time. Approaching our curricular thinking in this way forces us to look for the stories that span long chunks of curricular time and should help to avoid the segmentalism in which each lesson or topic sits in isolation from one another. Arguably, this way of thinking about knowledge also affords us the space to think about how we can bring together seemingly diverse ranges of knowledge and avoid succumbing to instrumentalism or narrowing. Straying from the specification might seem less of a big deal if we have a way of theorizing the integration of knowledge with our intended target(s).
  3. Sequencing can often seem to reveal itself more readily in subjects which are hierarchically structured: in subjects which are concerned with the ongoing integration and extension of integral concepts. In subjects where progression is more cumulative appropriate sequencing can be harder to infer from the content itself – more contestation can appear. Thinking along the lines of LCT’s autonomy might be a helpful complement to sequencing in this respect. Asking which knowledge we are selecting and for what purpose is likely to provide fruitful discussion and insight. It won’t necessarily solve contestations but might help us to be better at probing, debating and explaining the curricular decisions we make. 
  4. Much of what I’ve written about so far has been to do with the internal coherence of the curriculum. But what if we situate ‘coherence’ within a wider frame of reference and ask ‘coherent with what’? What exactly is it that our curriculum should be coherent with? We might position local/national frameworks or other facets of professional and disciplinary intent as our target. We can then read across from our curriculum at the highest level to assess how well it is oriented towards these. Does the knowledge we teach come from within that context (eg the discipline), or does it come from outside? Is it oriented towards those purposes (eg the national curriculum objectives), or are we consciously or otherwise working towards some other purposes?


It might be argued that the notion of coherence was most succinctly captured in the mantra Ofsted used when training its inspectors for the Education Inspection Framework: ‘why that, why then?’ Such a prompt is powerful because it encourages us to think about not only sequencing but also selection: for what purpose are we teaching that?

As important as sequencing is, it’s only one part of what makes our curriculum hang together. LCT’s autonomy dimension suggests coherence is also to be found in the purpose(s) to which we put knowledge to work. LCT suggests that we may move around the autonomy plane, dipping into other knowledge as we make links, draw analogies and so forth, but what matters is that we ‘bring knowledge home’ – we turn it to our intended target(s) – thereby not falling into the trap of only making a series of ‘one-way trips’. In doing so we stand a better chance of avoiding the curriculum fracturing into a series of standalone lessons which, whatever the sequencing, fail to be more than the sum of their parts.

Jonathan – By no means do I believe this to be the last word on curriculum coherence but I hope it is a useful contribution to the discussion (with the caveat that I might be wrong and banished from the LCT community forthwith!). Keep asking good questions – you do make me think!

Maton, K. & Howard, S. (2018). Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building. LCT Centre Occasional Paper. 1.


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