Knowledge across the school university interface: The role of purpose in curriculum development

Year: 2012

Author: Millar, Victoria

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



Disciplines form a large part of the structure in secondary and tertiary education, becoming more identifiable across the education trajectory from late secondary through to university. While this continuation across educational levels implies a continuation of disciplinary knowledge there are a number of differences between the secondary and university levels of education that may result in differing perceptions of required disciplinary knowledge between these levels. Focusing on the disciplines of history and physics, this paper investigates how teachers and academics determine what is required knowledge for their discipline and how this reflects on the nature of the discipline and the process of curriculum development.


'Curriculum defines what counts as valid knowledge' (Bernstein, 1973, p.85) providing a starting point to consider the formation of disciplinary knowledge at the secondary and tertiary level. While the secondary system sees consideration of curriculum occurring through long consultation, curriculum at the tertiary level is largely determined at the level of individual departments. This paper draws on interviews with teachers, curriculum developers and academics from the disciplines of history and physics to investigate how legitimation of disciplinary curriculum within schools and universities compares.


The interviews reveal how consideration of purpose effects how knowledge within a discipline becomes more contentious. Teachers report that curriculum documents and external exams drive their teaching yet often express reservation around the inclusion of some aspects of curriculum. At the same time curriculum developers report on the pressure from a variety of interest groups to include particular knowledge or emphases within curriculum. This issue of purpose in the university curriculum is not raised by academics to the same extent as in the secondary sector although there are differences between descriptions of physics and history that lead to consideration of how the nature of knowledge in these two disciplines results in differing ideals.


It is proposed here that as knowledge moves through a phase of consultative curriculum development that determining legitimate knowledge within a discipline becomes more fractious. This is largely driven by the question of purpose within curriculum and as school curriculum is developed there becomes a need to confront the often dichotomous distinction between educating students for life and training for specialisation. At the university level, while curriculum development is not done on the same scale leading to less consideration of purpose, the nature of a discipline's knowledge plays a role in determining the level of agreement.