Paper presentation- Washington DC April 7th Whose knowledge is most worth? A Bernsteinian approach to rekindle our commitments as curriculum scholars

American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies- 15th Meeting- George Washington University – “An Ethics of Historical Engagement”

Abstract – Dr. S Govindswamy:

While curriculum traditionalists and reconceptualists engaged in curriculum studies through debates on the different theoretical perspectives and tension between curriculum theory and practice, other curriculum scholars embraced a different approach to curriculum studies by engaging in the study of classroom practice. One such curriculum scholar was Bernstein (1975), who adopted a micro to macro approach. Contrary to the practice of seeking answers to difficult educational questions through top-down approaches that begin with larger policy questions and then working down to analyze how schools work in order to provide solutions to policy decisions, Bernstein (1975) formulated theories bottom-up:

“an approach that sought to write the rules of educational processes; then to link them to larger structural conditions and finally, to place this analysis in the context of the larger educational and policy questions of educators”. (Sadovnik 2001, p.5).

Through the theory of “pedagogic discourse” Bernstein unpacks the dynamics of organizational power-relations, and through the notions of “classification and framing”, Bernstein (1996, p.47) analyzed classroom practice, that helped understand the complex yet not-so-visible syntax of curriculum recontextualization principles. It is through Bernstein’s theories that we come to understand the orientations through which curriculum is selectively appropriated, relocated and refocused in a way that it “creates a new stratification both of knowledge and identities”.

This paper argues that such a bottom-up approach of analyzing classroom practice and linking it to larger policies in curriculum studies is essential to rekindle our commitments to colleges of education, pre-service and professional teachers, and students. Particularly in the context of the current educational landscape that is witnessing a “dislocation between knowledge and the knower” because the production, distribution and circulation of knowledge are separated from “inner commitments and dedications” that are now focused on meeting external market demands.” (Bernstein 2000, p. xviii).

Reviewer Comments – 

The “bottom up” approach seems to me extremely important from the perspective of an “immersed” (practical) form of “ethical” understanding of education that might emerge as it is drawn from praxis when attention is focused on how specific discourses function/malfunction (e.g., forge and structure power and hierarchy – those who are included or excluded, those who are given voice and those who are silenced) in the classroom as these might be related to a developing curriculum in, e.g., teacher education programs (which, for the most part, according to K. Zeikner (2013), are still locked into the technical frame-up (Ge-stell) of the “professionalization agenda.” This might afford us with a way to avoid the neo-liberal standardized path toward mechanically re-producing social and educational structures and norms (read: human subjects) in ways that are, contrary to what I imagine education “should” be about and hence “value,” shockingly unethical! Here’s a case where Bernstein’s work can be brought into the New Millennium in a fresh way that might provide a legitimate “practical” philosophical counterpoise to the “conceptual-idealization” of themes as was the practice of the early reconceptualist movement (1960s-2000) and, in addition, forms of both qualitative and quantitative research – however, this is not to indicate that Bernstein’s so-called “method” or “approach” is somehow superior to said re-conceptualists. This proposal seems to also pave the way for the emergence of a potential form of “critical” hermeneutics that is of interest (and still rife with potential for contemporary curriculum analysis), which was made famous by another Bernstein, i.e., Richard Bernstein.


Bernstein, B., 1975. Class Codes and Control. Volume 3: Towards a Theory of Educational Transmissions. London, Henley and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Bernstein, B., 1996. Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity. Theory, Research, Critique. Revised Edition. United States of America: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC.

Bernstein, B., 2000. Pedagogic, Symbolic Control and Identity. Oxford, England: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Sadovnik, A. R., 2001. Basil Bernstein (1924-2000): sociologist, mentor and friend. In P. Aggleton, J. Brannen, A. Brown, L. Chisholm, J. Mace & S. Power (Eds.), A Tribute to Basil Bernstein: 1924-2000. London: Institute of Education.


Proposal in breif: This paper argues that a Bernsteinian approach of analyzing classroom practice and linking it to larger policies in curriculum studies is essential to rekindle our commitments to colleges of education, pre-service and professional teachers, and students.

Key words: Bernstein, Classification and Framing, Curriculum Recontextualization.

Dr. Sudha Govindswamy,

Curriculum Consultant – Council of International Schools.

Curriculum Reviewer – International Baccalaureate

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