You may have heard a lot recently about these two bedfellows – substantive knowledge and disciplinary knowledge.

Maybe you’ve come across them whilst reading one of the recently published Ofsted subject reviews. Or, perhaps your MAT is sending round a curriculum PowerPoint that is full of what seems to be highbrow Edu-babble.

It does take some getting your head around. Especially if you’re busy with the all-important, day-to-day, on the ground stuff (like teaching or managing a school!) 

The truth is, we lied! There isn’t an easy guide, as the title of this article suggests.

The subjects (which, for the sake of simplicity, we will call disciplines) are distinct. So, because of this, it’s hard to come up with a blanket definition of what disciplinary knowledge is. You also need the headspace to assimilate these concepts before you can apply them in the classroom.

Anyway, let’s start at the beginning and see if we can get clarity about what these terms mean and the difference between the two.

It’s nothing new

These two have been kicking around for decades! 

Substantive knowledge is by far the easier to explain. It’s basically the specific, factual content for the subjects, which must be connected into a careful sequence. Let’s look at an example:

Geography

Tsunamis occur most often in the Pacific Ocean. 

If this fact was taught in isolation, it would raise more questions than it answered. For example, what exactly is a tsunami? What causes tsunamis? What and where is the Pacific Ocean? 

In order for this fact to make sense and add to their learning, the missing pieces in the pupil’s learning would need to be in place. This substantive knowledge requires prior knowledge in order to make sense of that particular fact. Locating where tsunamis are most prevalent does not teach them what a tsunami actually is. 

American philosopher, Joseph Jackson Schwab (1909-1988), explained the notion of the “structure” of a discipline as the building blocks that reflect the central concepts in a discipline, and how they connect with one another.

Schwab argued that teachers need to understand the structure of a discipline to help students acquire new knowledge and skills i.e. Concept A must come before Concept B in order for pupils to connect, understand and ‘build’ their learning i.e. progress. 

Clear differences

Are you with me so far? 

Yes? Good! Now, moving on to disciplinary knowledge. 

This is best described as the action taken within a particular subject to gain knowledge i.e. how we gain substantive knowledge. For example, in history this might mean using evidence to construct a claim. Meanwhile, in science it might mean testing hypotheses. In music, it might mean reading and writing notation. As you can see, it really is quite distinct within each domain.

So, is disciplinary knowledge just another name for subject specific procedural knowledge (knowing how to, as opposed to knowing what), which when put into practice becomes skill building?

Well, there is clearly some overlap, as skill is best thought of as expertise borne out of the learning and involves the application of substantive knowledge. Expertise in a given domain is essentially what disciplinary knowledge is all about.

An unnatural divorce

Research has shown that careful integration of subjects leads to deeper learning.

Since disciplines influence each other, it can be useful to present knowledge in an interconnected way, reflecting the complexities of the world in which we live.

Teaching big ideas can lead to deeper learning and more effective transfer and synthesis of knowledge and skills. Key concepts or big ideas exist within each subject but they can be recognised across different subjects as “meta-concepts”. Students can best connect different disciplines through an integrated approach such as thematic learning. However, an understanding of separate disciplines is essential, and we must educate for disciplinary knowledge in order to develop multidisciplinary expertise.

Integration is key

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Primary schools may think the easiest, safest approach under current thinking is to shift to a secondary curriculum model where subjects are siloed off. However, that can mean missing out on the numerous benefits of integration which have been evidenced time and time again, such as:

  • Pupils exhibiting excellent on-task behaviour
  • Pupils working collaboratively
  • Pupils being exposed to and using a wide range of evidence sources
  • Pupils demonstrating a greater depth of understanding as a result of their sustained interest 
  • Pupils connecting their learning in meaningful ways
  • Teachers enjoying the process of teaching and the resulting learning