It’s what you do, not how you label it that matters.
What is the difference between ‘disciplinary’ and ‘substantive’ knowledge and what other ways might there be of organising knowledge? In this excellent article Christine Counsell explains that:
“Substantive knowledge is the content that teachers teach as established fact – whether common convention, concept or warranted account of reality. You might want pupils to know of crotchets, percentages, the Treaty of Waitangi, Debussy or prokaryotic cells. In calling this ‘substantive’, we are treating the material presented as givens.
Disciplinary knowledge, by contrast, is a curricular term for what pupils learn about how that knowledge was established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists or professional practice. It is that part of the subject where pupils understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth. For each subject is just that: a product and an account of an ongoing truth quest, whether through empirical testing in science, argumentation in philosophy/history, logic in mathematics or beauty in the arts. It describes that part of the curriculum where pupils learn about the conditions under which valid claims can be made, and associated conventions such as what constitutes evidence or argument in that subject.”
Notwithstanding the problems that some people have with the idea of truth, let alone beauty, there is a clear distinction being made here between substantive and disciplinary knowledge. The problem arises that, in education, the same terms might be used to mean slightly or completely different things. In this booklet from the OECD knowledge is split into four areas: Disciplinary knowledge, Interdisciplinary knowledge, Epistemic knowledge and Procedural knowledge. It would be helpful if disciplinary knowledge were described in exactly the same way as above. It is not. For the OECD:
“Disciplinary knowledge includes subject-specific concepts and detailed content, such as that learned in the study of mathematics and language, for example.”
This definition of disciplinary knowledge sounds very much like Christine Counsell’s definition of substantive knowledge.
The OECD continue:
“Interdisciplinary knowledge involves relating the concepts and content of one discipline/subject to the concepts and content of other disciplines/subjects.
Epistemic knowledge is the understanding of how expert practitioners of disciplines work and think. This knowledge helps students find the purpose of learning, understand the application of learning and extend their disciplinary knowledge.
Procedural knowledge is the understanding of how something is done, the series of steps or actions taken to accomplish a goal. Some procedural knowledge is domain-specific, some is transferable across domains. The OECD Learning Compass 2030 highlights transferable procedural knowledge, which is knowledge that students can use across different contexts and situations to identify solutions to problems.”
Now it can become evident as to why there might be a problem if school teachers, worrying about a forthcoming Ofsted inspection, are searching for what ‘disciplinary knowledge’ might mean on the internet. The OECD’s definitions of Epistemic and Procedural knowledge seem to cover some of the same ground that Disciplinary knowledge does for Counsell.
Procedural knowledge is a term that often accompanies ‘Declarative knowledge’, sometimes the definition of these two terms is given as ‘know how’ and ‘know what’.
Luckily, Professor Daniel Muijis, Ofsted’s Deputy Director, Research and Evaluation tweeted in response to a question about how rigidly Ofsted will use these labels that: “…It’s what you do, not how you label it that matters.” This is very helpful, schools will not be judged on whether they organise their knowledge under the labels ‘disciplinary’ and ‘substantive’ or any other organisational principles. They will, however, be asked about ‘what they do’ and as long as an approach or approaches can be explained clearly and is shown to be helpful in the school’s curriculum design work then I expect all will be well.
For schools that use the Trivium21c approach, knowledge is organised into three broad categories, Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric. Grammar, is factual knowledge, rules, the ‘foundational knowledge’. This seems to have a something in common with Counsell’s definition for Substantive knowledge, the OECD’s ‘Disciplinary knowledge’ and the idea of ‘declarative knowledge’. Counsell’s definition of Disciplinary knowledge is more akin to the broader understanding of ‘dialectic’ in the Trivium, which includes argument, debate, logic, testing, practice, educated opinion, where conclusions are more open ended, and it can also refer to practice, and examining/understanding. The OECD descriptions for epistemic, interdisciplinary cover some of this ground, as does procedural. The art of rhetoric also covers some of these areas too, this art looks for connections – interrelatedness of knowledge is a feature – it also helps pupils structure their own responses to their learning, its internal grammar can structure speeches, essays, exam answers and any number of ways of communicating that might be expected in disciplines.
I do not think the terms are completely interchangeable and I wonder about how the differences between them might play out in different subject areas. This might lead some people to ask why label the different types of knowledge at all? For me, the answer to that question is that it helps in curriculum planning to emphasise the fact that knowledge is not just about Gradgrindian ‘facts’ that can be easily written onto a knowledge organiser, memorised, quizzed etc. By using the trivium, for example, teachers can evaluate how well they are approaching a more rounded approach to education. Different in each subject area, the three arts, grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, give an overall language by which discussions, decisions and revisions can be made without ruining the essential differences that make each discipline distinct.
If you’d like to know more about the trivium approach, I wrote a book about it which is available here. I also wrote this book about the importance of dialectic, of subjective knowledge, how developing each pupils’ values, understanding, opinions and ways of making meaning in the world is an important part of what a great curriculum can achieve.
For those interested in Curriculum the Quality of Education event at Cranleigh School on 5th March 2020 might be of interest.
“What is Quality of Education? How does OFSTED want schools to widen the curriculum? How will they inspect and assess the curriculum?
Find answers to these questions and join practical curriculum workshops at Cranleigh School’s Quality of Education Conference on 5th March 2020, 3pm. Places are free for school leaders and leadership teams, a maximum of two places per school, and are allocated on a first-come first-served basis…”