Lyn Yates

The ambiguities of knowledge, expertise and purpose

Lyn Yates University of Melbourne Wednesday 6 March 2019

In a recent BERA blog, ‘The neglect of practice’ (14 December 2018; see also Hordern 2018), Jim Hordern argued that we need to consider not just what teachers do when they teach, but what normatively governed purposes and expertise guide this work. In a newly published article in the Curriculum Journal we talk about the surprising ambiguities surrounding these latter questions in the case of English teachers and literature teaching (Yates, 2019).

The article arises from a four-year research project currently in progress in Australia, where we are exploring two big questions.

  • What kind of knowledge is involved in literary studies in subject English?
  • How are the expertise and purposes of teachers initially formed and then re-formed in the early years of teaching?

In Australia at least, the curriculum policy framework specifies some elements of the curriculum in this area, but leaves a great deal tacit or unclear (McLean Davies & Sawyer, 2018; Doecke, McLean Davies, & Sawyer, 2018). The frameworks and the teachers in our study both often allude to the social purposes of this part of the curriculum (the forming of citizens) – but what kind of knowledge or ways of knowing are involved in doing so in this particular field of study? What are the normative purposes and the marks of successful classroom teaching in this subject?

Some recent curriculum debates about the knowledge question would suggest that ‘the discipline’ is the starting point for addressing issues of both expertise and purpose (Young, 2013; Young & Muller 2013). But in literary studies, ‘the discipline’ is inherently unstable and changing – not just as a contingent issue, but as an integral part of what characterises this and other humanities subjects (Kagan, 2009). On the other hand, university studies in literature presumably have some relevance to what English teachers are expected to bring to their work, or they would not be mandatory as an entry requirement to this professional field.

‘What purposes are at work for literary studies? What expertise is expected of teachers? What kinds of thinking are being implied about knowledge, or ways of knowing, in this subject?’

Or again, arguments about text selection often dominate public and professional debates about literary studies. Is this simply an ongoing and unresolvable debate between different camps in this field – those who believe in a canon of literature and the importance of students having access to that; those promoting inclusiveness and diversity as the starting points for what texts are studied? In both cases we might ask what purposes are at work for the subject, what expertise is expected of teachers, what kinds of thinking are being implied about knowledge or ways of knowing in this subject. A particular interest for us is how the literary knowledge that teachers bring to their professional practice frames the interactions (including social purposes) that occur within classroom settings.

In our article we argue there is a need to investigate ‘the knowledge question’ in subject English in ways that do not either assume a static notion of knowledge as given and external to the dynamic activities of the classroom (as is promoted in the ‘powerful knowledge’ debates) or, conversely, assume that literary knowledge can only be understood through the dynamic relationship occurring in the classroom. We try to set up some starting points for research that might gain further insight into what teachers do in their practice and what expertise they actually, and should, bring to it.

This blog post is based on the article ‘School English, literature and the knowledge-base question’ by Lyn Yates, Larissa McLean Davies, Lucy Buzacott, Brenton Doecke, Philip Mead & Wayne Sawyer, which is published in the Curriculum Journal and is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Routledge. 


Hordern, J. (2018). Educational knowledge: Traditions of inquiry, specialisation and practice. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 26(4), 577–591.

Doecke, B., McLean Davies, L. & Sawyer, W. (2018). Blowing and blundering in space: English in the Australian Curriculum. In Reid, A. & Price, D. (Eds.) The Australian Curriculum: Problems and Possibilities (pp.33–42). ACT: Australian Curriculum Studies Association.

Kagan, J. (2009). The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLean Davies, L., & Sawyer, W. (2018). (K)now you see it, know you don’t: The elusiveness of (literary) knowledge in the Australian Curriculum: English. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 50(6), 836–849.

Yates, L., McLean Davies, L., Buzacott, L., Doecke, B., Mead, P. & Sawyer, W. (2019). School English, Literature and the Knowledge Base Question. Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication.

Young, M. (2013). Overcoming the crisis in curriculum theory: a knowledge-based approach. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45(2), 101–118.

Young, M. & Muller, J. (2013). On the powers of powerful knowledge. Review of Education, 1(3), 229–250.

Lyn Yates is Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Curriculum at the University of Melbourne. She has recently completed an ARC-funded research project studying history and physics across school and university (with Woelert, P., Millar, V., O’Connor, K., Knowledge at the Crossroads? Physics and History in the Changing World of Schools and Universities, Springer, 2017), and is now engaged in the project Literary Knowledge in the Making of English Teachers, together with Larissa McLean Davies, Wayne Sawyer, Brenton Doecke, Philip Mead and Lucy Buzacott – see