Knowledge is a Tree: Which metaphors underlie your understanding of your discipline?


The “tree of knowledge” from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, 1751

This post is about the possibility of bringing together insights form linguistics and sociology to address questions about knowledge in education.


Following the exhilarating experience of participating in the 4th Cambridge Symposium on Knowledge in Education, I have been forced to have a bit of a rethink about focusing my thesis. I am now considering the possibility of investigating the ways in which the use of metaphor affects people’s understanding of their subject disciplines.

The initial idea came from a fascinating presentation by Chris Corbel, of the University of Melbourne, to do with the relation of language to the mechanics of Basil Bernstein’s Pedagogic Device. If I understood him correctly, Corbel’s contention is that it is possible to show that a difference in fundamental linguistic conceptions exists between different groups of people engaged in education. For example, those writing policy view education differently to teachers. Corbel poses the question as to whether it is possible that these differences exist at the level of ‘conceptual metaphor’, which is said to govern the use of language. I am grateful to Chris for sparking this line of thought.

Here, I want to just sketch out the basics, with a view to a) lay out my thinking in writing, b) get some feedback and c) invite others to consider the way in which the theories I am drawing on affect their own subject disciplines.

In a nutshell, the questions I’m mulling over can be phrased as follows:

  1. What are the conceptual metaphors present in the discourse of Modern Foreign Languages?
  2. To what extent is there continuity in the conceptual metaphors found in the different fields of Bernstein’s model of the Pedagogic Device?
  3. What can these continuities and differences tell us about the way in which teachers are responding to recent curriculum reform?

What follows is a necessary oversimplification of two bodies of theory (Bernstein’s sociology and Lakoff’s cognitive linguistics). I have made some omissions for the sake of brevity and intelligibility. Bernstein’s theory is notoriously dense and one reason for blogging about my research is to attempt to bring his intellectual project a little closer to the world of practice that it so eloquently describes.

The Pedagogic Device

As a sociologist, Bernstein considered education to be the principle site of social and cultural reproduction. His concern was in investigating the reasons why working-class children tend not to perform as well as their more privileged counterparts. Bernstein differed from the dominant modes of thinking in the sociology of education, which were influenced by the critical perspective of, among others Bourdieu and the early phase of Young’s work (Bourdieu, 1984; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990; Young, 1971). In short, whereas Bourdieu’s theory sought to critique the ways in which education reproduces social inequality, Bernstein’s project aimed to articulate the ways in which education could interrupt the reproduction of social inequality. This translates to a key difference in approach. For Bourdieu, education is treated as a relay of external power relations. Whilst there is no doubt much about Bourdieu’s critique that is valid, what it ignores is the very nature of the relay itself. Bernstein saw the need to investigate this:

What of pedagogic communication? We know what it relays, but what is the relay? We know what it carries, but what is the structure that allows, enables it to be carried? This is very similar to a distinction between language and speech. It is as if when we study pedagogic communication we study only the surface features, only its message, not that structure which makes the message possible. (Bernstein, 2009, p. 146)

Bernstein gave the name ‘Pedagogic Device’ to that structure. Below is a table setting out the component parts of this structure.


pedagogic device.png

Maton & Muller’s tabulation of Bernstein’s ‘Pedagogic Device’ (Maton & Muller, 2007, p. 18).

According to Bernstein, there are three fields through which knowledge passes as it makes its way to the classroom. First, we have the field of production. This comprises universities, research labs, etc. where knowledge is generated. The knowledge structures in this field are governed by ‘distributive rules’ which delineate the insularity of disparate knowledge domains. As this knowledge moves into the recontextualizaton field (manifested in, for example, curricula), it is transformed and interfered with by ideology. As Bernstein puts it:

I will suggest that as this discourse moves, it is transformed form an actual discourse, from an unmediated discourse to an imaginary discourse. As pedagogic discourse appropriates various discourses, unmediated discourses are transformed into mediated, virtual or imaginary discourses. From this point of view, pedagogic discourse selectively creates imaginary subjects (Bernstein, 2000, p. 33).

To illustrate this, Bernstein gives the example of how this process transforms carpentry into the school subject ‘woodwork’, but we can just as well imagine the same trajectory for any subject discipline. For example, school physics is an imaginary version of the actual discourse of physics as it occurs in university departments and in research laboratories. Likewise, school French is an imaginary version of both the language as it occurs in the communities in which it is spoken and of the cultural artefacts and the critical texts that they engender in literary circles and university departments. Ideology, then, has a hand in shaping this pedagogic discourse. It is for this reason that the 2007 National Curriculum (a product of New Labour) is so different to the 2014 version, produced under the auspices of Michael Gove.

Finally, this discourse is subject to a further dislocation, this time to the field of reproduction, which takes place in the teaching and assessment of educational knowledge in classrooms. Again, a discursive gap exists in the movement of pedagogic discourse between fields, in which ideology can have an influence, distorting the ‘message’ being carried. Let us recall Bernstein’s contention that “between language and speech is social structure” (Bernstein, 2009, p. 82). It is here that I would like to bring in the notion of conceptual metaphor as an example of this kind of social structure.


Conceptual Metaphor

The notion of conceptual metaphor is one that has its origins in the cognitive linguistics of Lakoff and Johnson and their seminal work, Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Very briefly stated, their thesis is that human thought is governed by the often unconscious way in which conceptual domains relate to one another and that this is evident in metaphoric expressions in everyday language. Or, as Lakoff and Johnson put it, conceptual metaphor is “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (1980, p. 5).

Perhaps the most often-cited example of a conceptual metaphor is ‘argument is war’ where the abstract conceptual domain of ‘argument’ is understood in relation to the concrete domain of ‘war’. So, the conceptual metaphor ‘argument is war’ underlies the metaphoric use of language in phrases such as:

  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • His criticisms were right on target.
  • I demolished his argument.
  • He shot down all of my arguments.

(Kovecses, 2010, p. 6)

Similarly, we can see how ‘love is a journey’ is manifested in phrases such as “we’re at a crossroads” and “I don’t think this relationship is going anywhere” or how ‘theories are buildings’ results in “the theory needs more support” or “we need to buttress the theory with solid arguments” (Kovecses, 2010, p. 6). There are said to be conceptual metaphors that vary between social and cultural groups as well as those which are found across cultures and may be universal. The important thing to note is that there is nothing particularly remarkable about this metaphoric use of language; it is part of our everyday vernacular. For this reason, it tends to go unnoticed and, as a result, it lends itself to being the object of study for forms of discourse analysis, particularly those concerned with making claims about traces of ideology in language use.

The epistemological and ontological implications of conceptual metaphor theory does seem to fit with the broadly ‘social realist’ positions of Bernstein’s work and the subsequent body of research that has grown out of his theory (Maton & Moore, 2010). The possibilities of bringing the two together are exciting and pose some interesting questions. Are conceptual metaphors social facts in the Durkheimian sense (Durkheim, 1982)? They are objective not in a positivist sense, but derive their objectivity form their social nature and exist outside individuals, serving to constrain and limit their actions. Is it possible that the notion of conceptual metaphor can help us consider the nature of this ‘structure between language and speech’? And, if so, what can our knowledge about them add to our understanding of the Pedagogic Device?


Conceptual Metaphor and the Pedagogic Device: The case of Modern Foreign Languages

As a teacher of MFL, I have been interested in the ways my colleagues are having to respond to the radical change from the 2007 NCMFL to the 2014 version. Their respective visions of what MFL is are qualitatively different. Where 2007 might be labelled as a broadly ‘progressive’ artefact and tends towards presenting MFL as a ‘skill’ with an focus on the activity of the learner (communicative competence and intercultural understanding), 2014 is the result of Govian ‘traditionalism’ and presents the subject discipline in terms of its forms of knowledge (literary text and sound knowledge of grammar). The radical change has been problematic for many teachers, particularly those for whom MFL has been more of a skill than a body of knowledge.

So what I am setting out to do is to plough these two curriculum versions for the conceptual metaphors that underlie them. I then hope to generate data from open-ended interviews with a sample of MFL teachers and analyse the conceptual metaphors revealed in this discourse. I will be interested in seeing the similarities/differences in the conceptual metaphors in each body of discourse and seeing if these findings help us to better understand the social structures that mediate the Pedagogic Device.

In the meantime, I wonder if anyone else might be interested in doing something similar within their disciplines…



Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: Theory, research, critique. (Revised). Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

Bernstein, B. (2009). Class, Codes and Control. Volume IV: The structuring of pedagogic discourse. London and New York: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J.-C. (1990). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage.

Durkheim, É. (1982). The Rules of Scoiological Method. New York: The Free Press.

Kovecses, Z. (2010). Metaphor (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Maton, K., & Moore, R. (Eds.). (2010). Social Realism , Knowledge and the Sociology of Education: Coalitions of the Mind. London: Continuum.

Maton, K., & Muller, J. (2007). A sociology for the transmission of knowledges. In F. Christie & J. R. Martin (Eds.), Language, knowledge and pedagogy: functional linguistic and sociological perspectives (pp. 13–43). London: Continuum.

Moore, R. (2013). Basil Bernstein: The thinker and the field. London and New York: Routledge.

Young, M. F. D. (Ed.). (1971). Knowledge and Control. New Directions for the Sociology of Education. London: Collier-Macmillan.


“Hegel has never existed for them”: Thinking Dialectically about Trad/Prog.

“Hegel has never existed for them”: Thinking Dialectically about Trad/Prog.

The image above is from the front cover of La Révolution surréaliste and I find that it rather neatly sums up a major issue in the ‘trad’ vs ‘prog’ debate that has been raging on edutwitter of late. The text, a quote attributable to Friedrich Engels, reads “What these gentlemen all lack is dialectic”. Its provenance is a letter written by Engels to Conrad Schmidt, dated October 27, 1890. It comes at the letter’s end, which is worth quoting here in full:

“What these gentlemen all lack is dialectic. They never see anything but here cause and there effect. That this is a hollow abstraction, that such metaphysical polar opposites only exist in the real world during crises, while the whole vast process proceeds in the form of interaction […] and that here everything is relative and nothing is absolute – this they never begin to see. Hegel has never existed for them.”

Now, perhaps we might argue that education in the real world today does indeed find itself in crisis (when was it ever not so?), which is why these metaphysical polar opposites are being so stubbornly grasped at by so many. Even so, the process continues to proceed.

I can imagine the difficulty that those for whom the ‘trad’ and ‘prog’ terms must be kept apart absolutely might have with such nuanced concepts as those described by Engels. Indeed, the criticism I received for recently suggesting that there are more nuanced ways of considering the substance of this debate via the conceptual language of Bernstein almost exclusively rested on the assertion that this language is “too complicated”. The problem here is that, unless we are willing to go into deeper levels of complexity (read “academic rigour”), we end up relying on everyday notions that don’t quite get to the truth of the matter.

I’ll give you one example: a recent analogy drawn up by a well-known commentator on the  issue was that being both ‘trad’ and ‘prog’ was like supporting both Labour and the Tories (!). Aside from the inappropriateness of this analogical hiccup (it is obviously possible to support policies from both parties *at the same time* whilst still obeying the laws of physics – which, by the way, we are constantly in the process of refining despite the increasing complexity involved) it is curious that it should have eructed from the sphere of everyday knowledge and not from those specialised forms of knowledge that are the very raison d’être for schools and universities, which exist to cultivate it and pass it on to future generations. So it would appear that these specialised forms of knowledge are viewed suspiciously even by those who would consider themselves ‘trad’. This can’t be right. Surely we’d do well to embrace specialised vocabularies that have been rigorously developed by communities of specialists specifically to discuss educational processes? Isn’t that the kind of knowledge self-confessed ‘trads’ want all children to aspire to?

Here I would like to reiterate the social realist position on knowledge and education because I believe it should be the basis for considered, rigorous (and, regrettably, sometimes ‘complicated’) debate on educational issues.

The social realist justification for ‘traditional subjects’ is that they embody specialised knowledge that is powerful. This is Michael Young’s term. For him, and indeed the policy makers and curriculum developers who draw inspiration from his theory, Powerful Knowledge derives its power because it:

  • provides reliable explanations or ways of thinking;
  • is the basis for suggesting realistic alternatives;
  • enables those who acquire it to see beyond their everyday experience;
  • is conceptual as well as based on evidence and experience;
  • is always open to challenge;
  • is acquired in specialist educational institutions, staffed by specialists;
  • is organised into domains with boundaries that are not arbitrary and these domains are associated with specialist communities such as subject and professional associations;
  • is often but not always discipline-based

By the way, the distinction between everyday and scientific/abstract knowledge (here Young draws on Vygotsky and Durkheim – see Young, 2008, ch. 3&4) is not an absolute dichotomy. These are two forms of knowledge that come into tension when the child brings the former to school. The teacher’s job is to bring the child ever closer to the latter. This process is dialectic.

If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that this view of knowledge is one that many self-confessed ‘trads’ would ascribe to. I would also argue that many, but certainly not all, self-confessed ‘progs’ would agree with it. Among those who do ascribe to this, there will no doubt be differing views as to the ways in which this knowledge is best taught. Those who (somehow) agree completely on the ways in which this knowledge is best taught might then have differences over the ways in which it is assessed. Bernstein’s contribution, and his life’s work, was in providing a framework that dispassionately describes the process at each of these potential sites of tension.

Another point of contention in the debate has been that of underlying ideology. ‘Trads’ want to preserve “the best that has been thought and said” and the culture that produced it, whilst ‘progs’ see “the best that has been thought and said” as mere expressions of power relations, designed to reproduce social inequalities. Or so the caricature goes. Let us take two examples of these viewpoints. First:

“In the old school the grammatical study of Latin and Greek, together with the study of their respective literatures and political histories, was an educational principle-for the humanistic ideal, symbolised by Athens and Rome, was diffused throughout society, and was an essential element of national life and culture. Even the mechanical character of the study of grammar was enlivened by this cultural perspective. Individual facts were not learnt for an immediate practical or professional end. The end seemed disinterested, because the real interest was the interior development of personality, the formation of character by means of the absorption and assimilation of the whole cultural past of modern European civilisation. Pupils did not learn Latin and Greek in order to speak them, to become waiters, interpreters or commercial letter-writers. They learnt them in order to know at first hand the civilisation of Greece and of Rome – a civilisation that was a necessary precondition of our modern civilisation : in other words, they learnt them in order to be themselves and know themselves consciously.”

Who wrote these words? Was it Michael Gove? Was it Matthew Arnold? Was it T.S. Eliot? No, it was Antonio Gramsci (in his Prison Notebooks, p.37). You know, that Marxist revolutionary, grandfather of Eurocommunism, and one of Gove’s educational ‘inspirations’.

How about these words?:

“Government with the consent of the governed – but with this consent organised, and not generic and vague as it is expressed in the instant of elections. The State does have and request consent, but it also “educates” this consent.”

Who wrote these? Was it Michel Foucault? Was it Pierre Bourdieu? Was it Louis Althusser? No, it was also Gramsci (also in his Prison Notebooks, this time on p.259).

For Gramsci, as for Nick Gibb and Michael Gove, Powerful Knowledge is the key to social justice. However, it would be ridiculous to assume that Gramsci and Gove had shared views of society. Their respective answers to the question “what is education for?” would be quite radically different. One wants revolution, Eurocommunism, and a classless society. The other, well, doesn’t. Are they both ‘trad’?

I’d like to bring in the reference to Hegel at this juncture, for Gramsci’s dialectical thought was greatly indebted to the German philosopher. Consider Hegel’s use of the noun ‘die Aufhebung’, or its separable verb form ‘aufheben’. The Hegel Dictionary translates this (with self-confessed difficulty) as ‘sublation’ and ‘to sublate’, respectively (Magee, 2011, p.238). It goes on, quoting a translation of Hegel, who points out that “Aufheben has a two-fold meaning in the language: on the one hand it means to preserve, to maintain, and equally it also means to cause to cease, to put an end to” (Magee, ibid.). Aufheben, therefore, means both to cancel or abolish and to preserve or retain. Could it not be that this is what is going on in education, all the time? That competing approaches to education are constantly in tension, preserving certain aspects of what came before, and putting an end to others? That ‘the whole vast process proceeds in the form of interaction’ between the ‘trad’ and ‘prog’? Is it not both/and instead of either/or? Not so, it seems, for some. For some, you are either one or you’re the other. As one, not so enlightened, soul once put it, “either  you’re with us […] or you’re with the enemy; there’s no in between”.  For these people, Hegel has never existed.


Gramsci, A. (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.

La Révolution surréaliste (1926), no.8, 1 December, Paris.

Magee, G. A., (2011), The Hegel Dictionary. London: Continuum.

Young, M. F. D. (2008). Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Young, M.F.D., (2012). The Curriculum- “An entitlement to powerful knowledge” : A response to John White – The New Visions for Education Group. Available at: [Accessed April 18, 2017].

Why Classification and Framing are more useful terms than Trad/Prog in debating education.

Why Classification and Framing are more useful terms than Trad/Prog in debating education.

A common position in the recent ‘trad/prog’ (meta-)debate that has been particularly irksome is that there ‘can be no middle ground’ between the two polar opposites. It seems to me that these two labels are, at best, ideal types. At worst, they are used myopically and not without a hint of malice as tribal epithets. The notions of ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’ can be useful, but far more nuance is needed. It is for this reason that I want to share some insights that I have gleaned from my reading, which may go some way to showing why, in practice, the two exist on a continuum.

The conceptual framework within which I situate my research presupposes certain theoretical assumptions which arise from my reading of Basil Bernstein, and subsequent work in the sociology of education that has been significantly influenced by his thought. His work has been fundamental to the development of educational theory and practice that is chiefly concerned with the status of knowledge in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

For the purposes of my research, I have been using the principles of classification and framing (Bernstein, 1971, 2000) to describe the status of knowledge in the curriculum. I find Rob Moore’s (2013) exegesis of these particularly useful:

  • The process of pedagogy is a relationship between a transmitter and an acquirer in which the transmitter unpacks, makes available or, elaborates meaning to the acquirer. The pedagogic relationship is not limited to formal institutions of education; it can exist between parent and child, coach and player, etc.
  • The pedagogic process requires three fundamental features: “something to be transmitted (‘curriculum’), a method of transmission (teaching style or ‘pedagogy’ in the narrow sense), and criteria of evaluation as to the success of the transmission (‘examination’)” (Moore, 2013, p. 128).
  • These three features are manifested in different ways, combining to define the ‘educational transmission code’. These transmission, or ‘pedagogic’ codes are structured by the varying modalities generated by the relationship between the principles of ‘classification’ and ‘framing’.
  • Classification “refers to the strength of boundary insulation between categories and contexts” (Moore, 2013, p. 128). This is seen, for example, in the division between everyday knowledge and educational knowledge, and between different subject disciplines within the school context. As such, classification works across both internal and external relationships.  Classification is the expression of relations of power, in which boundaries are created, legitimised, maintained and reproduced between different categories (Bernstein, 2000, p. 5).
  • Framing refers to the degree of control within the categories created by classification. In the educational context, framing is concerned with who selects educational knowledge, how that knowledge is sequenced, as well as the rate at which it is acquired (pacing). In weak framing, the acquirer has greater control over the selection, sequencing and pacing of educational knowledge, whilst the transmitter has more control in situations where framing is strong. Again, framing is expressed in degrees of strength or weakness and works across both internal and external domains.

Crucial to what I am driving at, the codes generated by the varying modalities of classification and framing are constitutive of ‘identities’. Moore hits the nail on the head:

“A teacher operating within a ‘traditional’ mode [strong classification and strong framing] will tend to identify with a subject and have authority by being an expert in the subject, whereas one operating in a ‘progressive’ mode will gain authority as an expert on ‘the child’ and will appeal to their knowledge of, say, developmental child psychology and an intuitive, professional sense of ‘readiness’. The teacher’s role and professional identity/authority will be legitimated in different ways employing different languages and appealing to different values (as when progressive teachers proclaim, ‘We teach children, not subjects’). Legitimation of the teacher’s role might be in terms of reference to knowledge (subjects) or to knowers (the child) and these are intrinsically connected with constructs of pupil identities.” (Moore, 2013, p.130)

It is, of course, ridiculous to conclude that teachers draw their legitimation and form their identities exclusively around one of these two options. As teachers, we legitimise our authority form a combination of the two. It is a matter of circumstance that dictates the particular modality of classification and framing that regulates our pedagogic processes. Let us take the question of discipline, which a well-known commentator and upholder of the trad/prog divide has claimed “the most contentious trad/prog issue”.

Consider Eton College. It was founded by Henry VI in 1440. Its present uniform (apocryphally) traces its origins back to mourning the death of George III. It has a long history of unsurpassed academic excellence, producing legions of pioneers and leaders in just about any field you care to name. These pioneers are the product of a rigorous academic curriculum that is divided into traditional subject disciplines. I was, therefore, quite taken aback when I asked this commentator whether or not Eton College was a ‘trad’ school and they were unable (or unwilling) to give me an answer. I suspect the confusion arose because Eton does not have an explicit behavioural policy. By the logic of those who do not see the middle ground between ‘trad’ and ‘prog’, if Eton is not fully ‘trad’ then it must be ‘prog’. This is an entertaining thought, but quite clearly not true. It is, in fact, somewhere in between. This is not only to do with behaviour. Eton, like most public schools with big budgets, is not averse to experimenting with new methods (for example, in the use of new technologies, thus weakening and strengthening the framing modality where appropriate). This, from their website, is a good indicator of where they stand,

“Ours is a modern, forward-thinking school which embraces new opportunities within teaching and learning. Tradition remains important and still shapes some of our guiding principles, but it is a willingness to innovate which has seen the school thrive for almost six centuries.”

Now consider Michaela Community School. Founded three years ago, this institution also recognises the centrality of knowledge and provides a rigorous academic curriculum to its students. It is regularly held up as the embodiment of what it means to be ‘trad’. Michaela unashamedly adopts a “no-excuses” attitude to discipline, with a detailed, five-page behaviour policy. Sometimes, Michaela’s disciplinary ethos has caused controversy, drawing both praise and criticism in equal, passionately dished-out measure.

I am not attempting to criticise either approach. What works at Michaela works at Michaela, and what works at Eton works at Eton. What they have in common is their recognition that knowledge (embodied in ‘traditional’ subjects) is the key to a good education. They adopt similar approaches to disciplinary knowledge, yet have quite different approaches to discipline. Their similar positions regarding disciplinary knowledge (strong classification) are, however, tempered by differing degrees of strength in framing. These nuances are far more important to debating education than whether or not they are labelled ‘trad’ or ‘prog’.

Following form the work of the likes of Michael Young, Rob Moore, Johan Muller and others (broadly linked under the banner of ‘social realism’ in the sociology of education), I argue for the debate to focus on the central educational issue; namely, knowledge. Schools are distinguished from other social institutions by the fact that they are places where specialised knowledge is passed on. Debates should proceed from this fact and attempt to establish what the best knowledge is, as well as the best ways in which that knowledge is to be transmitted. Bernstein’s conceptual framework offers a useful starting point. If we dig in to arbitrarily entrenched positions and call each other names, we are unlikely to make much ‘progress’.


Bernstein, B. (1971). Class, Codes and Control: Vol.1. Theoretical Studies towards a Sociology of Language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: Theory, research, critique. (Revised). Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

Moore, R. (2013). Basil Bernstein: The thinker and the field. London and New York: Routledge.

Young, M. F. D. (2008). Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education. Abingdon: Routledge.