Is your department united by more than common content?

What is it that unites the teaching within an academic department? I argue that it has to be more than common content. For a department to be an effective functional teaching unit, there has to be something more that unites the team members.

The renowned sociologist of education, Basil Bernstein (2000) refers to curriculum in terms of its Regulative Discourse (RD), and Instructional Discourse (ID). The RD refers to the values that underpin the curriculum. ID refers to content selection, sequencing, pacing and assessment. Bernstein argues that the ID is always embedded in the RD, whether the RD is explicit or implicit.

Observations of programmes and their supporting literature often suggest that departments typically focus on the ID without paying much attention to the RD. Meetings are set up to discuss content to be taught and assessments  to be created, but little time seems to be spent on discussing the underlying philosophy, values or pedagogy that support the programme. These less tangible factors seem to be assumed to be a “given”. Even if they have been acknowledged within the original validation documentation of the programme when it was established, how is the RD evaluated as it evolves or takes into account new members of teaching staff or insertion of new technology into the teaching mix?

An exclusive focus on Instructional Discourse reduces the dialogue within a department to the more mundane and practical elements of teaching that appear to many colleagues to be unproblematic (see earlier post, ‘Academic Development: An Educational TARDIS). Such dialogues would focus on the practice of teaching in the absence of theory. Is there any other profession that would ignore its own theoretical underpinnings in this way? It would seem preposterous to think of engineers or medics diving headlong into their professional practice without a parallel consideration of their more academic origins. It appears to be more acceptable in teaching for amateurs to just “give it a go and see what happens”. And if it all goes wrong, you can always blame the students.

Perhaps it would be so more efficient ( and professional ) to try and get it right in the first place. This can start with the most basic of discussions such as “what is the purpose of our lectures?”  or “what do we expect students to be doing during lectures?” The answers to these simple questions are not as straight forward as one might think. From observing teaching across the spectrum of disciplines, it is clear that teachers’ assumptions about what they should be doing and what students should be doing vary tremendously. And when that variation is observed within a single programme, it can cause confusion among the students who are not sure whether to describe their teaching experiences as exhibiting ‘diversity’ (which may be viewed positively) or ‘inconsistency’ , which tends to be viewed more negatively.

Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise for a department to share their understanding of their programme’s implicit regulative discourse to see if it might explain some of the issues that appear within the instructional discourse. This is not about homogenising teaching, but elaborating in the diversity that exists, making it explicit to the students, and aligning it to the aims of the programme.


Bernstein, B. (2000) Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity. Rowman & Littlefield.


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