Designing a complex curriculum-reflections on knowledge, understanding, concepts and skills

If we are to develop an emergentist curriculum, as suggested in the last post, we need to make room for the emergence of meaning within the seminar room. But in defining a process of meaning making as emergent we cannot have ready-made goals, other than perhaps a loose field of interest within which we construct our work (i.e. the link between coherence and freedom in Davis and Sumara’s (2006) conditions for emergence). One critique that might be made of this approach is that it could lead to a form of ‘radical relativism’ with individuals following any direction they feel is warranted and ending up with very little to show for their endeavour. However, this is to fundamentally misunderstand an emergentist agenda. The coherence element as a foundation for for emergence ensures limits to the field of interest, but within this admits freedom. In addition, by questioning the meaning which individuals develop, as suggested by Osberg and Biesta (2008), the teacher is required to use information and knowledge to challenge thinking and understandings through a mixture of appropriate pedagogic strategies. Thus the goals of the curriculum might not be set closely, but this does not mean knowledge is not sought. I see knowledge as central to the emergence of meaning, but how that knowledge is understood and how it also emerges in the individual needs consideration.

Knowledge is central to any curriculum. But if this is the case then knowledge itself needs defining. The definition of knowledge at one level can be very simple, being the facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education. However, this hides a very complex area of debate as the search for a definition of knowledge is a central strand of philosophical study and over millennia, has not managed to create a definitive statement which all can agree on, and which stands the test of philosophical scrutiny. The definition of knowledge is also made even more complex by the debate as to the degree to which it stands apart from, or acts an overarching term for, the notions of ‘concepts’, ‘understanding’, and ‘skills’. Each of these terms can be taken as a subset of knowledge (as a concept!). However, how they relate is again a contested area.

Van Camp (2014: 97) sees understanding is a type of knowledge, but nevertheless feels it important to distinguish it as an explicit idea, as he states,

‘To a large extent, much of the aversion to giving understanding any philosophical prominence comes from conflating concepts simply because of linguistic poverty.’

There is a debate over whether understanding is a form of knowledge or something different, and definitions of understanding themselves vary. For example, Kvanvig (2003:192) states

understanding requires the grasping of explanatory and other coherence-making relationships in a large and comprehensive body of information. One can know many unrelated pieces of information, but understanding is achieved only when informational items are pieced together by the subject in question.’

Likewise, Zagzabski (2001: 241) defines understanding as

‘involves seeing the relation of parts to other parts and perhaps even the relation of part to a whole.’

Both of these definitions see understanding as more than basic knowledge. It is characterised by a qualitatively different aspect, the development of a structure within knowledge which is relational. Van Camp (2014) suggests that this view of understanding is, therefore, incremental, and an individual can have more or less understanding depending on the degree to which relational connections have been made. He then goes on to argue that understanding is central to our development of causation,

On my account of understanding, information is better understood if it fits into that network of knowledge, and in tension with fundamental causal beliefs if it does not. So, while causation is not necessary for understanding in principle (other types of explanation, such as unification, can make connections in our knowledge), as a fundamental-perhaps native-worldview, phenomena which are not fitted to a causal framework remain conspicuously outside a comprehensive body of information, and thus not fully understood.’

Therefore, whilst understanding might be a form of knowledge, I would argue that it makes sense to retain it as differentiated from knowledge as a concept as it emphasises the explicit purpose of denoting the links and developing network of knowledge which we gain as we learn.

A simple diagrammatic way of showing this is


Concepts are likewise difficult to define. At a very simple level concepts can be defined as mental representations of classes of things (Murphy, 2004) inside the head. Mead and Gray (2010) develop this simple definition by considering how concepts might be understood within the wider context of ‘threshold concepts’. They consider the form and role of concepts within disciplines, emphasising the difference between private and public conceptions (or mental representations). They differentiate between the concepts we have inside our own heads, which are prone to change, and those which are shared (disciplinary) and which tend to be much more stable as change here requires negotiation and debate. They see concepts is providing the ‘underlying logic’ (p.99) used to develop and structure knowledge. Perkins (2006) in his discussion of troublesome knowledge uses Foucault’s notion of ‘episteme’ (any historical period’s way of configuring knowledge), referring to ‘a system of ideas or way of understanding that allows us to establish knowledge.’ (p.41-2). Concept is therefore positioned as a logical framework or system which allows us to structure knowledge in a way that supports and promotes understanding. Concepts by this definition become the foundation on which we structure and make sense of knowledge and understanding. As such I argue that they should also be the basis for building curricula. To add to the diagrammatic structure given above, concepts can be seen as underpinning knowledge and understanding.


Finally, there is the issue of skills. Skills again can be defined as knowledge – procedural knowledge, which is the knowledge exercised in the performance of a task. What is important here, regardless of the term used is the idea of application. Skills/procedural knowledge is concerned with the performance of something, be it driving a car (rather than just knowing how a car works), or being able to successfully search for information; procedural knowledge is therefore of a different form of knowledge when compared to declarative knowledge (knowledge about something).

In developing and enacting an emergent curriculum, I will define ‘knowledge’ as equating to declarative knowledge, which is made increasingly useful by the relational growth of understanding. How these nodes and relationships are given a structure occurs through the underpinning power of disciplinary concepts which provide the overarching logical framework for disciplinary knowledge and understanding. Finally, given that I have retained the term knowledge to refer to declarative knowledge, I use the term ‘skill’ rather than procedural knowledge to refer to the application of knowledge, understanding and concepts. Therefore, in developing the terms of an emergentist curriculum, the following conceptual diagram becomes a useful structure for thinking about the detail in developing such an approach.


In the next post, I will consider some of the practical ramifications of defining these processes in the way presented here, and how they interact with notions of curriculum and assessment to give a coherent approach to programme development.


Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

Kvanvig, J. (2003) The value of knowledge and the pursuit of understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mead, J. & Gray, S. (2010) ‘Contexts for Threshold Concepts (1) A conceptual Structure for Localizing Candidates.’ In J.H.F. Meyer, R. Land and C. Baillie (eds.) Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning. pp. 97-113.Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Murphy, G. (2004) The Big Book of Concepts. London: The MIT Press.

Osberg, D. &Biesta, G. (2008) ‘the emergent curriculum: navigating complex course between unguided learning and planned enculturation.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3): 313-328.

Perkins, D. (2006) ‘Constructivism and troublesome knowledge.‘ in J. Meyer and R. Land (eds.) Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Pp. 33-47. Abingdon: Routledge.

Van Camp, W. (2014) ‘Explaining understanding (or understanding explanation).’ European Journal of Philosophy of Science, 4(1): 95-114.

Zagzebski, L. (2001) ‘Recovering understanding’ in M. Steup (ed.) Knowledge, truth and duty, pp.235-251. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Designing a complex curriculum – Building the foundations for an emergent curriculum

In the last post in this series, I outlined some thoughts on the idea of an emergent pedagogy and in particular the work of Davis and Sumara (2006) in setting out the conditions for emergence, namely,

  • decentralised control and neighbour interactions: learning is developed in the interaction between the personal and social. Individual and collective interests should be mutually supportive rather than inherently competitive and it is the interaction between neighbours which allows for the development and emergence of new ideas and perspectives. However, to allow the development of rich neighbour interactions, it is essential that learning is not controlled from a single point; any learning-based group must be given a level of decentralised capability.
  • internal diversity and redundancy: systems need to be able to react in different ways to different situations to ensure a diversity of insights to aid innovative solutions to problems. However, for such diversity to be present there needs to be a level of duplication within the system, such as shared responsibility and interests. It is this duplication which allows for easy interaction within the system and for elements to compensate for inadequacies which reside there.
  • Freedom and coherence: within any system there must be potential for the exploration of possibilities resulting in the opportunity for personal agency and the diversity identified above. However, whilst this inclusion of freedom is central to the emergence of learning, complex systems are not chaotic and require a level of coherence to orientate the activity of the actors within the system. Coherence imposes a loose framework within which individuals are able to operate freely whilst creating frameworks for coherence.

To understand the basis for these elements, I want to develop a wider notion of an ‘emergent curriculum’ as a foundation for their application. The idea of an emergent curriculum has already been suggested by Osberg and Biesta (2008), who provide a potential philosophical foundation for such an approach. They begin from the idea that our knowledge emerges as we ‘participate in the world’ (p.313). If this is so, should this also be the way we consider learning within the classroom?

It is suggested that teaching has become increasingly viewed as an activity which needs to be structured around explicit goals and outcomes. Curriculum then becomes the framework by which predetermined goals are (or are not) met. An important aspect of this view of curriculum is that the meeting of specific outcomes is suggestive of a predetermined and restricted form of enculturation. From an emergent perspective, this can become highly problematic as,

‘if we hold the meaning as emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ground it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerged in the classroom become problematic. In other words, the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived. Emergent meaning-if it exists-is incompatible with the idea of education as planned enculturation.’ (Osberg and Biesta, 2008: 315)

This suggests that an emergent curriculum requires both the opportunity for meaning to merge through the act of pedagogy, but also that we support the emergence of uniqueness in each student. This, however, then suggests that the curriculum cannot be seen as a restrictive, ‘one size fits all’ structure which attempts to limit the emergence of meaning. Hence,

the first thing to notice about the curriculum as a ‘space of emergence’ is that it is not a space of common ground. Because human subjectivity emerges only when one acts with others who were different (Arendt, 1958; Biesta, 2006: 33-54), this means education only takes place where ‘otherness’ – being with others who are different from us – creates such a space. In this sense it is the plurality of the ‘space of emergence’ that educates, not the teacher (Biesta 2006: 13-32),’ (Osberg and Biesta, 2008: 324)

Hence, plurality is key. We need to move away from reducing the difference between the teacher and students as the ‘space of emergence’ suggests the need for difference. We need to ensure that students meet and encounter difference which then leads to a greater opportunity for the development of unique characters in understanding rather than a convergence. Many curriculum are designed to eradicate difference, but by encouraging and supporting difference, the frustration and difficulties which result lead to the spaces where real education occurs. This means that the curriculum approach which is fostered requires highly skilled teachers to help constantly challenge, and unsettle. As Osberg and Biesta (Osberg and Biesta, 2008: 326) state,

‘with the logic of emergence it becomes possible to understand educational responsibility as continuously complicating the scene, thereby making it possible for those being educated to continue to emerge as singular beings. Educational responsibility is about continuously reopening subjectivity, unsettling closures, and unpicking ‘destinations’.’

This gives the teacher a huge responsibility as it suggests a middle course between unguided, discovery learning and a model of knowledge transmission, whilst also understanding the ethical imperative of aiding individuals to finding greater understanding and uniqueness within a space of emergence. For an international masters course on innovation and reform it also provides an interesting basis for working to allow students to find meaning and understanding through an emergent process. With this as a philosophical foundation, in more practical terms, I see the conditions for emergence set out by Davis and Sumara (2006), outlined again at the start of this post as a useful framework for realising this ‘space of emergence’. In a future post, I will add to this consideration of the emergence of the subject, by exploring how it can be positively entwined with the emergence of concepts, understanding and knowledge.


Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago press.

Biesta, G. (2006) Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future. Boulder CO: Paradigm Pulishers.

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

Osberg, D. &Biesta, G. (2008) ‘the emergent curriculum: navigating complex course between unguided learning and planned enculturation.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3): 313-328.

Troublesome knowledge: what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander?

Over the past 12 months, I’ve consciously started to move my own research agenda away from working on school-based projects to those focusing on curriculum and pedagogy in higher education contexts. This has been an exciting time as higher education provides a fertile ground for developing innovative pedagogical approaches based upon a notion that lecturers can be trusted to create, develop and execute modules and courses which relate to their subject expertise. The past 18 months has been the first time in my professional life that Ofsted has not cast a long and negative shadow over my professional autonomy and opportunities for innovative practice.

In re-orientating my pedagogical and, as a consequence, research interests, I have also started to attend a different set of conferences. I’ve just got home from my first attendance at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education which has been a very positive and thought-provoking experience. There has been a very wide-ranging set of presentations from considerations of organisational leadership and governance in universities, through developing reactions and alternatives to policy, international work, the work of lecturers and student experiences, to utopian perspectives concerning the futures of universities, learning technologies and digital universities as well as teaching and learning. Because my own research interests centre on pedagogy, curriculum and increasingly research methods, I have spent much of the last three days listening to and discussing issues as wide-ranging as the use of concept mapping to understand student conceptualisation of master’s dissertations (Dr E Buyl), and the opening up of the ‘Space of Reasons’ (Dr G Hinchliffe) (based on the work of John McDowell) as an alternative to understanding what is essentially a case of ‘epistemic access’ as outlined in Plato’s cave.

One session was presented by Ray Land who developed an interesting perspective on threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge as it focused on the role these concepts can play in disrupting and counteracting neoliberal discourses within the University. I’ve used these ideas in my own research for more than five years to help in developing curriculum models and pedagogies at both school and university level. Because their work is focused on the troublesome knowledge which students face in making sense of their studies as they begin to move towards crossing thresholds at a conceptual level I have tended to view this theoretical perspective in the same way. However, perhaps due to my relatively recent adoption of a focus on higher education pedagogy linked with the opportunity to listen to a lot of interesting and theoretically rich perspectives across the three days of the conference, it dawned on me that in understanding both my own emergent subject knowledge and my continued emergence and growth as a teacher troublesome knowledge and threshold concepts are as relevant to my own changing thinking and practice as it is for helping the development of knowledge and understanding in students.

In one of those moments where two ideas come together, I happened to be giving a presentation on the use of Lesson Study in higher education, in particular considering our current research into research methods pedagogy. One technique which we are using in this research is to ask students to create concept maps at the end of each session, which they are then asked to record a short audio commentary about before sending both files to us so that we can begin to gain another perspective on their emerging understanding. In some recent interviews a couple of the students talked about the importance of the concept maps and explanations in helping them to begin to get a more conscious understanding of the degree to which they do or don’t understand important principles and concepts within research methods. Having discussed this in the seminar with academic colleagues, it dawned on me that we all have conceptual and knowledge-based schemata that however knowledgeable or expert we are within a field, always offer new thresholds and troublesome knowledge with which to engage. By considering my own work and research in this way it is beginning to help me reframe the degree to which risk, grappling with the unknown and long periods of uncertainty and hard graft are as important for me as a researcher and teacher as it is for the students with whom I work. How often do we tend to inhabit a space which feels comfortable and from which we can feel a sense of authority, rather than searching out new areas of troublesome knowledge through which we can stumble towards new thresholds in our own understanding? Perhaps there is as much to gain from thinking about our own knowledge and work in this way as there is in considering how we engage students in their learning.

Reflecting on a new Research Methods course – Some initial musings

Since September, we have been running the research methods course the planning for which was outlined in this blog earlier in the year. The ideas which I set out below are first impressions – we haven’t started to analyse the large dataset we’ve already accrued over this first term. That will be a long, if enjoyable, job!!

Working on an MA in International Education is both rewarding and also extremely thought-provoking. The groups with whom we engage are very diverse in just about every way possible; the stereotypical view that ‘academics’ don’t know anything about teaching seems somewhat wide of the mark when working with international groups. They are wonderful, and developing ideas with such groups are some of the most positive, difficult and enjoyable teaching experiences I have ever had.

What follows is a series of initial musings because any systematic understanding of our experiences thus far are a long way ahead of us due to the large scale process of in-depth data analysis which we will need to undertake once our project finishes at the end of the academic year. This post can only hope to give initial impressions and reflections on some apparently important elements of an emergent and very different pedagogy which we are developing as we gain insights from the course and the students.

International groups are often very diverse, and the group with whom we are working this year is no different. We have students from China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the USA, Kurdistan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and the UK. This leads to a wide spectrum of language ability, but students are also coming straight from undergraduate degrees, including Chinese literature to Chemistry, others have trained as teachers and taught in schools, and some have Masters degrees in other subjects. Consequently, the diversity of prior knowledge and understanding of both education and of research methods is huge. However, educational research has some interesting characteristics which are different to many single discipline approaches to research, and together with a rich conceptual language has led us to consider a number of ideas and approaches, some of which are outlined below as a series of short reflections rather than a single synthesised narrative.

Language is a central element in helping a diverse international group engage with, and understand, research methods. This area of study has a rich conceptual character with an equally rich and at times abstract language associated with it. To begin to gain a working understanding of research methods requires students to begin to have confidence in their use of terminology, and the ways in which that terminology links to important concepts. Interestingly, this means that a research methods language is not only new to those for whom English is an additional language, but also for native speakers. At the end of each session we have been asking students to identify terms which they still have trouble understanding, which then become the basis for developing an online glossary and subsequent quizzes at the start of following sessions. In interviews, both native and non-native speakers have suggested that a conscious consideration of language has helped them to develop their conceptualisation of research methods in the early part of the course. Conscious consideration of vocabulary is useful to everyone.

The development of a blended approach to learning also appears to have had a very positive impact. The use of a flipped classroom approach together with pre-reading has been important for the learning of students. A number of individuals have reflected on the importance of narrated PowerPoints which they watch before a face-to-face session. They can pause, rewind, and watch a video several times if they wish, allowing them to understand both language and concepts in their own time which they can then utilise more fully within the sessions. Likewise, use of pre-reading with focused activities has allowed students to further define and embellish their basic understanding of an area as well is providing them with concrete case studies and examples of research approaches. These papers can then be used to exemplify concepts in face-to-face sessions, concepts which might otherwise remain very abstract and difficult to understand. This approach means that a large part of face-to-face sessions becomes focused on paired and group work which allows for debate and extension of ideas which they have already come across. This is particularly important in helping students to develop active and authentic use of language.

In this first term we have focused on the philosophical and theoretical foundation for research methods, covering principles of what defines research as well as basic introductions to ontology, epistemology and paradigms. These have then formed the basis for a consideration of methodology and ethics. In addition to these core ideas we have spent a day exploring approaches to critical reading, and one developing frameworks for critical writing. Anecdotal experience of research methods courses is that these issues can become separated foci which rarely crossover one to the other leading to atomised and incomplete understanding. We have attempted to constantly revisit ideas as we move forward, leading to a strong narrative within the module. Critical reading has been discussed as a process of ensuring that the understanding of research methods underpins a critical reading of literature within their other, content focused modules. Therefore, having introduced ontology, epistemology and paradigms, these concepts have been used as a way of understanding different approaches to research covered in pre-readings. Then having focused on other issues within a critical writing day we came back to ontology etc through a consideration of methodology and ethics, leading to a degree of interleaving. This also allowed us to develop an understanding of the need to create a clear philosophical and practical narrative within the development of research projects. For example, given a project title, the outlining of context should lead to research questions and from here ontological and paradigmatic foundations. These principles should then act as the basis for appropriate methodologies and methods as well is outlining ethical considerations. By revisiting these concepts and vocabulary on a number of occasions and within a number of worked examples and contexts there is evidence that students’ confidence and understanding has started to develop well.

The last reflection which has been of interest in this first period has been the use of summary concept maps at the end of each face-to-face session. As a final activity each day students have been asked to reflect upon what they believe have been their main areas of learning and then to relate these to each other. Given that it might be possible to create a concept map which gives the appearance of a well-developed level of understanding without that understanding being present, we have also asked students to create five minute recorded narrations explaining the form of their concept maps. They then send a photograph of the concept map with recordings to us so that we can understand any misconceptions or holes in understanding which might be apparent. Students who have been interviewed towards the end of term believe that this activity has helped them gain a clearer understanding of their own level of learning within sessions and has also helped them to revisit terminology and concepts in a structured way. Their inclusion within our pedagogic framework has been both useful and popular.

Reflecting on what we have learned during this first term from this revised approach to research methods, central to our thinking has been the ways in which we build linguistic and conceptual understanding to help form coherent and strong narratives concerning the foundations for understanding research methods. Linking this to varied pedagogy which includes more transmissive approaches linked to more independent, project-based and group-led work, we have started to develop a very enriched approach, one which a ‘methodology of glimpses’ appears to have helped uncover.