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.


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