Skip to content

What is a discipline and why does it matter? Knowing about our disciplines is more and more important given the increasingly generic demands of teaching and assessment, the proliferating ‘lethal mutations of research findings’ in education, the boom in well-meaning but often painfully under-researched books on teaching, and the 2022 Ofsted research review for English which – certainly for secondary education – fell well below an acceptable professional and intellectual standard.

How we understand our disciplines matters because student outcomes are improved not by ‘the amount of knowledge’ a teacher has but by ‘how teachers see the surface and the deeper understandings of the subjects that they teach’ (Hattie, 2012, p. 28) – that is, how profoundly teachers understand their disciplines. For us in English, it’s lovely to read in the national curriculum that our subject has ‘a pre-eminent place in education and in society’ because it develops students ‘culturally, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually’ (DfE, 2013, p. 3) but this doesn’t in fact tell us much about what it is.

It is an everyday experience to chat with colleagues from different disciplines, and then to reflect that people from different disciplines do, in fact, see things very differently. This everyday experience tells us something significant about disciplines: they are not simply collections of different data – this is an error propagated by the extreme enthusiasts for cognitive science and by the overused and inaccurate metaphor that our brains are like computers. In fact, disciplines are frames for understanding our world which form and shape people. Being ‘in’ a discipline is like being ‘in’ an extended conversation. Some part of this conversation emerges in intellectual debates of academic books and journals. But by far the bigger and more important part emerges in the teaching of that discipline, ‘in the arguments and dialogues of the corridor and classroom, in the encounters between initiates and experts’ (Knights, 2005, p. 34).

‘Disciplines are not simply collections of different data … [they] are frames for understanding our world which form and shape people.’

If disciplines are shaped more in the process of teaching, it’s through thinking about that process that we will find the deeper understanding we need. I suggest three areas to help us focus that search.

First what the educational psychologist Lee Shuman calls signature pedagogies, the ‘characteristic forms of teaching and learning’ (Shuman, 2005, p. 52) which are the ways we teach the discipline: they ‘implicitly define what counts as knowledge in a field and how things become known. They define how knowledge is analyzed, criticized, accepted, or discarded’ (p. 54). For example, in English, we could look at the list of questions that Aidan Chambers developed for talking about books with children.

Was there anything you liked about this book?

Was there anything you disliked about this book?

Was there anything that puzzled you?

Were there any patterns – any connections – that you noticed? (Chambers, 2011, p. 177)

These signature pedagogies are questions: open-ended and dialogic, invoking both intellect and emotion (liking, disliking) in personal response, drawing on the text under discussion and implicitly other texts (not necessarily books: all stories, all forms have patterns) as well as the student’s experience of life. These questions work constructively in all phases of literary education.

Second, there are threshold concepts. These mark the ‘entrance’ of the student into the discipline and will vary across levels. For example, the idea that the author’s intention for their text is not ‘the answer’ might be a threshold concept in literary studies at A-level. In higher education, one threshold concept is the awareness that a student needs to understand and engage with the critical ideas of others and then join their own informed and original responses to this conversation.

Finally, both the signature pedagogies and threshold concepts embody the deep and implicit philosophical ideas of the discipline. For example, the study of science and the study of literature rely on different models of knowledge: we calculate the solution to an equation but we deliberate together the meaning of a poem; we obey the rules of deduction for a chemistry experiment but adapt models and examples to write essays or poems; a physicist discovers, a critic persuades. These differences tell us that these subjects start from different places and have different (and complementary) aims.

By thinking through these for English, and for other disciplines, we will strengthen our disciplinary understanding, deepen our knowledge and improve our students’ outcomes.


Chambers, A. (2011). Tell me: Children reading and talk. Thimble Press.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2013). National curriculum for English: Programmes of study – key stage 4.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. Routledge.

Knights, B. (2005). Intelligence and interrogation: The identity of the English student. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 4(1) 33–52.

Shulman, L. (2005). Signature pedagogies in the professions. Daedalus, 134(3), 52–59.