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"Institutional Organization of Knowledge": The Missing Link in Educational Discourse

by Amnon Karmon - 2007


For over a hundred years, there have been efforts to change the way that schools transmit knowledge. Most of these efforts have failed. The most common explanations found in educational research for this are either: 1) macro-social, according to which social interests and powers hinder these changes. 2) teacher-oriented, according to which the teachers themselves either resist those changes or/and lack the training and qualifications necessary to carry them out. Although these explanations have a lot of truth to them, they ignore a crucial point, a “missing link” between teaching and subject matter, and society. Every educational institution has a special structure for organizing knowledge. This structure is independent in many respects from macro-social factors, as well as from teacher behavior, and it has important effects on the ways educational institutions deal with knowledge. Educational research has not yet provided a detailed and focused examination of “the institutional organization of knowledge” in education.

Focus of Study:

The article focuses on “the institutional organization of knowledge” in education. This concept refers to the procedures for arranging knowledge that precede the activity of teachers in the classrooms (teaching) and the subject matter learned (content). It thus encompasses everything that exists in an educational institution that is related to how the learned knowledge is organized before the teacher even begins teaching a particular subject in the classroom. The article examines its vital implications for the field of education.

Research Design:

A theoretical essay that presents a conceptual framework for understanding the institutional level of the educational system.


The lack of a focused conceptual discussion and empirical research guided by theory regarding the institutional level of education prevents us from properly understanding the educational system and, no less important, from successfully changing it. The article outlines two main models of organization of knowledge for educational purposes that have taken over the field of education in the modern world. One is the model of inculcating existing knowledge and the other focuses on producing new knowledge. Both of these models have been found to be inappropriate for general education. Therefore, one of the most important challenges facing the world of education today is to create a new model of the institutional organization of knowledge for the benefit of general education.


This article deals with the missing link between the macro-social level in education and the levels of teaching and subject matter. It introduces a new intermediate level called the institutional level. Generally, educational institutions are examined according to the subject matter that is taught, the teaching methods that are used, or the interaction between these two factors and macro-social interests and structures.  Teaching and content are, of course, basic components of every knowledge-oriented educational system.1 However, in most circumstances, the discussion of these components overlooks an essential factor that has vital implications for them both and for the entire educational field. I have called this factor the institutional organization of knowledge.2

How does the institutional organization of knowledge differ from the concepts of content and teaching? In educational literature, the latter two have been defined in many different ways. However, for our purposes here I will use the narrowest and sharpest of these definitions in order to clearly delineate between them and the concept under discussion.  Thus, in this article content simply means the subject matter that is studied and teaching refers to the activity of teachers in the classroom. Conversely, institutional organization of knowledge refers to the procedures for arranging knowledge that precede the activity of teachers in the classroom (teaching) and the subject matter learned (content). It signifies the widespread processes and patterns of the organization of knowledge that have become part of the obvious, everyday routines of those who partake in them (principals, teachers, and students) and which are preserved long-term in a systemic manner. In other words, we are talking about everything that exists in an educational institution (school, college, university, etc.) that is related to how the knowledge to be learned is organized before the teacher even begins teaching a particular subject in the classroom.

The very question of what exists in an educational institution even before the teacher and the curriculum have encountered the student may appear strange to many readers. Indeed, they might claim that the only thing that exists at this stage is the buildings bare walls. Moreover, they may argue, the building only becomes an educational institution after the teachers and the curriculum begin to function. I posit that almost the opposite is true: Most of the important educational decisions related to learned knowledge are made before the teacher walks into the classroom, and these decisions are manifested at the institutional level. In most cases these are not conscious, overt decisions made as a result of discussions of the issue, but rather are everyday, routine patterns with which we are all familiar and which have undergone a process of institutionalization. In this article, I will propose a theoretical framework for understanding the concept of the institutional organization of knowledge and will describe the two central models wherein this concept is conveyed in todays educational arena. I will then examine an issue that interests many educational philosophers and sociologists and that comprises a primary layer of the concept of the institution which I utilize here: the epistemic issue.3 This issue focuses on the question of how pupils typical conceptions of what constitutes knowledge, which are often rather problematic, are created. The article will conclude with some implications of the analysis for the problem of school change. Most notably, if we want to truly change the way in which schools deal with knowledge, we must create a new model of the institutional organization of knowledge for the benefit of general education.


In the framework of teaching and learning, it is not possible to choose between the teaching of knowledge as is and the organization of this knowledge. Every act of teaching and learning requires some sort of organization of knowledge. Organizing knowledge refers to the systemic change of the relevant environment in light of our goals, needs, interests, and/or work habits. In the context of education, there is no escape from the processes of selecting certain contents or topics over others, classifying and adapting that content in some way, determining the pace and order of how the material will be taught, presenting it in a certain way, having the students communicate their newly-acquired knowledge in some manner, and spreading that knowledge in time and space in a particular way. All of these actions and more are changes that we make, whether consciously or not, in the field of knowledge that we want to teach. The question which then arises is what is the importance of the way in which we choose to organize the knowledge? Is this mainly a technical question or does it have important educational implications? My answerwhich is also the first fundamental claim of this articleis as follows:

1. The way in which learned knowledge is organized has far-reaching educational implications.

The most familiar and concise formulation of a position similar to this was written by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s and can be summed up in the well-known phrase the medium is the message (McLuhan 1964, 1967). McLuhan himself primarily dealt with how our lives have been affected by different technologies, including the printing press, radio, film, and television. According to McLuhan, we systematically err in our focus on the importance of the content that is transmitted through various media, while their most important psychological and social effects are latent within the very nature of the medium itselfin the special characteristics of a technology that mediates between knowledge and ourselves. These characteristics organize knowledge in a particular manner and thus the way in which knowledge is organized is dictated, in effect, by its modes of expression. The medium is not a neutral mediator.

This point has, of course, significant implications for modern institutions of formal education because these institutions are primarily knowledge-oriented educational systems.4 Soon after the publication of McLuhans work, these implications were examined by several educational thinkers such as Zvi Lamm, Neil Postman, and Charles Weingartner. In his article on teacher education, Lamm argued that according to McLuhan, humans are, to a large degree, the product of information-transmitting tools that they themselves created. Thus, Lamm (2002) claims, in education the [teaching] method is the content and, he continues, this insight must guide teacher training institutes. In the same year in which Lamm wrote about the implications of the medium or the teaching method, Postman and Weingartner (1969) similarly argued that the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs (p. 19).

The application of McLuhans important insight into the educational context has been expressed in one main move: the shift from medium (understood as some sort of technology with essential characteristics) to teaching method. This process considerably advanced our understanding of the educational system but it erred in its narrow view of the concept of medium in education. While earlier educational thinkers made an analogy between medium and teaching method, I argue that we must widen the concept of medium in education and understand it as the totality of the various components of the organization of knowledge. In this view, the teaching method is only one of several components. This leads to the second fundamental claim:

2. The institutional level of the organization of educational knowledge which precedes teaching and contenthas the most influence on knowledge organization in educational institutions.

The institutional level of the organization of educational knowledge has not yet been examined in a focused and systematic manner.5 In the next section, its importance will be clarified through a distinction between four levels of knowledge organization in the field of education, the others being the mind, teaching, and content.


Modern institutions of formal education can be characterized (according to the theory proposed in this article) by four levels of knowledge organization, whereby each level produces a particular environment in which the level beneath it functions. Together they comprise a structure, which constitutes the medium in education. The first level is the mind level, meaning the manner in which knowledge is organized in the learners mind.  This includes the categories or schemes by which the learner stores and operates existing knowledge and the way in which he processes new knowledge. To a great extent, the main cognitive objective of all education is to affect the way in which the learner organizes knowledge in his/her mind. In other words, the aim is to create a shift in the learners mind from an organization of knowledge that already exists at the beginning of the learning process to one that is deemed more worthy (an expert, a critical thinker, a well-rounded educated person, etc.). Cognitive psychologists of the past few decades have extensively analyzed the different ways by which people organize knowledge in their own minds. More specifically, they have focused on the intuitive organization of knowledge (Gardner, 1991), the experts organization of knowledge (Bransford, 2000; Wineburg, 1991), and the way in which the organization of knowledge in our minds develops (Piaget, 1974, 1977). Based upon these findings, a wide array of teaching and learning models have been developed with the intention of advancing learners to a more suitable organization of knowledge in the mind.

This first level functions in educational institutions in an environment created by the second level, that of teaching. The teaching level refers to the way in which the teacher organizes the learned knowledge. Every teacher must choose among different learning materials, implement a particular teaching method, build a lesson plan, determine the pace and order of teaching, decide how the learners will present their knowledge, design methods of assessment, and so on. An interesting attempt at developing a systemic theory of how teachers organize knowledge can be found in Lee Shulmans concept of pedagogical content knowledgeknowledge that has been built by tracing the way teachers teach in practice (Shulman, 1986, 1987). It is this second level of the organization of knowledgethat which is conducted primarily by teacherswhich was intended by thinkers who adapted McLuhan to the context of education.

A great deal of the educational literature that addresses teaching tends to overlook the fact that teachers in modern educational institutions do not function in a vacuum. In fact, teachers work in structured environments that have been formed to a large extent by other factors.  In the context of the four levels of the organization of knowledge, teachers function in an environment that has been formed by the third levelthe content level. What is meant here is primarily the two acts of selecting content for teaching: 1.formally choosing what will be studied and what will not; and 2.sorting the content that has already been selected into a particular curricular frameworkfor example, teaching the content within a certain discipline or as part of an interdisciplinary framework, etc. In todays primary educational institutionthe schoolthe organization of content knowledge is an especially powerful process which is conducted, for the most part, independent of teachers. Officials from various departments of education and curriculum experts determine the organization of content knowledge, often deciding not only what will be taught and in which framework, but also the order and pace of the learning of this content. Thus, the schoolteacher begins to organize the knowledge s/he is supposed to teach only after a significant portion of the organizing of content has already been done.

The organization of content knowledge has been widely discussed in educational literature. It has been researched from a sociological perspective (Bernstein, 1975a, 1975b, 1990), a socio-historical perspective (Goodson 1987, 1988, 1992), and a philosophical perspective (Schwab, 1964; Phenix, 1964; Hirst, 1974). Many books and professional journals focus on the practical aspects of the organization of content knowledge (what is usually referred to as educational planning or curriculum development) and within this literature there exists a dynamic discussion on the question of which content frameworks are most appropriate for the organization of knowledge in schools (Wineburg & Grossman, 2000).

However, the organization of educational knowledge cannot be summed up in these three levels, even if the majority of educational discourse focuses on them, as we have seen. The essential point for our purposes here lies in the recognition of an additional level that creates a structured environment within which the other three function. This fourth level is what we termed earlier the institutional level, to which the concept the institutional organization of knowledge refers. In the context of education, the institutional level refers to all of the organizational arrangements related to educational knowledge that precede the levels of teaching and content.

Before we examine this level in detail, it is appropriate to first clarify the relationship between the four levels of organizational knowledge in educational institutions. It is important to emphasize in this context that this relationship is not causal but rather what may be termed ecological.  In other words, the higher level of organizational knowledge is not a cause nor is the way the level below functions an effect. Within each level, there are acting agents who are responsible for their actions and who have many possible choices regarding how to function.  What each level does create for the one beneath it is a particular structured environment within which the latter functions. This environment is saturated with both overt and covert messages, incentives for certain ways of acting and thinking, obstacles that tend to block other approaches, and a typical language. In a structured environment such as this, we are sure to find agents that act in different ways, but this environment tends to lead those within it towards a dominant way of acting and thinking, which is consistent with its main messages, incentives, and obstacles. This dominant way of acting and thinking influences, of course, all the levels below it, while each level contributes its share to the general structure of the organization of educational knowledge.

It is important to remember that the highest level (the institutional level) has particular importance because it molds the initial environment within which the three others function. The whole structure might be compared to a multi-layered oil painting that is based primarily on one dominant color. The dominant color is determined by the first layer of paint, which is created by the institutional organization of knowledge, whereas the other levels of the organization of knowledge make their unique contributions to a color that already exists on the canvas. Every level changes the original in some way, adds its unique brushstrokes, maybe a few lines or spots in different colors, but the first color is mostly preserved.  Indeed, the painting in its final form differs from the initial layer of paintit is richer, more complex and diversebut that first layer remains the dominant one.  


What, then, are the arrangements and patterns of the institutional organization of knowledge that color all of the other levels? Essentially, they are manifested in two basic features: a dominant organizing framework and a particular spread of knowledge. The former shapes the basic structure of the knowledge that is learned independent of specific content material or teaching method. The organizing framework acts as a general mold from which all the content and teaching methods that are used in an educational institution are formed. To a large extent, it determines the color that dominates all the levels of the organization of knowledge.  In modern educational institutions, the two main organizing frameworks are the school subject, which is especially common in primary and high schools, and the research discipline, which is widespread in universities.

With regard to spread of knowledge, I am referring to the manner in which educational knowledge is spread latitudinally according to a particular unit of time (a typical school day or week), as well as how it is spread longitudinally throughout the entire period of schooling. As we shall see below, there is a strong connection between the dominant organizing framework and the spread of knowledge that has become routine in an institution. Every organizing framework needs an appropriate spread of knowledge in order to function successfully.  When a discrepancy develops between the two, either the framework changes or the spread of knowledge adjusts itself to the needs of the new framework. The institutional organization of knowledge is made up of all of the arrangements of knowledge that are embedded within the organizing framework along with the spread of knowledge within which this framework functions.


We have already presented the basic assumptions and terms that lie within the general concept of the institutional organization of knowledge. We will now focus the discussion on specific institutional organizations of knowledge. Examining the educational institutions that are most prominent in the modern era from the perspective of the organization of their knowledge, one sees that, in practice, two basic models for the organization of knowledge in educational institutions have developed:  

1. The inculcation model, which functions primarily in schools and whose main cognitive aim is the inculcation of existing knowledge to the majority of the population. This models dominant organizing framework is the school subject.  

2. The production model, which functions primarily at the university (most notably in the post-graduate stage), and whose main cognitive aim is the production of new knowledge. Its dominant organizing framework is the research discipline.  

Let us now examine how each models organizing framework achieves the main objectives of that particular model.

We propose five basic characteristics of organizing frameworks in education:


A preferred cognitive performance


A particular structure of questions


Guidelines for selection of knowledge (from within the chosen content area)


A special kind of sources of information


Required ways of relating to knowledge

I will now describe how each basic characteristic is expressed within the two main frameworks for the organization of knowledge.7

Preferred Cognitive Performance

All knowledge-based educational practice is usually directed, whether explicitly or implicitly, towards the achievement of a cognitive aim that is fully expressed at the end of the learning process. Even when this aim is long-term and a minority of learners actually achieve it, it nevertheless affects the entire process. Therefore, in order to understand different systems of the organization of knowledge for educational purposes we must examine the ultimate aim, which is best revealed through the cognitive performance that articulates it. The preferred cognitive performance that articulates the highest goal of the school subject is the matriculation exam. It is well known that school subjects that do not have a corresponding matriculation exam or whose exams are not required for a high school diploma are viewed as unworthy by principals, school boards, Department of Education officials, academics, teachers, parents, and pupils.8

If we analyze the matriculation exams, we will see that they have always been and continue to be essentially a cognitive performance intended to measure the level of success of the inculcation of knowledge that was chosen to be taught in a particular subject.9 The preferred cognitive performance is usually expressed most clearly at the end of the learning process in the educational institution. However, other expressions of the preferred cognitive performance show up throughout the years of schooling in ways that increasingly resemble the summative cognitive performance. In other words, pupils are given a variety of tests and quizzes for each subject throughout their schooling and these are deemed, in practice, as the most important feature of school studies.

In contrast, the preferred cognitive performance of the research discipline is the research paper. In its first stages, academic learning is indeed full of exams that are similar to the matriculation exams. However, in academia they are viewed as part of a transitional stage and as an essential tool for the selection of students in the process towards achieving the main aim of the organization of academic knowledge: the production of new knowledge. As we advance along the stages of the academic ladder, the importance of exams decreases while that of research papers increases. At the end of the doctoral process, we find the concluding cognitive performance that expresses the aim of university studies, that is, the doctoral research dissertation. Here, the student is explicitly required to produce new knowledge.  It is difficult to overemphasize the significance of the difference between the two preferred cognitive performancesthe matriculation exam and the research paperand as we shall see below this difference affects all of the other characteristics of the two organizing frameworks.

The Structure of Questions

The second basic characteristic is the structure of questions that are discussed in the two different organizing frameworks. For school teaching closed questions are typically used, whereas the teaching of research disciplines relies on scientific riddles. The nature of the questions that guide the learning process is highly important, because questions create the first connection between our consciousness and the world of knowledge. Over the years, a special structure for questions has developed in school subject teaching which precisely matches the goal of inculcating knowledge. Questions of this structure are very common in all of the subjects that are taught in school and show up frequently in textbooks and class lessons. The pervasiveness of these types of questions demonstrates that the structure of questions is an institutional characteristic of the organization of knowledge. The "closed question" can be characterized by the fact that it relates to either a single piece of knowledge or a condensed collection of bits of knowledge that has been selected to be transmitted in the classroom. Moreover, the closed question has one "correct answer, which is located either in the hands of the teacher or in the textbook. This type of question can be asked orally during a lesson or in writing on a test or on the matriculation exam, but its basic nature does not change.10

The question structure that characterizes the research discipline is completely different. Closed questions are still found in written exams during undergraduate studies, and sometimes during masters degree studies as well, but gradually another type of question moves to center stage, one which characterizes more than anything else the research discipline, and that is the research question. This type of question can be described, based on Thomas Kuhns work, as a scientific riddle (Kuhn, 1970). Kuhn defines scientific riddles as questions wherein the procedures for reaching their solutions, and thus what will count as a reliable solution, are known in advance according to the scientific paradigm within which the researcher is working. Furthermore, a scientific riddle is a question which, according to the relevant scientific community, has, in principle, a good solution and one which can be reached in a reasonable amount of time. In contrast to closed questions, scientific riddles require an extensive amount of time for research and their solutions are not known in advance.  University studies gradually become focused on the scientific riddles that students choose to pursue. In their most advanced stages, university studies are directed entirely towards working on these scientific riddles through research seminars and individual advising.

Guidelines for Selection of Knowledge

The third basic characteristic of organizing frameworks for educational knowledge is expressed in the establishment of guidelines for the selection of knowledge for every content area chosen to be studied. In the case of school subjects, the general guideline is to choose the basic and accepted knowledge of the content area. In sharp contrast, the research disciplines main guideline is to seek the areas of uncertainty and controversy from within the content area being studied. What does the knowledge learned in schools look like after it has gone through the school subject guidelines for selection and adaptation of knowledge?  The picture that takes shape contains a multitude of different pieces of knowledge that produce a uniform story with no controversies. The knowledge is presented as a coherent and organized collection of facts that constitute what is supposed to be the basic and accepted knowledge according to all of the experts of the particular content area.11 However, the problem is that the experts do not always agree on what should be considered accepted knowledge (and therefore I have put the phrase in quotation marks). Additionally, the question of what is the basic knowledge of a particular content area will often receive different answers from different experts.

The situation is quite different in the field of research disciplines. As in the case of the characteristics explored above, there are similarities regarding the guidelines for selecting knowledge during the first stages of academic study. However, even in various introductory courses, there usually is some discussion of disagreements among different approaches and of problematic areas wherein researchers are not certain about their findings. As one advances in academic study, these disagreements and problematic areas, in which there seem to be contradictions between competing theories, or between theory and empirical findings, become the most important part of research. In fact, they are what bring life to research projects. As students progress along the stages of academic research, they tend to work more and more exclusively within the conceptual frameworks and research procedures of the paradigm within which their research is being conducted. Thus, students are often unable to see alternative views of the problems within the same discipline and especially alternative perspectives from other disciplines.12

Sources of Information

Each organizing framework also determines the type of sources of information upon which the learning will be based. The school subject framework uses school secondary sources, while the research discipline framework relies primarily on primary sources of the discipline. One of the most salient distinguishing characteristics of the school subject is the creation of a powerful, alternative world of secondary sources that have been created especially for it. We are referring here to textbooks, workbooks, and teacher talk. These school sources produce an environment that isolates the learners (and in many cases the teachers as well) from the environment external to the school. The relevant reality which is related to in the study of a school subject consists of what the teacher says in class and what is written in the textbooks.  This is the reality that the learner is required to know and to memorize, rather than the external reality which the school sources are meant to describe.

School secondary sources of information have seminal importance in the shaping of the unique character of the school subject. Textbooks are packages of knowledge which are learned in school. This form of packaging knowledgethe typical school textbookis important, first of all, because it realizes in a very tangible manner the structural attributes of the approach to knowledge that we have seen in the previous characteristics. A package of knowledge is organized as a long list of pieces of information that are supposed to be transmitted to pupils, is full of closed questions, and presents knowledge as a unified and accepted story. Moreover, pupils are exposed to the same form of knowledge packaging in all school subjects, whether in the sciences or humanities. In terms of the way the knowledge is organized and presented, there is no significant difference between textbooks in physics, history, or grammar.13

Again, we discover a completely different situation when looking at the research discipline.  The sources of information that are most widely used here are the primary sources that are accepted by a particular discipline. Students of biology and chemistry spend a great deal of time in the laboratory planning and performing experiments, students of history devote many hours to searching for and examining historical evidence in libraries and archives, and students of anthropology work in the field. Instead of teachers and textbooks that summarize the knowledge for students, the reality itselfas it has been understood and formed by members of the disciplinebecomes the central source of information. Thus, rather than a uniform package of knowledge for all content areas, we find different types of packages for each discipline.

Required Ways of Relating to Knowledge

The fifth basic characteristichow the learner should relate to knowledge in the organizing frameworkseems different in nature from the others. In this case we are not referring to institutional organizational arrangements and materials such as textbooks, matriculation exams, or research papers, but rather the processing of knowledge that takes place in the learners mind. This characteristic clearly belongs to the mind level of the organization of knowledge, but at the same time, it is also an important basic element of the institutional level.  The manner in which learners relate to knowledge is expressed not only in processes that are within the mind, but also in a wide array of external behaviors. Each organizing framework of knowledge requires that learners employ a particular way of relating to knowledge which allows the framework to function properly for an extended period of time. Learners acquire this through socialization to the organizing framework. Moreover, this way of relating to knowledge is maintained by the learners themselves each time they identify this framework in operation, to the point where it becomes institutionalized. From the perspective of classroom teachers, the existence of a systemic pattern of how learners relate to knowledge constitutes part of the institutional reality that precedes their work no less than the textbooks or examinations.

Which ways of relating to knowledge are thus necessitated by the two organizing frameworks under examination here? The school subject necessitates an inert and non-disciplinary manner of relating to knowledge, while the research discipline necessitates the processing of knowledge based on one disciplinary perspective. There seems to be wide agreement among researchers with regard to the way students typically relate to knowledge that is learned in school. For almost 100 years, prominent educational thinkersboth philosophers and psychologistshave characterized the knowledge that is acquired by learners within the framework of the school subject as inert knowledge, meaning knowledge that is not active.14 This is knowledge that the learner does not utilize outside of the narrow context of school studies and exams, nor does s/he tend to apply this knowledge to new situations which s/he encounters. This inert knowledge does not become part of the cognitive tools which the learner utilizes in his/her continual efforts to deal with everyday problems.

Although many educators might agree that knowledge learned in school is, to a large degree, inert, a significant number of these educators might raise an eyebrow when hearing the implication that the way of relating to knowledge in schools is non-disciplinary. After all, am I not learning how to think according to the rules of the disciplines of history and mathematics when I study history and mathematics in school?  It turns out that according to a wide array of research, the answer is clear and concise: no.15 Even if the same namefor example, historyis used to describe a particular content area that is studied in schools as well as at universities, as has been seen, both cases employ very different organizing frameworks. The organization of knowledge found in schools tends to leave learners with the same set of intuitive theories with which they arrived, whereas a main characteristic of disciplinary thinking is the rising above this set of theories in a given discipline (Gardner 1991, 1999).16 Inert and non-disciplinary ways of relating to knowledge are, of course, intertwined. The approach to knowledge in the school subject framework is non-disciplinary in its very foundations exactly because the new knowledge that is learned there is inertit does not become active in the learners minds nor does it replace the intuitive knowledge that preceded it.

We find a rather different situation in the framework of the research discipline in terms of how learners relate to knowledge. Here, as noted, the dominant approach to knowledge involves a way of relating to knowledge that comes from one single disciplinary perspective. The research discipline thereby succeeds where the school subject fails, meaning, it succeeds in changing the way the learner thinks within the content area s/he has studied. How does the organization of knowledge in the framework of the research discipline do this? First and foremost, in this context the organization of knowledge requires learners to apply the new disciplinary perspective to an array of new contexts, including those that are not directly studied in the classroom. Ultimately, this is the essence of the research paper, which functions as the preferred performance of the research discipline. Students who engage in research are, in fact, practicing how to utilize the disciplinary perspective they are learning in order to be able to tackle new (at least from the students perspective) scientific riddles.  Thus, they gradually acquire for themselves the particular disciplinary way of relating to knowledge. By continually utilizing new knowledge in new contexts, they gradually replace their thinking in a particular field, which was based on intuitive theories, with a thinking based on disciplinary concepts and insights that are not intuitive.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that the transition from a non-disciplinary way of relating to knowledge to a disciplinary way is a simple transition from the inert to the open and active. In practice, this is a transition from one way of relating to knowledge based rather dogmatically on intuitive theories to another based, in many instances no less dogmatically, on one solitary disciplinal perspective. The former thinker uses the same intuitive theories over and over again while the latter thinker utilizes the same basic disciplinary concepts over and over again. It is not at all clear that those who undergo successful socialization in a particular research discipline are more critical towards their disciplines basic assumptions (Feyerabend, 1975) than non-disciplinary thinkers are towards the intuitive theories which guide them.

The basic characteristics of todays most dominant frameworks for the organization of educational knowledge are summarized in the following table:

Table 1:  Basic Characteristics of the School Subject and the Research Discipline


School Subject

Research Discipline

Main cognitive aim

Inculcation of existing knowledge

Production of new knowledge

Preferred cognitive performance

Matriculation exams

Research paper

Structure of questions

Closed questions

Scientific riddles

Guidelines for selection of knowledge

Select basic and accepted knowledge

Look for areas of uncertainty and controversy

Sources of information

School secondary sources (textbooks, workbooks, teacher talk)

Primary sources of the discipline (experiments, historical documents, field studies)

Ways of relating to knowledge

Inert and non-disciplinary

Based on one disciplinary perspective


Earlier we claimed that every organizing framework of knowledge functions within a spread of knowledge that suits it. Let us now examine the longitudinal and latitudinal axes along which the school subject and the research discipline function and assess how they support the two different organizing frameworks and are suited to their basic characteristics.  

The Longitudinal Axis

The longitudinal axis of the spread of knowledge in schools consists of three main developmental processes: the transition from basic literacies to school subjects, the transition from a limited number of subjects studied concurrently to a multitude of subjects studied concurrently, and the transition from soft cognitive performances to school examinations, which culminates with the matriculation exams.

How do these longitudinal axis processes that take place in schools support their dominant framework, the school subject? The basic literacies are of course necessary in order to study within the framework of the school subject, but their role does not end here. In fact, the early years of schooling comprise the initiation phase for studying in the school subject framework.  The main aim of these literacies is surely not to inculcate pieces of information but rather to provide learners with several essential skills, such as reading and writing. And yet, this knowledge is nevertheless organized in a quite similar way to that of school subjects. From the very beginning of their schooling, children are exposed to a flood of closed questions, they experience the learned knowledge as a uniform and accepted story, and they encounter the key sources of information used in the study of school subjects: teacher talk and workbooks, and eventually textbooks. Nonetheless, the early stage does soften childrens encounters with school methods of organizing knowledge, which differ greatly from those that they encountered before entering school. In this stage, children are guided by one teacher, participate in a variety of friendly extra-curricular activities within the classroom, and are not required to remember a large amount of information. However, they gradually internalize the typical school consciousness of pupilsthe way of relating to knowledge that is an essential condition for the existence of the school subject and for the studies which take place within this framework. By the end of primary school, pupils are supposed to be ready to move to the real thing, the study of school subjects.

The main process which typifies the longitudinal academic axis is the transition from a multitude of courses within the framework of one or two research disciplines to research that focuses on one content area within one discipline. This longitudinal development serves the research discipline in several ways. The stage wherein students take a large number of courses and that characterizes undergraduate studies is intended to provide them with the basic body of knowledge that is necessary for the production of new knowledge in the discipline. To what extent studies in this format are indeed necessary and relevant to the research that follows is an open question that we will not deal with here, but this stage has a few additional functions. First, as in the first stage of primary school studies, this is also a transitional stage, from high school to university. The latitudinal spread of knowledge in this stage resembles that which is familiar to us from high schoola multitude of different courses taught by different teachersso that the transition here is not too drastic. Nevertheless, significant differences do already exist which function as an initiation to the research discipline. Lectures are given by researchers from the discipline and not by professional teachers, and students are exposed to disagreements among different researchers and to open questions from within the disciplines.

Students' exposure to the various aspects of a discipline in the early years of university studies has an additional important function. It allows them to become familiar with the many areas of a discipline and to choose from among them the one area which their research will focus on as students and, in many cases, in their future research as well. The assumption is that different students will choose different areas of research. In this manner, the spread of knowledge at universities allows for at least a partial preservation of the research disciplines many aspects. Finally, the academic longitudinal axis has another essential function and that is to select the most talented students to become researchers.

The Latitudinal Axis

The latitudinal axis found in schools undergoes changes throughout the years of schooling, as we saw above. However, it is characterized by three permanent attributes that we must consider. First, learners are exposed to a multitude of different content areas during each conventional school day and week. This trait becomes stronger as one progresses along the stages of the longitudinal axis, but children already encounter it from the beginning of their schooling. Second, there is a continuous succession of classes during a regular school day, with only short breaks between them. Third, this axis is founded upon a short, fixed period of time of 4550 minutes, which constitutes the base for most school lessons.

It is important for our purposes here to examine the connection between this latitudinal axis and the school subject. As we have already pointed out, the school subjects main aim is to inculcate as much existing knowledge as possible to the majority of the population. In this situation, there are a large number of knowledge sectors fighting for inculcation time within the framework of the school schedule. Each sector has its own developmental program for the knowledge it aims to transmit, which is spread over many years.  A school subjects absence from the school schedule for a continuous period of time is viewed as a grave threat to this subjects status and importance. This inter-subject balance of power leads to a situation wherein the latitudinal axis is divided into a large number of subjects that are studied concurrently, each for only a few hours during the school week (the latitudinal axiss first attribute). When the organization of knowledge is driven by the main aim of inculcating the maximum amount of knowledge, every hour that a teacher or pupil spends in school which is not used for the direct transmission of knowledge is seen as a waste of time.This is the reason for the daily school schedule in which pupils attend classes continuously, one after the other, with breaks between classes that are as short as possible (the latitudinal axiss second attribute). Finally, the basic unit of time of this latitudinal axis is especially suited for the direct inculcation of knowledge by the teacher. Longer units of time require high levels of pupil concentration and interest and therefore make frontal chalk-and-talk teaching with the aim of transmitting knowledge difficult. This is why both teachers and pupils usually prefer regular class periods rather than longer blocks of time (the latitudinal axiss third attribute).

The permanent characteristics of the academic latitudinal axis are rather different from those found in schools. First, all of the studies are concentrated in one content area. Second, there is no formal schedule with a continuous succession of courses. Rather, students are given a lot of free time between classes, which they must individually choose how to utilize.  Third, the basic unit of time at university tends to be twice as long as that of schools (about 90 minutes).  How do all of these characteristics support the research discipline? The most important point is the focus on one discipline throughout a students entire course schedule instead of on a large number of different subjects. This, as noted, allows students to enter the conceptual world of their discipline and assists in their gradual transition from intuitive thinking to thinking based on the research disciplines perspective. We can clearly see why it is not possible to maintain research disciplines in todays schools given their current latitudinal axis.

The other latitudinal characteristics are also essential to the success of the research discipline. It is very difficult to experiment in a meaningful way in the production of knowledge if one is constantly exposed to the inculcation of ready-made knowledge. The free time in a students schedule is, therefore, a central characteristic of the academic latitudinal axis, and one which becomes stronger as university studies progress. It allows for time to digest the knowledge being studied, for an active processing of this knowledge, and for a gradual transition to independent research. The longer unit of time is indeed used at the beginning of academic studies for a concentrated inculcation of knowledge through lectures, but later it allows for other types of educational interactions, such as seminars and laboratory work, that are essential for the production of new knowledge.

The following table summarizes the main characteristics of the spread of knowledge in schools and universities:

Table 2:  Basic Characteristics of the Spread of Knowledge in Schools and Universities





Longitudinal axis

1.  From basic literacies to school subjects

2.  From few subjects to many subjects studied concurrently

3.  From soft cognitive performances to school examinations

1.  From many courses in one or two disciplines to research in one area within one discipline

Latitudinal axis

1.  A multitude of different subject areas studied during the regular school day and week

2.  Standard division of time into 45-minute long lessons

3.  All classes run in succession

1.  Focus on one or two disciplines throughout the week of studies

2.  Standard division of time into 90-minute long lessons

3.  Classes do not run in succession

The description of todays two main models for the organization of educational knowledge helps us see more clearly how the institutional level determines the dominant color of the levels below it. In fact, the basic characteristics of the organizing framework produce a powerful pattern of action for all of the levels below it. The preferred cognitive performance and the structure of questions have embedded messages regarding modes of function and organization that are especially relevant to the teaching level. The guidelines for the selection of knowledge and the type of sources of information place an array of structural limitations on the content level. Finally, the characteristic of how learners should relate to knowledge provides direct, influential messages to the mind level of the organization of knowledge.17  


Thus far we have described how each model of the institutional organization of knowledge influences the way learners relate to the knowledge learned in its framework, and how this way of relating to knowledge itself becomes an integral part of the institutional level. However, the epistemic implications of the institutional organization of knowledge go even further: the institutional level contains within it not only messages regarding ways of relating to learned knowledge, but also powerful messages regarding the very nature of knowledge itself. How is this done?

In principle, these messages are conveyed through what I will term an epistemic environment.  This term refers to a comprehensive system of epistemic messages that are conveyed through practices and organizational patterns.  An epistemic message is defined here as a message that provides us with ideas about the nature of knowledge itself. Epistemic messages are usually transmitted to us indirectly through our encounters with knowledge.  We have already seen that each model for the organization of knowledge creates a different type of encounter between the learner and the knowledge being studied, and therefore different epistemic messages lie within each model. Not every collection of epistemic messages creates an epistemic environment. Such an environment requires the existence of a comprehensive and stable system of messages and crystallizes only when the different messages produce epistemic regularities,18 meaning a multitude of similar messages that are transmitted for some time until they become obvious. Therefore, my claim is that every knowledge-oriented educational system creates a certain epistemic environment through the four levels of organizing knowledge wherein the institutional level determines this environments dominant color.  

Every epistemic environment transmits to those within it a particular conception of knowledge. That is to say, without the environments constituents ever noticing, it manages to convey to them the scope of knowledge, the status of knowledge in comparison to other forms of experience (such as art, religion, and mythology), the relationship among the different areas of knowledge (how different or similar they are from one another and whether there is a hierarchy among them), how new knowledge is produced and how existing knowledge is acquired. Additionally, epistemic environments are generally characterized by one or more metaphors for knowledge, which are widely used in the language spoken within their frameworks.19

Now let us examine a number of salient epistemic regularities of the inculcation model that is very common in todays schools.  This model guides general education in the modern world; almost all adults, at least in the Western world, have been exposed to it for more than ten of the most formative years of their lives. One of its most noticeable regularities is manifested in the latitudinal spread of knowledge in schools. Here we find a clear and sharp division between what is learned within the framework of school subjects and what is not, such as social activities, values education, various projects, class trips, and the like. The school subject is viewed in schools as real knowledge, as within whose parameters the serious learning takes place, and this is expressed in an array of routine, everyday activities. For example, it is usually much easier to cancel an activity that is not within the framework of a school subject than to cancel a "subject" lesson. Moreover, learning that does not take place within the school subject framework tends to be scheduled during the difficult hours of the late afternoon. And as we approach the moment of truth of school studieshigh school and the matriculation examsthere are fewer and fewer extra-curricular activities.

This division transmits to pupils an implicit distinction between areas in the curriculum wherein they acquire knowledge and areas wherein they partake of other kinds of activities.  Important epistemic messages lie within this distinction. We learn to sharply distinguish between knowledge and what is not considered knowledge, such as values, social activities, and community service. At the same time, we receive clear messages regarding the nature of the real knowledge that is learned within the school subject framework. Knowledge is that material which we are tested on in the form of graded exams, about which we are asked closed questions, and which is packaged in textbooks. Without our noticing, these regularities form a comprehensive conception of knowledge whereby knowledge is collected in an orderly manner, in a uniform narrative free of controversies as it is presented in textbooks, and where there is always one correct answer that is found in the hands of an authority outside of ourselves.

These regularities also contain within them latent messages regarding how knowledge is acquired or, in essence, what learning is. If the message is that all activities outside of the study of school subjects do not comprise real learning, we can then understand that a discussion among pupils, a conversation on an interesting subject with an adult, a nature hike, or a city tour are not real learning. In contrast, within the organization of knowledge found in schools, there is a clear and very effective message regarding what indeed learning is: first and foremost, to learn is to summarize external knowledge (external to the pupil). In other words, learning is to write down as many pieces of information as possible in an abridged manner so that it will be possible to memorize. In effect, all the levels of the organization of knowledge in the inculcation model comprise a sort of chain of summaries.  Writers of curricula and textbooks summarize the knowledge that researchers have produced, teachers summarize in their lessons the knowledge that is found in textbooks, pupils summarize in their notebooks the knowledge that the teachers have transmitted, and afterwards they summarize the knowledge that has accumulated in their notebooks when they take exams (the preferred performance). It is not surprising therefore that this pattern of summarizing has been so deeply engraved in the minds of pupils that even when teachers try to have them do research and write research papers, the product that is most often received is a random collection of some summaries of material taken from a variety of sources of information.20

This conception of knowledge transmitted by the epistemic environment of schools is reinforced by two metaphors of knowledge that are commonly used in the language of schools: that knowledge is an object and knowledge is food. These metaphors are not only a product of the encounter with knowledge in the inculcation model but, simultaneously, they also produce rather problematic attitudes towards knowledge which stem from our everyday conceptions of object and food. The metaphor of knowledge as object is exposed in expressions used often in schools such as, I wont have time to cover all of the material by the end of the year," here we are dealing with hard facts, this pupil is having trouble grasping the material, he doesnt yet have a hold of the basics. The conception of knowledge as object produces or strengthens simplistic conceptions of learning and communication which view these processes as simple transfers of objects from the teachers mind to that of the pupils. This conception of knowledge as object also strengthens the conception of knowledge as a natural entity that has no connection to feelings, values, or human biases.21

The metaphor of knowledge as food we can find in expressions such as, they havent been able to digest the material, in school children get a taste of different knowledge areas, that teacher spoon-feeds the information to his pupils, and those pupils are thirsty for knowledge. This metaphor also has important effects. It suggests a conception in which different pieces of knowledge are digested or integrated naturally in the learners mind just as different pieces of food are digested and absorbed naturally in his/her stomach. In addition, it produces the tasting conception whereby pupils get a taste of the many different subject areas which they encounter in school (meaning, they experience the unique perspective, the taste, of each one of them), just as one might taste from a large number of dishes at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Two main conclusions arise from this short description of the epistemic implications of the institutional organization of knowledge. The first is that the conception of knowledge transmitted by the epistemic environment of schools is different in nature from the common philosophical concepts used to describe school knowledge (mainly, positivism, metaphysical realism, and naive realism). Despite the large number of essays that characterize the school conception of knowledge as positivist, we see here that it differs quite a bit from positivism according to its accepted philosophical meaning. The positivist conception is characterized by an emphasis on our sensory experience, by a deep skepticism towards abstract concepts that are not based upon sense data, and by the central role of experiments as the basis of knowledge. In contrast, an examination of the epistemic environment found in schools reveals that it transmits the exact opposite messages and the reason is clear:  this environment is the product of an organization of knowledge whose aim is to inculcate as is knowledge that has been produced somewhere else. The positivist conception, on the contrary, is the product of an attempt to examine the sources and justifications of that same knowledge and of a desire to propose normative guidelines for the production of new and reliable knowledge.

The various realist conceptions also fail as descriptions of the conception of knowledge found in schools. Metaphysical realism understands knowledge as the human attempt to copy or reflect, in the most accurate way possible, the real world that is independent of our manners of conception and representation (Putnam, 1981). In this sense, there is indeed a certain similarity between the metaphysical realist conception of knowledge and that found in schools. However, at the heart of metaphysical realism lies a sharp distinction between human knowledge, that is tentative in nature and refutable, and the truth which is embedded in the external reality independent of humans. This is the basis for metaphysical realisms critical skepticism of existing knowledge and of the human means of representation and conception which produce it (and thus also of positivist philosophical conceptions, which place all of human knowledge upon the sensory conception of humans). Nevertheless, it is the absence of such critical skepticism regarding transmitted knowledge that is the most salient characteristic of the conception of knowledge found in schools.

The conception termed naive realism also neglects essential aspects of the school conception of knowledge. According to the naive realist, knowledge is like a mirror reflecting the medium-sized objects that we all encounter in our everyday lives. This conception lacks the same critical skepticism that characterizes metaphysical realism and, in this way, it is indeed similar to the conception of knowledge found in schools. However, this description also overlooks the unique character of the school conception of knowledge. As we have already seen, one of the most important characteristics of the organization of knowledge in school subjects is the creation of a new external reality founded upon school secondary sources of information (textbooks, teacher talk). This reality differs greatly in character from the world of tangible, natural objects to which naive realism relates. This is a reality primarily composed of written and spoken words as well as abstract concepts, which are generally presented in a linear and isolated manner and which are divided in advance into orderly categories. Of course, the nature of conceptions of knowledge are deeply influenced by the nature of the external reality which the knowledge is meant to signify.

Therefore, the conception of knowledge actually transmitted in schoolsthe conception that almost every person has been exposed to todayhas a number of unique characteristics that have not yet been properly conceptualized. The philosophical discussion has tended unknowingly to focus on knowledge in the context of its production, concentrating on the various sciences, while rarely analyzing the conception of knowledge in the context of its transmission. This creates a situation whereby philosophical concepts that were created for other needs are repeatedly projected onto the school conception of knowledge and thereby overlook important characteristics of this conception.   

The second conclusion stresses the importance of the conceptual distinction between the epistemic environment and the conception of knowledge. Educational discourse and attempts to change schools overemphasize the conception of knowledge of individual agents and do not adequately consider the institutional practices and patterns that form the foundations of the epistemic environment. More than a few teachers and principals today know how to explain, on one level or another, what is not right in the old conception of knowledge and what the right conception of knowledge is. Some also clearly see what needs to stem from this right conception in terms of appropriate teaching practices in schools. The underlying assumption that is so natural to educators is that if we can just succeed in changing the minds of those who are in charge of education in schools, then this will gradually lead to corresponding school change. However, what may be correct with regard to educational interaction between peopleif we have changed a persons consciousness we have changed him/heris not correct when it comes to institutions. We can change the conceptions of the people who work in institutionalized systems such as schools (teachers, principals, etc.) without this leading to meaningful change in the practices and organizational patterns which stand at the center of the new conceptions criticisms.  As a wide array of research from the past few years has clearly shown, the basic patterns of an institution tend to be much stronger than the conceptions proclaimed by individuals within that same institution (Powell & DiMaggio, 1991; Soltan, Uslaner, & Haufler, 1998; Brinton & Nee 2001). Therefore, if we want to truly change the way in which schools deal with knowledge, we must focus on the school practices and organizational patterns that produce an epistemic environment which transmits that problematic conception of knowledge. Put differently, we must fundamentally change the institutional organization of knowledge found in schools.


This article points to a fundamental problem that all educational institutions that aim to educate through knowledge must tackle. In effect, there are two main models of organization of knowledge for educational purposes that have taken over the field of education in the modern world. One is the model of inculcating existing knowledge and the other focuses on producing new knowledge. The first model can be found in schools worldwide; its function is to transmit what society deems as the best of existing knowledge to all youngsters in the population. This model has produced the modern pupil. The second model is found in universities and its function is to lead to the production of new knowledge in the various disciplines. This model has produced the modern researcher. This situation raises an array of difficult questions, primarily regarding institutions whose central aim is general education:  how should we organize educational knowledge when our aim is not to produce the typical pupil or a researcher, but rather to create young thinkers with complex conceptions of knowledge? And what is the most appropriate organization of knowledge when we aim to train teachers and principals? Now that we are well aware of the heavy epistemic, emotional, and social costs involved in the creation of the typical pupil, is it not time to create an alternative model for the organization of knowledge for the benefit of the general education of youth in society? And is the production model, which is intended for the specific function of producing researchers, the only alternative to the inculcation model (or some strange mixture of the two)?

My answer to these questions is that the two main models are contingent and historical products that do not come close to realizing the scope of possibilities for organizing knowledge for education. Both of these models have been found to be inappropriate for general education. Therefore, I have proposed elsewhere a new model for organization of knowledge for general education that is different in its basic characteristics from the other two models. Its main cognitive aim is development of thinking in the strong sense and its organizing framework is the pedagogical discipline (Karmon, in press). However, my personal position on this issue is not the focus of this article. The main conclusion that can be drawn from it is that one of the most important challenges facing the world of education today is to create a new model of the institutional organization of knowledge for the benefit of general education. A lot of work in this direction has already been done in the other three levels of the organization of educational knowledge. Cognitive psychologists have much to tell us regarding the level of the mind, many alternative teaching methods have been proposed and tried in the past few decades, and a lot is going on at the content level as well. But what is the appropriate institutional environment for educational aims such as the development of understanding and thinking, cooperative learning, inquiry learning, and the like? We have been trying to implement these aims within the institutional framework of the inculcation model but have failed repeatedly. We will continue to fail until we realize that the existing model of knowledge organization systematically blocks every attempt to realize aims which differ from that for which this model was originally established. The attempt to change the inculcation method of teaching in schools without also changing the institutional organization of knowledge within which teaching takes place is comparable to attempting to use a kitchen oven for the firing of clay vessels. It should not be surprising that the vessels keep breaking.

The institutional organization of knowledge is therefore an essential link missing in the current educational discourse. The lack of a focused conceptual discussion and empirical research guided by theory in this context prevents us from properly understanding the educational system and, no less important, from successfully changing it. I hope that this article advances us slightly towards achieving these important aims.22


1 There are, of course, institutions that engage in education but do not use knowledge as their main educational means, such as the family, the army, and youth movements. In this article, I will focus only on knowledge-oriented educational institutions, which comprise the most common form of state-supported modern education.

2 In this article, this term will be used interchangeably with the term institutional level.

3 The second layer of the concept of the institution, according to findings of the sociological school known as the New Institutionalism, consists of the preservation and homogenization mechanisms that develop in institutions and assure their stability, even in cases in which the institutions become dysfunctional. See Powell & DiMaggio (1991), Soltan, Uslaner, & Haufler (1998), and Brinton & Nee (2001). In this article, I will not be addressing this issue.

4 This insight was also viewed as very important in the context of organizational theory. See, for example, Scott (1981, p.6).

5 The salient exception is the important work of the English sociologist Basil Bernstein (Bernstein, 1975a, 1975b, 1990) who has also greatly influenced my work. I have chosen to omit here a comprehensive discussion of Bernsteins conceptualization as it would bring us to theoretical realms that stray from the framework of this article. Nevertheless, for those readers who are familiar with Bernsteins theory of curriculum codes and who may be wondering why another theory is at all necessary, it may be valuable to point out a number of significant differences between Bernsteins theory and the approach taken in this article. Most importantly, Bernsteins perspective is sociological in nature, whereas mine stems from an educational and pedagogical perspective. Bernstein, following Durkheim, views the modern educational system as a central sphere wherein macro-social powers and processes are expressed. He seeks to understand the educational system in order to better understand the deep processes that society goes through. Thus, his basic concepts of classification and framing were designated to reflect and express societys main social problems, according to his sociological approach: power and control, respectively. These concepts, therefore, are likely to overlook several distinctions and basic educational characteristics that are essential for normative pedagogical thinking. The basic sociological concepts, for example, lead Bernstein to propose two dichotomous possibilities for curricular structures: the collection or disciplinal curriculum versus the integrated or interdisciplinary curriculum. However, a closer and non-sociological look at the educational reality will likely reveal that this choice is a bit too dichotomous. Moreover, although the question of connections among school subject areas is an important one (not only for Durkheimian sociologists, but for those who work in education as well), it is not at all clear, from the perspective of educational practice, why this question is more important than other dimensions and characteristics of the organization of knowledge which do not receive the same sort of recognition from the aforementioned sociological perspective.  

Another difference between Bernsteins approach and that of this article can be seen in the fact that Bernsteins theory of curriculum codes is holistic and does not make any sort of systemic distinction for the institutional level. This is justified within the context of his theoretical viewpoint, but is quite problematic in the context of this articles objectives. From the viewpoint of educational practice as I see it, it is essential to convincingly demonstrate that there exists a structured system of practicesthe institutional levelwhich deeply influences the educational system, and which has not been addressed in a suitable manner in educational discourse and practice. In this situation, holistic theories such as Bernsteins tend to obscure these institutional-level practices and to lead us to the familiar levels of content and teaching.

Finally, from the perspective of the educational practitioner, it is better to utilize two different conceptualizations which may indicate different approaches to educational practice and to explain other aspects of the world of education over one good and in-depth theory, whichever it may be.

6 For a discussion of these two concepts from a different perspective see, Stengel (1997).

7 The description which follows is primarily based upon the educational reality in Israel.  Nevertheless, it also relies upon a wide array of research for the most part from the United States and England. Despite the fact that there are more than a few differences among educational systems in the world, my claim is that a profound similarity exists when it comes to the institutional organization of knowledge. This homogeneity stands at the center of the discussion here. My intention is to present two basic models for the organization of educational knowledge as ideal types, but with as much concrete and empirical content as possible. I preferred to make the structures tangible primarily through examples from the Israeli educational system with which I am closely familiar. One of the interesting questions which I hope this description will raise is whether there exist today other models for the institutional organization of knowledge. For example, has a new model developed in colleges and teacher training institutions throughout the world? Or are there only various combinations of the two basic models which are described here? In order to respond to this question in a responsible manner it is desirable to relate to the models of organization in a most concrete way, and thus in this article I preferred a specific and concrete description, even if this takes away from the universality of the description.

8 This point is well illustrated by the outcries of teachers and supervisors in Israel whose subjects are due to be removed from the list of required matriculation exams by currently proposed reform efforts. The high-tempered polemic regarding the question of matriculation exams reveals the centrality of this topic in the educational discourse in Israel.

9 The education system in the US is among the few in the Western world that does not have matriculation exams. Nevertheless, the preferred performance is not unlike from that found in matriculation exams. The cognitive performance at the end of school comprises final exams that enable entry to higher education, and throughout the school years the exam is the preferred performance. The shift in recent years to "standards" based on uniform state exams reinforces this direction.

10 For more on the type of questions used in schools, see Sarason (1996) and Goodlad (1984).

11 Scholars from the critical school have conducted most of the research on these questions. Despite the disagreements among them and the extent to which their political and social assumptions may differ, a shared and quite convincing picture emerges from their writings regarding the criteria which guide, in practice, how curriculum developers select knowledge for different subject areas. In the field of critical sociology, the two most significant figures are Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu. See Bernstein (1975a, 1975b, 1990) and Bourdieu & Passeron, (1977). In the field of critical pedagogy, see the writings of Michael Apple (1979, 1982, 1986) and Henry Giroux (1981).

12 One may of course wonder if this description is suitable for the humanities or if it is mainly correct only in the context of the natural sciences. A comprehensive historical description of the situation in disciplines of the humanities can be found in the writings of Michel Foucault  (1970). Foucault goes even further and claims that what most characterizes the humanities of the modern era is the ubiquity of a super paradigman episteme which dominates an assortment of different disciplines for a certain period of time and then is replaced by another super paradigm.

13 School secondary sources of information constitute an inseparable part of the concept of school subject as defined in this article. Therefore, content areas that are taught in school but which use sources of information that differ from the school secondary sources should not be considered school subjects in the technical sense that is used here. The best examples of such content areas in Israeli high schools are classes in the arts. Film studies, theater, fine arts, music, and the like utilize sources of information that are not school secondary sourcesfor example, usually textbooks are not usedbut rather are primary sources which are characteristic of the arts themselves. In general, the organization of knowledge used in teaching these classes is different from that which we find in the teaching of regular school subjects. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons, other than the fact that the arts classes are electives, that we find such impressive levels of commitment and effort among pupils in these fields.

14 The most well known description of the phenomenon of inert knowledge acquired in schools is that of Alfred Whitehead (1912). This same term inert knowledge can be found even earlier in the writings of John Dewey (1910, p. 235). Today, psychologists have replaced philosophers as the most outspoken critics of inert knowledge. A good description can be found in the writings of Howard Gardner (1991); see, too, the enlightening comments of David Perkins (1992) who views inert knowledge as one of several types of harmful knowledge that is acquired in todays schools (p. 21-27).

15 For research on the ways of thinking of pupils as opposed to those of academics in history and science, see Wineburg (1991) and Page (1999). On the phenomenon in general, see Gardner (1991) and Gardner & Boix-Mansilla (1994).

16 In this article I use the term intuitive theories in a wider sense than Gardner (1991, p. 1-15). In addition to his meaning of the term which refers to the theories which children acquire in their first few years of life (up to age 7), I use this term to include all of the active theories that are acquired in later years and which consist of different mixtures of popular points of view, bits of information from school, viewpoints frequently used by the media, and more. For a discussion on the place and implications of intuitive theories in the wide sense of the term, see Leiser (2001).

17 The conceptual structure found in this article relates in an interesting way to Schwabs well known conception of the four commonplaces of education (Schwab, 1973). According to this view, education is founded upon four interdependent basic components and thus significant educational discourse and change can only take place if we take into account all four components. They are: the pupil, the content, the teacher, and the milieu. The five basic characteristics of the organizing framework relating to the three levels, the mind, teaching and content, correspond to, in effect, three of the four commonplaces: the sources of information and guidelines for the selection of knowledge relate to content, the preferred performance and types of questions relate to the teacher (and to teaching), and the required way of relating to knowledge directly influences the pupil. The institutional level in its entirety functions as an important part of the fourth commonplace: the milieu. On the one hand, this conceptual structure integrates well with Schwabs view in that the five basic characteristics and four knowledge-organizing levels cover all of the commonplaces of education. On the other hand, there is a certain tension between the two approaches because all of Schwabs commonplaces have, in principle, the same status (even though there are situations, according to Schwab, in which it is sensible to give priority to a particular component), whereas in the approach found here there is a hierarchical relationship among the four levels of organizing knowledge.

18 The concept of regularities which was used here has been borrowed from Seymour Sarasons well-known book (1996). While Sarason discusses two types of regularities, programmatic and behavioral, with the former establishing the latter, there is no specific discussion of epistemic regularities.

19 On the importance of metaphors see Lakoff & Johnson (1980).

20 For a discussion on this topic see Berieter & Scardamalia (1985).  In this context, it is important to note that use of the Internet as a main source of information for the writing of papers (which is seen by many as the dawn of pupils cognitive liberation) not only does not in itself lead to change in the summarizing pattern of learning but, to a large extent, exacerbates the problem. The availability of information on a wide variety of topics, already prepared as elegant summaries of a topic, along with the simple technical option of cut and paste, has led to a situation whereby very often pupils do not even summarize the knowledge that they have found!

21 See Strauss & Shilony (1994). See also Harpaz (in press), who views the conception of knowledge as object as one of the basic pictures of schooling.

22 As we have already seen, the institutional organization of knowledge has epistemic implications (which were discussed in this article) as well as implications on the issues of the preservation and homogenization of the educational system (which were referred to in note 2 but were not discussed in the article). However, it should also be noted that the institutional organization of knowledge also has substantial implications on the questions of power and empowerment in education.The self-evident question in this context is: who controls the institutional level of the organization of educational knowledge? When teachers and principals are empowered, for example, are they given real control of the organizing frameworks basic characteristics and of the axes of the spread of knowledge or are they only given control of the teaching level and maybe also that of content? Who, for instance, determines the nature of the preferred performance? Officials of the Department of Education? Principals? Teachers? The description of the basic characteristics of the institutional level provides us with concrete, critical tools for examining all kinds of empowerment programs.  If there is truth in what has been written here, then the person who controls the institutional level of the organization of knowledge has the real power in education. Therefore, empowerment that does not include control of this level is a fictitious empowerment.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 3, 2007, p. 603-634
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12826, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:51:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Amnon Karmon
    Kerem Institute for Jewish Humanistic Teacher Training
    E-mail Author
    AMNON KARMON is Director of the Kerem Institute for Jewish Humanistic Teacher Training in Jerusalem, Israel. He is interested in alternatives to traditional teaching methods, the problems of change in education, and the relations between educational institutions and society.
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