The forms of knowledge


Yesterday I wrote something about the recent decision of HKU to drop physics/maths double major and astronomy in its four-year BSc syllabuses. I have no insider information about which courses are going to be axed, but my instinct told me that the physics and maths departments won’t be closed. Here, I can only lament over the loss of these two combinations of science major.

But the discussion on knowledge in the previous post is rather shallow, and today, I would like to write more rigorously about this. Here, again, I would bring in the intellectual legacies of the late Basil Bernstein (1924-2000).

When it comes to the forms and structures of knowledge, Bernstein developed the following conceptual frame:

Conceptualisation of knowledge by Basil Bernstein

First of all, any form of knowledge in the world (let’s call it discourse) can be divided into two main categories – horizontal discourse and vertical discourse.

1. Horizontal discourse refers to the ‘common-sense’ or everyday knowledge. Its meaning largely depends on specific context. These forms of knowledge are strongly bounded from each other. For example, learning how to tie a scarf is almost entirely irrelevant to learning how to pick food using chopsticks. Your knowledge of tying a scarf is almost entirely irrelevant to your knowledge of using chopsticks, because the situations under which the knowledge is revoked are completely different. Sports activities and courses in vocational training institutions mainly teach knowledge of horizontal discourse.

2. Vertical discourse is different. It usually belongs to the province of ‘official’ knowledge in formal educational contexts. Bernstein (1999) said that vertical discourse ‘takes the form of a coherent, explicit, and systematically principled structure’ (p.159) as we can see in different academic disciplines in both sciences or humanities. The meanings couched in vertical discourse are interrelated to each other, and they are not just limited to a specific social context as in the case of using cutlery. For example, in mechanics, the concept of ‘acceleration’ is built upon ‘velocity’. Newton’s second law of motion applies not only to one particular situation in Hong Kong but is translatable across various contexts in time and space.

Almost all academic disciplines in school curriculum are vertical discourse. We can make a further distinction within vertical discourse: (a) hierarchical knowledge structures, and (b) horizontal knowledge structures.

3. Horizontal knowledge structures: academic research within this category tends to repeat themselves. ‘The names of thinkers and theories may change, but the same basic ideas are reinvented with each new segmented approach’ (Maton and Moore, 2010). Here, Bernstein drew inspiration from Wittgenstein’s idea of ‘language games’. Disciplines in humanities and social sciences such as economics, sociology, political science, and anthropology tend to fall within this category. The conflict theory perspective doesn’t necessarily speak to the structural-functionalist school. Their ideas aren’t built on each other. There is little room for cumulative progress of knowledge building as very often these theories do not share mutual assumptions. Karl Maton calls the academic research here as ‘segmented learning‘ where new ideas and skills fail to build on previous knowledge.

4. Hierarchical knowledge structures are different. They build on previous knowledge in the disciplinary field and thus enable powerful explanations to be constructed. This form of knowledge attempts to create very general theories. Here, knowledge formed in this academic research could reach across an ever-expanding range of phenomena. Researchers are motivated towards the agenda of integrating propositions at more abstract levels. Maton characterises it as ‘cumulative learning‘. Most natural sciences belong to this realm of knowledge structures.

So, which form of knowledge should be brought into our school curriculum? Educational institutions have been ridiculed for a long time for putting too much emphasis on academic disciplines that lack relevance to the greater society – this often means the relevance of the subjects to the needs in labour market and greater economy. On the other hand, if we turn universities into vocational education and training institutions where only courses of highly context-dependent skills and knowledge are taught (let’s say, you won’t expect a bachelor degree in hairdressing and cooking), are we depriving learners of the access to the forms of more powerful knowledge in academic disciplines – whether it be linguistics, literature, physics, astronomy and mathematics? After all, knowledge in physics, astronomy and mathematics won’t immediately land graduates in relevant jobs but the skills and knowledge gained in these courses are translatable across different occupational contexts.

There are no easy, straightforward answers to the question about what counts as socially desirable knowledge. The only thing we can do is to frame the question again in a different way and resist our natural tendency to over-simplify complex social issues.

Bernstein, B. (1999). Vertical and Horizontal Discourse: An essay. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20(2), 157–173.
Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control, and identity: theory, research, critique (Rev). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Maton, K. (2009). Cumulative and segmented learning: exploring the role of curriculum structures in knowledge‐building. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 30(1), 43–57.
Muller, J. (2009). Forms of knowledge and curriculum coherence. Journal of Education and Work, 22(3), 205–226.

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