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.



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