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

12 Citations (Scopus)
54 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 bipolar slogans cast in a state of permanent and irreconcilable opposition’ (Alexander 2008, 72). This paper begins by exploring the ways in which these dichotomies have structured recent debates and goes on to examine two contemporary debates, in the fields of history education and music education. In the first case, we seek to show, through a discussion of ‘knowledge’ and ‘skill’ in history, drawing on the work of Hirsch (1966; 1988) and Wineburg (2001; 2007), that bipolar thinking is both inadequate and dysfunctional. 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 problematized and critiqued informal learning. This paper demonstrates that, although dichotomous thinking is sometimes pernicious, dichotomies can be generative when they are used to open up debate.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)111-129
Number of pages19
JournalCurriculum Journal
Issue number1
Early online date30 Jan 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014



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

Cite this