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Teaching to the epistemic Self: ascending and descending the ladder of knowledge

The full version of Esther's article below was published by the British Education Research Association in its Curriculum Journal. In her paper Esther, who is a geography teacher at Saffron Walden County High School, builds up a sketch of the vertical movements within knowledge to argue for the importance of abstract systematised knowledge within horizontal knowledge domains such as geography. Unfolding as a narrative, the first section draws on realist theories of knowledge to discuss the basis for two contrasting directions of epistemic movement and the value of the notion of epistemic Self. The second stage turns to critical realist thought to give more insight into the nature of geographical knowledge as a horizontal knowledge structure. Third, the importance of curriculum knowledge reaching to the level of underlying abstract generative structures is explained through consideration of critical realist depth ontology. Finally, the iterative relationship between the two movements is explained in the context of pedagogy. In this way the article argues for the importance of attending to the vertical movement within a horizontal knowledge domain.

All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, [well-nurtured] as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognise her because of the affinity he bears to her.’ (Plato (Republic), in Lewis, 1943/ 2013, p. 12)


For Plato, the call to teach is the call to recontextualise (Hugo, 2006 p. 65). It is an obligation to descend from ‘the heights’ to assist the student, the teacher’s ‘fellows’, on an upward journey. For him, the teacher needs to be skilled in polymorphically working at the interface between the world of becoming and Being, to be equally comfortable in both; agile and ‘unblinded by the continual shifts of perspective needed’ (ibid, p. 67). It is an ‘ascetic path upwards’ and a ‘creative pouring downwards’ (ibid) that should characterise the teacher’s practice, and these in equal measure. For the student, it is an education of hierarchical abstraction which can be characterised by two different vertical paths, one for the heart (Diotima’s account in Symposium) and one for the mind (Socrates’ allegory in Republic). He captures these respectively in his metaphors of the ladder of beauty and the cave and the shadows, the former using the modality of love, the latter that of intellect. In Plato’s mind these are two different pedagogical tasks, or even imperatives, facing the teacher but the goal of both is for the student to touch pure form, to reach the highest point, the most abstract clarity which in turn imparts meaning to everything else below it. This is to have ascended the ladder of knowledge.

It is my intention in this paper to show that this is a metaphor worthy of particular consideration for a subject such as geography. Much recent theorising on disciplinary knowledge has been elucidated with reference to Bernstein’s vertical and horizontal knowledge structures, be this explicitly or implicitly through reference to Young’s notion of powerful knowledge, or Maton’s knowledge-knower structures. This paper seeks to build up a sketch of the vertical movements within knowledge to argue for the importance of abstract systematised knowledge within horizontal knowledge domains such as geography. At its broadest point it draws on instructive stories told by Plato, and nearer to home, upon frameworks and reasoning from the broadly Bernsteinian sociology of social realism and Bhaskarian philosophy of critical realism, to examine Charlot’s notion of the ‘epistemic Self’ as discussed by Gamble (2014) and Rata (2016). My purpose will be to outline the potential of the combined role of ‘distancing-objectification’ and ‘systematisation’ in the construction of the student’s ‘epistemic Self’ with the subject-discipline of geography (and thus the geography student and geography teacher) as my reference point.

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Esther Vernon

Geography Teacher

Saffron Walden County High School