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Knowledge and knowers in teaching and learning: an enhanced approach to curriculum
Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL)
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Sherran Clarence is a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Higher Education Research,
Teaching and Learning at Rhodes University. Her research interests include curriculum and
pedagogic practice, academic writing development, and social justice in education.
Word count (incl. references and notes, excl. cover page): 6139
Part of the research this paper is based on was made possible with thanks to an NRF Doctoral
Sabbatical Grant in 2013. Grateful thanks to Sioux McKenna for her comments on earlier
drafts of this research, and to the anonymous peer reviewers for their helpful and constructive
Knowledge and knowers in teaching and learning: an enhanced approach to curriculum
Abstract: John Biggs’ well-known curriculum design approach, constructive alignment, is
widely used in higher education in the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa.
Developed with one dominant account of learning through curriculum, this approach has a
gap in terms of accounting for other kinds of knowledge building, and associated knower
development. This paper proposes a complementary approach that accounts for different
kinds of knowledge and knower building. Using Legitimation Code Theory’s concept of
Specialisation, the paper argues that accounting for what makes a discipline ‘special’ in terms
of its basis for legitimate achievement can enable curriculum writers to align curricula more
effectively with that basis in different disciplines. Using a case study approach, this paper
shows how this tool can provide lecturers and academic development practitioners with a
useful mode of analyzing curriculum alignment to more ably account for how the
development of disciplinary knowledges and knowers.
Keywords: curriculum, knowledge, knowers, Legitimation Code Theory, Political Science,
Since its initial appearance in the late 1990s, John Biggs’ concept of constructive alignment
as a tool for designing curriculum in higher education has become popular in the United
Kingdom, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (Kahn, 2015). Simply put, this approach
to designing curricula requires that they be aligned in service of an end-goal of demonstrable
student learning. Beginning with learning outcomes, moving through teaching and learning
activities and assessment and ending in evaluation, all the steps of this process need to be
clearly connected, so that what students are supposed to be learning is taught, assessed and
evaluated, creating a clear connection between aims and outcomes (Biggs, 1996, 2012).
This approach is now widely used, with several authors indicating its usefulness as a
tool for curriculum design (Edström, 2008; Joseph and Juwah, 2012; Treleaven and Voola,
2008). However, this paper, while acknowledging the need for the aims and outcomes of
curriculum to be carefully planned and aligned, acknowledges that there is a gap in this
approach that needs to be addressed. According to Kahn (2015), the constructive alignment
approach, building on Biggs’ earlier work on the SOLO taxonomy, account predominantly
for one form of knowledge building in education. This form is aggregative, and similar to
Bernstein’s account of hierarchical knowledge structures that develop by subsuming and
building on prior knowledge (cf. Bernstein, 1999; Kahn, 2015). This leaves other forms of
knowledge-building which are less aggregative and more segmented, like Bernstein’s
horizontal knowledge structures which grow through the introduction of new speakers, ideas,
and theories (Bernstein, 1999), under-considered in the application of such an approach.
Biggs’ approach is useful in highlighting the need to interrogate closely the
appropriateness of learning outcomes and the aligned teaching, learning, assessment and
evaluation that will lead students to achieving those outcomes. However, it is focused largely
on pedagogy and the enactment of curriculum, rather than on the knowledge that is included
in the curriculum itself, or on the different kinds of knowers students need to become. In
essence, there are gaps within the design of constructive alignment that merit further
consideration, and the need for complementary approaches to strengthen its applicability
across the disciplinary map (Kahn, 2015).
This paper seeks to consider one such complementary approach to enhancing
constructive alignment as a useful tool for curriculum design. The paper approaches this
consideration from a realist theory of knowledge, particularly that which underpins
Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) within the sociology of education. It begins by unpacking
in more detail Biggs’ formulation of constructive alignment, as well as the potential gaps that
could be filled by a complementary approach drawn from LCT, specifically from the
dimension of Specialisation. It then moves on to explain what LCT has to offer as an
invaluable set of additional tools to enhance a process of constructive curriculum design,
before moving on to illustrate the tools in action within a defined case study.
Constructive alignment and the question of knowledge
‘Constructive alignment’ as a tool for curriculum design and renewal is drawn primarily
from the work of John Biggs (1996, 2012). This approach advocates designing curricula
focused on what students are doing in the classroom, with aligned learning outcomes,
teaching and learning activities, assessments and evaluation tasks. In essence, Biggs’ model
for aligning curricula suggests that all teaching and learning activities and assessments must
be able to lead learners towards achieving identifiable outcomes, and activities need to focus
on giving students opportunities to engage as far as possible in ‘authentic’ (Herrington and
Herrington, 2006) and ‘student-centred’ (O’Neill and McMahon, 2005) learning. Learning
and teaching activities should be designed to enable students to construct knowledge and
make meaning in ways that connect with and build on their prior learning, and encourage
students to be active participants in their own learning.
In developing first the SOLO taxonomy and later constructive alignment (Biggs,
1996), Biggs accounted primarily for one form of knowledge building or learning, that more
closely associated with Bernstein’s hierarchical knowledge structures (Kahn, 2015) that grow
through subsuming and extending established knowledge. This has left a gap where forms of
knowledge building or learning that may not be aggregative in the same ways are under-
considered (Kahn, 2015). What is important about this in the context of this paper is that, in
foregrounding only one broad form of knowledge building Biggs also under-accounted for
different kinds of knowers that are developed through encounters with different forms of
knowledge building and meaning-making. In other words, in obscuring a set of relations
within curriculum - that associated with horizontal knowledge structures, and their curricula
and pedagogic practices - Biggs also obscured the development of associated kinds of
knowers. Thus, following Kahn (2015) constructive alignment as a useful tool for curriculum
development could be expanded and complemented by approaches that can account more
adequately for both knowledge and knowers, and for the different ways in which both are
developed in higher education.
A significant first step in extending constructive alignment to more adequately
account for different forms of knowledge and knower construction is to consider what we
mean by knowledge. The argument proposed in this paper is premised on a realist theory of
knowledge; that knowledge emerges from but cannot be reduced to the contexts in which it is
created (Maton and Moore, 2010). In other words, knowledge is not only subjectively created
within the minds of those who make and know it. This theory of knowledge acknowledges
that there are always two dimensions of learning that should not be conflated: there is an
objective dimension - the knowledge itself, and a subjective dimension - those who come to
make and hold that knowledge. If we only see knowledge as that which is created in the
minds of knowers, rather than as having its own objective properties, we may risk obscuring
important differences between commonsense and theoretical knowledge (Wheelahan, 2009)
and further make it difficult for students to grasp these as part of a basis for success in
This paper contends that in order to encourage and enable students to make meaning
and build knowledge within their disciplines in appropriate and engaged ways, curriculum
designers need to acknowledge that different disciplines have different purposes or aims in
terms of who they are trying to enable students to become, how they are trying to encourage
students to act, and what they are trying to enable students to know (see Barnett, 2000;
Schulman, 2005). In other words, teaching and learning needs to account more fully for
different forms of knower and knowledge building across the disciplines. This requires a
critical consideration of the underlying organising principles or epistemic and ontological
purposes of a discipline, which indicate what counts as legitimate knowledge and legitimate
ways of creating and disseminating that knowledge (Maton, 2014).
Using the Specialisation dimension of Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), this paper
selects relevant data from one case study within a wider research project undertaken in a
South African university as an illustrative example of how constructive alignment could be
enhanced. The data analysis reveals one set of underlying organising principle within a
discipline that represents a less aggregative form of learning and knowledge building. Thus, it
considers a particular set of goals for who the knowers should be and what attributes they
should possess to be successful. Possible implications of employing this kind of analysis are
discussed in relation to how the findings can open up new conversations between academic
staff development practitioners and lecturers, or between lecturers and their students, about
what counts as knowledge, in what ways it can come to be known in particular disciplinary
fields, and what attributes successful students need to develop over time.
Legitimation Code Theory, or LCT, is a realist sociological ‘toolkit’ developed by Karl
Maton that subsumes and extends parts of the prior work of mainly Basil Bernstein and Pierre
Bourdieu, specifically Bernstein’s code theory and Bourdieu’s field theory (for a fuller
account please refer to Maton 2014, Chapter 2). Specialisation is a dimension of LCT that
reveals one set of organising principles or underpinning logics that shape and inform what
academic disciplines do with knowledge and associated ways of knowing.
Specialisation, in the context of this paper, posits that all disciplines need to stake
their claim to status, recognition and position within higher education, and that they do so by
using particular discourses that mark them as having attributes worthy of recognition. For
example, Political Science uses, crudely put here for the purposes of brevity, a discourse of
critical imagination and analytical thinking that applies theory within the field to
understanding and critiquing global or local issues. Political Science knowers construct
particular forms of arguments to accomplish this, and to stake claims to legitimacy and status
within higher education. Actors within this discourse may and will argue about whether these
claims are correct, whether they should be changed and how, but political science academia
globally is marked, broadly speaking, by a discourse of rigorous, empathetic reasoning and
argument underpinned by particular methods or ways of engaging with both theory and the
application or development of that theory (even if there are contextual differences between
universities and national political systems) (see Goodin and Klingeman, 1998).
These claims to status, or legitimacy are based on deeper, often tacit understandings
of the principles underlying the knowledge structure within the intellectual field in question
(Maton, 2007). Actors and discourses within these intellectual fields, out of which higher
education disciplines are drawn, are ‘selected and recontextualised on the basis of a principle
emanating from the knowledge structure, knower structure or…neither or both’ (Maton,
2007, p. 92). If we can understand the discursive practices of the intellectual fields as
structures that select, position and empower actors and discourses in different ways, then we
can begin to consider the influence that a particular set of discursive practices may have on
what we select in developing a curriculum, and how we recontextualise and enact the
curriculum knowledge through aligned pedagogic and assessment practices. Different
disciplines are likely to employ curriculum forms aligned with their aims of, for example,
training a particular kind of future professional such as an attorney, or nurturing a particular
kind of thinker who could work in a range of professional fields, such as an analyst working
for government, an NGO or a private sector company.
Specialisation is employed here as a tool for analysing the organising principles that
form the basis for claims to legitimacy within one academic discipline: Political Science.
Specialisation considers two dimensions that comprise these organising principles, arguing
that there is always knowledge and there are always knowers that need to be considered.
Specialisation comprises two sets of relations: epistemic relations (ER), or relations to that
which is known, and social relations (SR), or relations to those doing the knowing (Maton,
2007). Considering both relations simultaneously enables curriculum designers and lecturers
to think relationally about how they are developing both knowledge and knowers, rather than
only seeing one or the other (Maton, 2007, 2014).
Using the analytical distinction between epistemic relations and social relations (ER
and SR), LCT conceptualises four specialisation codes (Maton, 2014), which can be used as
an analytical tool for ‘seeing’ and describing the principles underlying curriculum design and
teaching. These four codes are represented on a Cartesian plane as points on a compass
within which a great deal of variation can be found. Epistemic relations and social relations
can be stronger or weaker in relation to one another along two continua, with stronger
epistemic relations and social relations signified with ER+ and SR+, and weaker epistemic
relations and social relations signified with ER- and SR- (see figure 1 below).
Figure 1: Specialisation codes represented on a Cartesian plane (Maton, 2007, p. 96)
The code on the bottom right is the one that will be focused on in this paper, and is termed a
knower code (ER-, SR+), indicated by the emphasis on what forms the basis of legitimate
achievement within knower code disciplines. With a knower code the disposition of the
knower is emphasised, and this disposition can be ‘innate’, learned or ‘resulting from the
knower’s social position’ (Maton, 2007, p. 97). Elsewhere this code is defined as being
legitimated on the basis of ‘a distinct subject of study, the “knower”' (Maton 2000, p. 87,
emphasis in original). Thus the underlying principles of this code privilege who is learning
the knowledge, and the personal, professional or social attributes and attitudes they need to
develop. Political Science, as we shall see in the next section, represents a knower code.
Before moving on to the case study and analysis of the data, it is important to note
that LCT differentiates between the focus of claims to legitimacy and the basis for these
claims. The basis of claims to legitimacy is what determines the specialisation code of the
discipline or field. For example, it can be observed that in political science education learning
political theory - concepts such as power, sovereignty, freedom, citizenship and so on - is
often a focus of teaching. One could therefore believe that the content of the curriculum is
largely theoretical and thus that mastering the theory or procedural knowledge it represents is
the basis for success. However, while theory is often the focus, the basis for legitimate
achievement is rather the selective use of theory to influence, inform and shape the
construction, substantiation and defense of arguments, using particular methods of reasoning
and arguing that are recognised as valid. This will become clearer in the analysis of the data.
While the focus of any curriculum may shift and change over time, and in relatively short
periods of time, the basis of legitimacy tends to be more enduring. While it can indeed
change, this process of change tends to take place over longer periods of time, and often as a
result of more protracted struggles over control of the field, or discipline (cf. Maton, 2014).
Political Science as a knower code
This case study puts into practice the conceptual tools explained in the previous section. The
data was generated during a larger study conducted in 2013 (Clarence, 2014). The larger data
set comprised interviews with lecturers, extensive field notes and video data generated over
14 weeks of teaching observations in two undergraduate courses, as well as course outlines
and lecture notes. The two courses in the study were a first year course in the undergraduate
LLB (Law) degree, and a first year Political Science course in the undergraduate
The data selected in this paper comes only from Political Science, and only from the
course outlines and notes the lecturers make available to their students, which encapsulate
their curricular expectations of learning outcomes for the course, as well as indications of
teaching and learning activities and assessment tasks. Although these course outlines and
guides may give students only a partial view of the kinds of learning that are expected and
offered in the whole degree programme, they provide a window into what the discipline
regards as important, and thus enable a Specialisation analysis to tease out what the
specialisation code of the discipline is, and how this can be used to enhance the alignment of
learning outcomes and activities with the underlying purposes and goals of Political Science
as an academic discipline.
The course guide data was organised and coded using Nvivo10, and the data were
analysed for indications of the relative strengths of epistemic relations and social relations
indicated in the conveyed learning outcomes and expectations for the course, and lecturers’
design of tutorial and assessment tasks. In other words, the data were read for the organising
principles and basis of legitimate achievement in Political Science. Relevant parts of the data
have been selected in this paper to show how the specialisation code has been heuristically
determined, and what this enables lecturers to consider differently in terms of accounting for
knowledge and knowers together in aligning their curricula.
The Political Science case study is a first year, first semester foundational course,
POL131, divided into two halves: the first half of the course introduces students to basic core
concepts used in Political Studies generally, and the second half introduces students to core
concepts and methods in the study of International Relations as a sub-discipline. The 2013
study guide (p.1) informs students that:
After completion of POL131 you should be able to:
• Identify, define and describe key concepts in Political Studies, e.g. power,
legitimacy and authority.
• Identify, define and describe the key concepts in International Relations, e.g.
sovereignty, world order, international anarchy, international political
• Explain Galbraith’s theory of power and apply it to South Africa.
• Compare and contrast the key theories of International Relations, e.g. Realism,
Liberalism and Marxism.
• Differentiate between and explain selected processes in Political Studies and
International Relations, e.g. social activism, development or trade.
In addition, you should:
• Be able to take notes in class.
• Be able to read with comprehension (understanding), summarise arguments
presented in reading and the lectures, and explain these verbally and in
• Be able to do basic research tasks (library use, internet use, course reader use
• Have the basic skills to write in an academic style (including referencing).
• Present your opinions verbally (in class, tutorials and informal conversations).
• Be more aware of how politics influence society and how you can express
your political views.
Indicated as the learning outcomes for the course, these points highlight both knowledge of
particular content in the first bulleted list, as well as development of practices, skills and
dispositions that the discipline values in the second bulleted list. In terms of practices, the
document highlights reading ‘with comprehension’, and being able to ‘summarise arguments’
and ‘explain these’ which is a key precursor to students being able to craft their own
arguments. The final two bullet points highlight a disposition that students need to begin
developing, that of both having and expressing their own opinions on issues raised in or
relevant to the course, and being aware of how ‘politics influence society’. This final point
indicates a need for students to become more critically aware of politics at work around them,
and not just in their coursework.
The separating of these learning outcomes into core knowledge outcomes, as well as
more practical and dispositional outcomes is further elaborated on in the Departmental Policy
document (2014) that students, staff and tutors in the department have access to, and which
sets out the aims of the department in terms of their curriculum, as well as their expectations
of both students and staff. This document (2014, p. 1) states that:
In terms of graduates, we want students who are hard-working, disciplined, self-
motivated, with a decent knowledge of a broad spectrum of political science, a
capacity to research in a variety of ways, and most importantly, to construct a
From these two sets of expectations, one can see that reading critically, analysing texts, and
articulating and defending ‘compelling arguments’ (Department Policy Document, 2014, p.
1) are practices connected to the discipline; they mark out Political Science graduates as
having particular abilities and dispositions towards thinking and ongoing learning. In order to
enable students to master these practices, the department notes that teaching Political Science
‘concerns [developing students’] capacities for constructing arguments’ and creating ‘the
learning culture required to support this - essentially the skills and dispositions to support a
good argument’ (Department Policy Document, 2014, p. 1, emphasis added).
An example of a tutorial task students are expected to do, drawn from the course
outline/study guide, highlights the creation of the learning culture necessary to develop the
skills and dispositions the discipline values, using the knowledge or content that forms part of
the first year curriculum:
TUTORIAL THREE: IS POLITICS INEVITABLE? HOW DOES POLITICS
AFFECT OUR DAILY LIVES?
Imagine South Africa in 2030 as you would like it to exist and answer the following
• What will life be like and what would people be doing in an ideal 2030?
• Describe the person who could operate successfully in 2030.
• What skills and attributes would they need?
• What needs to be done to achieve the scenario that you’ve sketched?
• What factors could undermine this scenario?
• Are there trends present now which point to how South African society will
actually develop? (POL131 course outline, 2013, p. 5, emphasis added)
This task highlights an approach used in teaching this discipline, to move students
deliberately towards developing a more thoughtful and critical disposition, one that enables
them to consider issues from more than only one perspective. It highlights the use of the
imagination, encouraging students to imagine a particular scenario and apply their present
knowledge to that scenario as they consider this set of questions. This kind of task, coming
early in their first year, also begins to scaffold them into the process of thinking through
argumentation, particularly points four and five in the list, where they would need to justify
or reason their answers, rather than just present the answers as fact.
In Political Science, one can argue that the basis for legitimate achievement emanates
from the knower structure and therefore that what is valued is the ability for knowers to
develop a critical, thoughtful, engaged and curious disposition, and a certain set of aptitudes
related to knowledge, such as being able to read analytically, make and defend coherent
arguments, and being able to make relevant links between knowledge in the everyday
political sphere with theoretical knowledge. The emphasis in this discipline is therefore on
social relations to knowledge (SR). Although particular theories or concepts – epistemic
relations to knowledge (ER) - are often the focus of pedagogy, they are not the basis for
claims to legitimacy in Political Science. Political Science thus represents a knower code,
with stronger social relations and weaker epistemic relations (ER-, SR+). This is represented
heuristically in figure 2 below.
Figure 2: Political Studies as a knower code represented on a Cartesian plane (Clarence,
2014, p. 138)
The paper now returns to constructive alignment to consider what the kind of analysis
outlined in this section could offer as a way of complementing and enhancing curriculum
alignment in disciplines that represent knower codes, like Political Science.
Implications for curriculum: enhancing constructive alignment
This paper has thus far argued that, while useful in promoting a thoughtful approach to
curriculum design and alignment, Bigg’ constructive alignment approach has a gap in terms
of considering different, non-aggregative forms of knowledge building or learning. This
paper has proposed a complementary approach to analysing curricula, particularly those that
fall into this gap, with a view to enhancing constructive alignment and its ability to be useful
across the disciplinary map. The analysis presented in the previous section, as a small but
illustrative example of a curriculum that represents a knower code, offers us two key insights
and implications for enhancing a constructive alignment approach to curriculum design and
The first key insight addresses this question: how could Specialisation help us to
account for a different kind of knowledge building or learning process, as well as a different
way of understanding the knowers we seek to cultivate over time? The question that begins
an alignment process should be: what do my learning outcomes need to be to achieve the
aims of this course? It is implied that we must consider the bigger picture, but given that
knowledge is only tacitly included in Biggs’ account of curriculum alignment, and that only
certain forms of knowledge-building are included in his analysis, we may well end up using
such a tool to focus more narrowly on making sure that just the course we are teaching is
aligned within itself, without having the tools to use in considering where and how the course
fits into the bigger picture, and even what the bigger picture is. Thus, Specialisation, in
helping us to ‘code’ a discipline and characterise in finer detail what the content or form of
that code is within our different contexts, enables us to ask and answer an additional question:
Do these outcomes align with the aims of the degree as well as the overall goals of the
discipline, in terms of both the knowledge students must learn, and the kinds of knowers we
need them to become?
A Specialisation analysis of a discipline could offer lecturers writing curricula in
‘siloed’ or separately developed and taught courses a less tacit connection to the discipline
they are teaching, and to what it is that the discipline itself requires of graduates who will
eventually work within the field the discipline references (for example, Law as an academic
discipline referencing the wider field of legal practice). I would argue that we need to
articulate as clearly as possible exactly what kinds of knowers and knowledge the disciplines
aim to nurture and develop over the course of a degree programme in order to select and
develop appropriate learning outcomes. For example, Political Science, as a knower code,
wants to develop critical, analytical knowers who are able to work with a range of
knowledges in different contexts, and are able to make and defend arguments through
learning to judge competing knowledge claims and perspectives against their own perspective
on a given issue.
We can look again, through a Specialisation lens, at the learning outcomes in the
course outline, specifically at what they are asking students to do with the knowledge in this
– Identify, define and describe key concepts in Political Studies, e.g. power,
legitimacy and authority.
– Identify, define and describe the key concepts in International Relations, e.g.
sovereignty, world order, international anarchy, international political
– Explain Galbraith’s theory of power and apply it to South Africa.
– Compare and contrast the key theories of International Relations, e.g. Realism,
Liberalism and Marxism.
– Differentiate between and explain selected processes in Political Studies and
International Relations, e.g. social activism, development or trade. (Course
outline, Introduction to Political Studies, 2013: 1, my emphasis)
If we consider the dominant verbs used here - identify, define, describe, explain – and then
consider the most important goal of this discipline - to teach students to construct compelling
arguments, we can see these verbs as connected to the knower code, and to the kinds of
things students need to do to begin understanding and constructing arguments.. Students need
to have a knowledge base on which to draw in constructing their own arguments, whether
verbally or in writing, so that they do not only have their own prior or everyday knowledge to
use. Hence, the course begins with having students describe and show understanding of key
concepts, before moving on to comparing and contrasting opposing theoretical perspectives,
differentiating between differing political processes.
With a Specialisation analysis, we can go one step further in analysing these
outcomes, and wonder whether the lecturers for this course can more explicitly include an
initial attempt at getting students to evaluate or analyse a particular issue using the key
concepts they have been taught in this course. Perhaps this is beyond the remit of a first
semester, first year course, but this analysis offers lecturers teaching in the second semester
and in the subsequent years of study a lens on their learning outcomes, to look for ways in
which they can build on this foundation and further cultivate within students the desired
dispositions, and also teach them the methods required to produce ‘compelling arguments’
(Departmental Policy Document, 2014, p. 1). This analysis therefore can connect and align
individual courses with the knower code of this discipline, and further align the aims of
subsequent or simultaneously offered courses with both this course and with the knower code
to enable more overt consideration of how to build or cultivate knowers cumulatively (cf.
The second key insights addresses this question: how do lecturers, once they have
aligned a curriculum more consciously with their discipline’s code, help students to see the
code, and achieve the outcomes in ways that begin to cultivate them as knowers, rather than
more narrowly as students who pass our courses? Here I would like to note that seeing the
code of a discipline in the terms enabled by a Specialisation analysis can open up different
kinds of conversations between lecturers teaching together about how they are designing their
curricula, what kinds of outcomes are important, and how they could teach and assess their
students. Further, being able to see and characterise a discipline as a knower code of a
particular kind (or other specialisation code of a particular kind) can help lecturers to make
more overt and visible the tacit expectations they have of their students’ classwork, writing
and thinking, often communicated through feedback or the kinds of in-class questions and
tasks they set (O’Donovan, Price and Rust, 2004). These tacit expectations, if unseen by
students, are difficult to meet consistently and successfully, and the result may be a ‘hit and
miss’ effect, with some students getting things right at some points and wrong at others
without them (or their lecturers and tutors) necessarily knowing why. A Specialisation
analysis, making clear as it can the underlying organising principles of a discipline, or the
basis for legitimate achievement, can mitigate against the misses by showing both lecturers
and students what is expected in order for students to achieve success, and also how these
expectations can be more ably and consistently met over time. If the curriculum, the
enactment of it through teaching and tutoring, and the assessments students complete
carefully consider and align with the underpinning basis for achievement, it can be argued
that success becomes more possible for a greater number of students, as the ‘rules’ they are
being asked to play by become more visible.
This paper has argued that constructive alignment, as a popular approach to curriculum
design, leaves a notable gap in terms of its consideration of different forms of knowledge
building, as well as different kinds of people, or knowers, that disciplines aim to cultivate.
Working from a realist theory of knowledge, that enables an analysis of curriculum focused
both on knowledge and knowers without obscuring one or the other, the paper has proposed a
complementary tool for curriculum alignment. Drawn from Legitimation Code Theory, the
dimension of Specialisation can enable an analysis of the underlying organising principles of
disciplines that indicates what the legitimate basis for achievement and success could be.
With this analysis in mind, the basis for achievement can be consciously considered by
lecturers writing and teaching curricula, such that different forms of knowledge and knower
development can be taken into account more critically.
Using specialisation codes as an analytical lens enables lecturers to consider not only
the specific course or module they are designing, but also the course or module’s place within
the degree programme as a whole. Most importantly, this analysis highlights the
underpinning organising principles of the discipline and how the stated aims of the courses or
modules and the degree programme align with these. In other words, it provides a critical lens
that looks beneath the surface of the curriculum to ask whether the learning outcomes,
teaching activities, and assessment tasks are appropriate, or adequately expressed to students,
given the underlying organising principles of the discipline, conceptualised as a specialisation
‘code’. The illustrative case in this paper, Political Science as a knower code, provided a way
of showing how such an analysis offers an additional conceptual tool to use with constructive
alignment’s more practical approach to curriculum design.
Aligning a curriculum, when the underlying code of a discipline has been
conceptualised and unpacked, can become less focused on connecting ‘content’ with ‘skills’
in teaching and assessment; rather it can shift to aligning teaching and students’ learning with
the code of the discipline itself. In the case of a knower code, what needs to be aligned across
and between years of study is the underlying critical, imaginative and analytical dispositions
and aptitudes valued by the discipline, as mastery of these is the basis for achievement. In
Political Science, as an example, each course in each year of the undergraduate degree would
need to incrementally and cumulatively develop students’ ability to read texts with critical
and careful comprehension, understand the ways in which the authors are analysing and
unpacking political and/or social problems, and further begin to position themselves to make
and defend their own arguments.
Rather than trying to debunk constructive alignment, this paper has taken a cue from
Kahn’s research (2015), which argues that, given its lack of consideration of horizontal
knowledge structures, and the implications for developing students as knowers, this approach
to curriculum writing has limited use in higher education as it stands. This paper has picked
up that cue and argues that, given that constructive alignment is a popular approach to
curriculum writing in higher education in several contexts, what we may benefit from is an
additional and alternative conceptual approach. Underpinned by a realist theory of
knowledge, this complementary approach can offer a wider perspective on the kinds of
knowledge and knowers that higher education disciplines, and the intellectual and
professional fields they connect to, are trying to nurture, educate and produce over time.
Specialisation provides such a lens, and offers us valuable insights into what the organising
principles of disciplines could be, how these may shift over time, and how this view can
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