Enquiring minds: building a picture of how children learn to understand subjects


Arthur Chapman. 

Over the last year and a half or so, my colleagues and I in the UCL Institute of Education’s  Subject Specialism Research Group have been thinking together about schooling and about how children develop and build their knowledge. We have been doing this in collaboration with colleagues from research groups in Karlstad and Helsinki, drawing on differing curricular experiences and traditions of thinking about schools and schooling – work that began to bear fruit in the London Review of Education and that we continue this week through an open seminar at the Institute.

We are fortunate to be engaging in enquiries into subjects and knowing subjects at a time of curriculum innovation and renewal apparent, for example, in the Chartered College’s journal Impact and in Ofsted’s curriculum research. All of this is very encouraging – particularly in contrast with the enthusiasm for generic competencies and the breaking down of‘subject silos’ that was in vogue 10 years or so ago.

I worry about some contemporary messaging about curriculum, however: particularly messaging that makes too strong a distinction between ‘what’ is to be taught and learned and ‘how’ it is to be taught and learned, and messaging that models curriculum in terms of a contrast between substantive ‘bodies of knowledge’ and ‘skills’. Both are present, for example, in some of Ofsted’s recent training slides on curriculum.

These contrasts aim – and succeed no doubt – to do good work by, for example, drawing attention to the importance of a deep foundation of factual knowledge to reading comprehension and to the mastery of subject disciplines. If pushed too far, however, these messages may do as much harm as good – particularly as they become subject to processes of simplification that inevitably occur as messages are telegraphed through something as complex as the school system. There are at least two reasons for concern, I think.

First, subject disciplines are complex entities – not simply ‘bodies’ of knowledge. They have form as well as body. Knowing a subject discipline involves understanding questions as well as answers as well as understanding the kind of enquiry that a discipline represents and how it can be conducted. Crudely put, this involves understanding such things as the differing roles played by Bunsen burners and discursive prose in the sciences and in the humanities. It also involves – for example – understanding both knowledge and ideas about knowledge: understanding what ‘evidence’ is in history, the kinds of ‘proof’ that are possible when making knowledge-claims about the past and how one can establish such claims.

Too strong an emphasis on ‘bodies of knowledge’ may result in a neglect of disciplinary concepts and processes that are integral to making sense of information about the middle ages, about climate change, and so on. Focusing on disciplinary form only would be ill-advised – form without body is spectral; equally, however, body without form will, inevitably, fall apart.

It is useful, of course, to distinguish between what one wishes to teach and how this is to be taught and learned. The distinction is intuitively obvious but, ultimately, analytical – reality is messier than this. Coming to know history or maths or any other subject entails processes of reasoning – this ‘what’ can only emerge through particular kinds of ‘how’. Knowing that there was a ‘revolution’ in France – for example – means exploring forms of change and continuity present in a complex narrative of events and not simply knowing that ‘this happened’, then ‘this happened’ and then ‘this happened’.

It also entails binding together historical particulars (e.g. the Tennis Court Oath, the storming of the Bastille, the abolition of Feudalism, and so on) into a larger ‘whole’ (‘The French Revolution’). The subject matter that we want children to learn when they learn disciplines is integrated subject matter – not isolated items that stand alone but material linked through inferential bonds. What one is doing, when one learns it, is building a representation. This representation is not a picture or copy of something ‘out there’ but a web of mental connections forged through processes of reasoning and knowledge building. Whatever is possible analytically, in practice the connections cannot be separated from the process of making them.

Photo: neurons by Mike Seyfang via Creative Commons

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Posted in Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
3 comments on “Enquiring minds: building a picture of how children learn to understand subjects
  1. Arthur is absolutely right. I think he is referring to OfSTED’s current obsession with ‘Cognitive Load Theory’ (CLT)

    This another variant on the Hirsch ‘knowledge-based theory of learning that I discuss here.


    CLT is all about ‘chunking’ factual information into small enough ‘bites’ that can be accommodated within short term memory. Like all these behaviourist approaches the learner is regarded as a passive vessel into which knowledge can be poured. See


    Such models are currently in vogue because they support the marketisation model of education that has for some decades driven the English education system. The idea is that schools compete on the basis of crude ‘exam results’, with the privatised exam boards co-operating by providing ‘knowlewdge-based’ exam questions that suit the ‘knowledge-based’ teaching systems favoured by the DfE.

    The result is shallow rather than deep learning and the inhibiting rather than development of cognitive ability. See


  2. Mike Hill says:

    Many thanks for sharing your thinking here, Arthur. If I could ask two questions:

    1. How exactly would you define ‘form’ in the way it is used here?

    2. When talking about subjects, can the term ‘bodies of knowledge’ not include conceptual & disciplinary knowledge? That’s how I understand it: all domain-specific forms of knowledge.

  3. edpodesta67 says:

    I’m struck, reading this again after yesterday’s excellent symposium event at the IOE, by the way that this resonates with the example you gave of the pupil’s work from 1913. Her sweeping judgements over the whole lives of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kings, makes me think that we cannot separate the curriculum from pedagogic choices, nor the ‘what’ from the ‘how’.

    She had learned that doing history meant quickly evaluating monarchs in a particular formula: “Name, dates, key event(s), moral judgement, death”. She had learned a (dreadful) form of integration of the ‘stuff’ she had entirely failed to accurately learn.

    Perhaps, if we tried, we would still be teaching form even as we attempted only to teach body?

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