Dysfunctional dichotomies? Deflating bipolar constructions of curriculum and pedagogy through case studies from music and history

Tim Cain, Arthur Chapman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
38 Downloads (Pure)


Recent public discussions of curriculum and pedagogy that have accompanied the English National Curriculum review have been structured around clichéd dichotomies that generate more heat than light and that, as Robin Alexander has argued, reduce complex educational debates to oppositional and incompatible slogans. This paper begins by exploring the ways in which these dichotomies have structured recent debates and goes on to critically explore arguments in two contemporary debates, in the fields of history education and music education, assessing how these debates have been framed and the extent to which the debates can be considered fruitful and progressive. In the first case, we seek to show, through a discussion of 'knowledge' and 'skill' in history, that bipolar thinking is both inadequate and dysfunctional in relation to the matters under discussion. A third term - disciplinary understanding - is advocated and explored. In the second case, we demonstrate that dichotomous thinking about formal and informal music education has generated a debate that has become more sophisticated as various authors have problematised and critiqued informal learning. Analysis of these debates suggests that dichotomous thinking is pernicious when dichotomies are used only as slogans, although dichotomies can be generative when they are used as starting points to open discussion, not to close it. The paper suggests that the difference between the debates might be explained by the varying degrees of political involvement in them.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)111-129
Number of pages19
JournalCurriculum Journal
Issue number1
Early online date30 Jan 2014
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014


  • debate
  • formal/informal
  • knowledge/skills
  • secondary schools


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