The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Making knowledge more explicit in the English for Academic Purposes classroom

by Mark Brooke

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education published in March 2019. This special issue aimed to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which are accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

In 2000, Moore (2000: 33) wrote that the ‘curriculum of the future should be the curriculum of knowledge’. He argued that knowledge should be accessible to all members of society and, in this way, education should promote social and educational justice. However, we find that the educational climate for such an objective is not wholly welcoming. In many university settings, academic language courses tend to be devoid of a theoretical approach to education that places the teacher in the role of linguistic expert. Indeed, courses prominently feature notions such as grammatical accuracy instruction based on isolated clauses at the lexico-grammatical level or independent self-directed learning and study habits. Unfortunately, in these cases, the focus of instruction may first be decontextualised as extracts, which oversimplifies the meanings in the texts; and second, a theory of language or knowledge may play a backseat role or even be entirely absent. As many researchers have pointed out, focusing on common errors in a de-contextualised way is probably not effective. Additionally, independent learning, although a useful process, is often given too much focus. This detracts from the time spent with a qualified tutor as knowledge provider, taking the onus away from what the teacher does. In the case of independent learning instruction, what is being foregrounded is ‘the social circumstances of knowers’ (Maton, 2014: 5), not knowledge.

In contrast, the main goal of our research is to provide knowledge to students in the form of analytical lenses to enable them to deconstruct and judge information effectively. What we strive to do is move away from educational ‘knowledge blindness’ (Maton, 2014). Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) as a sociological framework has guided our educational practices to do this. The basic premise of Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) is that knowledge is power. LCT is a toolkit for analysing socio-cultural practices and uncovering what constitutes the ‘rules of the game’ that provide the means to that power. Ultimately, the goal is to develop a gaze or ‘a mode of thinking, acting and being’ (Dong et al, 2015: 8) through the explanatory power of the codes. In this research we seek to develop our students’ critical gaze. We achieve this by applying the dimensions of specialisation (including cosmologies) and semantics.

Specialisation determines principles of privilege in fields of practice. Practices that emphasise epistemic relation and downplay actors’ dispositions view specialised knowledge as the basis of achievement (ER+). We believe a curriculum should primarily be built on ER+. Practices that emphasise social relations, and downplay epistemic relations, are represented by the knower codes (SR+). Independent learning is an example of this, which has often been given too much focus in our field. Knower codes can be explored in greater depth through the use of the concept of ‘axiological cosmologies’. Maton (2013) defines cosmologies as ‘constitutive features of social fields that underlie the way social actors and practices are differentially characterised and valued’ (p 152). In identifying how clusters are formed, we can help students to understand the means by which experts and authors attempt to persuade the reader to align with a position on a particular issue. ‘Semantics’ is a dimension from LCT that ‘conceives social fields of practice as semantic structures whose organizing principles are conceptualized as semantic codes’ (Maton, 2014: 2). Using Semantics, it is possible to explore the relations that exist between knowledge structures and, in particular for this purpose, how to apply a critical lens to a social phenomenon or text to analyse it. 

We conducted research between 2015 and 2017 at the Centre for English Language Communication at the National University of Singapore. Our findings, from three parallel case studies within the broad framework of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), provide results from classroom-based action research working with semantics, specialisation and axiological cosmologies from Legitimation Code Theory. Each case study is outlined, explaining how these LCT dimensions have guided practice in the teaching of English for academic writing. Specifically, LCT has been applied in the development of our students’ critical dispositions by teaching them how to apply critical lenses to analyse texts and to make informed judgements. The first case study explores semantics as a strategy for teaching how to use lenses for the theoretical framework section of an IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Research and Discussion) research paper in the social sciences. The second is set in a standalone EAP module and describes the use of a systemic-functional linguistics-informed pedagogical tool as a lens to analyse academic discourse so learners can better understand the meanings including the assumptions, unsupported claims, or biases in texts. The third regards the embedding of LCT approaches for students engaged in writing hortatory blogs in a unit entitled Public Writing and Communication. Students are taught to explore ‘axiological cosmologies’ to understand how evaluative meanings form patterns of clusters that enable the writer to create a persuasive expository text.


Dong, A, Maton, K and Carvalho L, (2015) The structuring of design knowledge The Routledge Companion to Design Research, pp38-49 London: Routledge.

Maton, K (2008) ‘Knowledge-building: how can we create powerful and influential ideas?’ Paper presented at Disciplinarity, Knowledge and Language: An International Symposium Sydney: University of Sydney

Maton, K (2013) Knowledge and knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education Routledge: London

Maton, K (2014) ‘Building powerful knowledge: the significance of semantic waves’ in Barrett, B and Rata, E (eds) (2014) Knowledge and the future of the curriculum, pp181–197 London: Palgrave Macmillan, Palgrave Studies in Excellence and Equity in Global Education.

Moore, R (2000) ‘For knowledge: tradition, progressivism and progress in education – reconstructing the curriculum debate’ Cambridge Journal of Education 30(1): 17–36

Mark Brooke is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication at the National University of Singapore. He specialises in research and teaching in two fields: English for Academic Purposes and the Sociology of Sport. He can be found on Google Scholar, Facebook and LinkedIn.The full article by Mark Brooke, Laetitia Monbec and Namala Tilakaratna (all National University of Singapore), ‘The analytical lens: developing undergraduate students’ critical dispositions in undergraduate EAP writing courses’, is in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 428-443

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Learning, teaching and the curriculum

By Marcia Devlin

This abstract covers three aspects of research in learning, teaching and curriculum over the past 50 years: research issues and their drivers; the impact of this research on policy and practice; and future priorities. What follows are my observations and thoughts on these aspects, which are shaped by my experience, beliefs, values and preferences.

My observations relate to: changes in higher education per se; learning theory; the role of discipline-based research; the nature of research collaborations; dissemination and impact; and possible future priorities.

Changes in higher education per se

One important defining feature of the past 50 years of research in learning, teaching and curriculum has been that the context of this research has changed so fundamentally. In 2015, we find ourselves on the trajectory predicted by Trow (1972) of higher education expansion and transformation from elite, through mass, to universal access.

A massified system has meant that not only are there more students but also, alongside the internationalisation of higher education, that students are from a far wider range of social and cultural backgrounds than the cohort who attended Western universities 50 years ago. This has changed research into learning, teaching and curriculum in these universities significantly and irreversibly. Naturally, this research has increasingly focused on how to best teach and assess students from a range of diverse backgrounds. Continue reading