pedagogy · Philosophy of Education · Powerful knowledge

The dangers for education of a simplistic ’cause and effect’ model of knowledge development

Biesta (2014) makes the point that over the last few years there has been an ongoing discussion about the place of knowledge in the curriculum:

In a number of recent publications, the British sociologist Michael Young has argued that there is a need to bring knowledge back into the discussion about the curriculum (for example, Young, 2008; see also (Balarin,  2008); Young & Muller, (2007, 2008). I agree with Young that the question of knowledge may indeed have disappeared from parts of curriculum theory and parts of curriculum practice. This is partly the result of a phenomenon to which I have referred as the ‘learnification’ of education (see Biesta, 2010a). ‘Learnification’ refers to a fairly recent development in which the language of education has been taken over by a language of  learning.

If we accept that knowledge is the currency of classroom practice how then are we to study it? The discourse of a number of edu-bloggers on Twitter tends to be about bias, replicability, sample size, RCT’s, effect sizes and meta-analysis etc. I would describe it as  Edu-positivism, an approach that gives primacy to the scientific method in determining “what is” effective in the classroom.

Of course, in the material world the scientific method works well up to a point, however, in the social world, it can lead to biological reductionism. Education becomes the relationship between knowledge and long-term cognition. A cause and effect relationship studied using the scientific method can traduce education to a truth proposition and the ability of a learner to remember it.

Biesta (2014) discussing the work of Dewey frames the problem in this way:

 For Dewey, the nub of the problem had to do with the fact that modern science had been interpreted through philosophical categories that predated modern science – such as the idea of truth as having to do with what is permanent and fixed and of knowledge as having to do with an unchanging reality ‘out there’. Dewey’s project, in a sense, was to explore what would happen if, rather than to interpret modern science through pre-scientific philosophical categories, we would interpret science and its claims to knowledge in its own terms. And the outcome of that exercise,as we have seen, is precisely that science can no longer claim to be the possessor of ultimate truth and ultimate rationality.

Scott (2014) poses the question of how we are to determine legitimate knowledge:

 A curriculum, which is a set of teaching and learning prescriptions, is in essence a knowledge-forming activity. However, this cannot resolve the issue of what should be included in that curriculum and what should be excluded from it. The next step then is to determine what might constitute a legitimate form of knowledge and thus by implication an illegitimate form.

BIESTA and Scott offer different approaches to knowledge in the curriculum. For Biesta (2014), legitimate knowledge should be seen in terms of relationships, actions, and consequences:

This, as I have tried to make clear, has a number of important implications for the discussion about knowledge, experience, and reality. It means the end of the idea of knowledge as a picture of reality and instead puts forward the suggestion that our knowledge is always about relationships between actions and consequences.

While this does mean that knowledge is a construction, it is not a construction happening somewhere in our head, but a construction ‘in transaction’, which means that knowledge is both constructed and real. From this angle, the question of truth ceases to be a spatial matter – that is of the relationship between statements about the world and the world itself – and instead becomes thoroughly temporal – that is, concerned with the relationship between actions and their consequences. Knowledge thus moves from the domain of certainty, the domain of ‘what is’, to the domain of possibility, the domain of ‘what might be the case’.

Scott (2014) makes an argument, which critically evaluates traditional epistemic positions finding fault with each one of them:

These viewpoints point to the need to foreground the social in any curriculum rationale and in understanding this fundamental element, five social epistemologies were examined: social constructivism, social realism, epistemic realism, inferentialism and critical realism. Elements taken from each allow one to develop a way of determining what should be included in and what should be excluded from a curriculum.

Scott (2014) develops the following principles by taking elements from each:

  • There is a social dimension to knowledge-construction, but this does not categorically preclude reference to a world which is separate from the way it is being described.
  • Conceptual framings and sets of descriptors are informed, con-strained and enabled in a non-trivial way by the world or reality at the particular moment in time in which they are being used, and in turn the shape and form of the ontological realm is influenced by the types of knowledge that are being developed.
  • Our conceptual frameworks, perspectives on the world and descriptive languages interpenetrate what we are calling reality to such an extent that it is impossible to conceive of a pre-schematised world. However, this does not preclude indirectly conceived references to the structures of the world.
  • A curriculum cannot be a simple representation (expressed as a series of facts) of what is out there in the world because the world is not entirely separate from those mediating devices that human beings have developed to make sense of it.
  • It is important to avoid essentialising knowledge and its divisions and neglecting the transitivity inherent in the development of knowledge within the disciplines.
  • Any knowledge claim has to be placed within the space of reasons, which means that this claim is discourse-specific and positioned within conceptual frameworks that precede it in time and place and have implications for future use.
  • There are significant differences between the transitive realm of  knowing and the intransitive realm of being; the social world is an open system; and reality has ontological depth.
  • It is possible to identify a transcendental condition for the production of knowledge and the form that it should take. However, this transcendental condition necessarily has pragmatic and normative elements in the way it is constituted, and therefore there would need to be an acknowledgement of these in providing a rationale for a  curriculum.

Obviously, these are just the thoughts of two researchers but they do represent some ideas for developing curriculum and researching knowledge-based constructs.

Education professionals engage with the most complex of constructs; knowledge, which consists of both the material (cognition) and social (shared interpretation and construction). Ideas cannot be reduced to cognition. If knowledge is the currency of education then theory and data, rather than experimentation, is the method by which it should be investigated. Unfortunately trying to make arguments about knowledge-based constructs using the discourse of “cause and effect” has limited use. Worse, it can diminish educational practice.


This blog has been updated from one written two years ago


Biesta, G. (2014). Pragmatising the curriculum: bringing knowledge back. The Curriculum Journal , 29-49.

Scott, D. (2014). Knowledge and the curriculum. The Curriculum Journal , 14-28.

4 thoughts on “The dangers for education of a simplistic ’cause and effect’ model of knowledge development

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