Beyond illusions—Using a social construct to decolonise the curriculum
Sudha Govindswamy School Support & Evaluation Officer


Dr Sudha Govindswamy, Associate Director of School Support & Evaluation, CIS



International schools worldwide offer various national and international models of curricula, including curated best-practice models that combine elements from the various options.

Practitioners who have taught open-ended models of curricular frameworks (such as the International Baccalaureate programmes, for instance) will appreciate the liberating freedom and flexibility to not only curate but also experiment with content and concepts when developing a unit of study.

However, with such freedom also comes great responsibility. Such an approach requires ongoing curriculum conversations and negotiations in terms of what is to be taught (the content), when it is to be taught (the pacing), and how it is to be taught (the methodology). The most important question in this process is, however, who gets to make these decisions? The term ‘decolonising the curriculum’ acknowledges that no one owns knowledge and that it is socially constructed (Vygotsky).

According to Keele University’s Decolonizing the Curriculum Manifesto:

decolonizing the curriculum means creating spaces and resources for a dialogue among all members of the university on how to imagine and envision all cultures and knowledge systems in the curriculum, and with respect to what is being taught and how it frames the world.’

A few years ago, as a doctoral student, I made an attempt to unpack and understand school-based curriculum development initiatives in international schools through Basil Bernstein’s (1971-2000), conceptual framework. While that was only the beginning, the tenets of this conceptual framework continued to intrigue me. I understand that I cannot do full justice to this complex, yet highly provocative model through this blog post. However, I present some of the integral components of the framework and some essential questions that may prove useful to teachers and curriculum coordinators who curate the curriculum through a decolonizing lens.

It should be stated at the onset that Bernstein’s work had its origins in studies on families and language, from there to schools, and from there to schools and society. Bernstein spent a large part of his life studying how the structure of communication shapes people’s consciousness and identity—through the curriculum. Interestingly, origins of Bernstein’s work can be traced back to the theories proposed by Émile Durkheim (1964) that explored the increasingly complex division of labour in society, and how a person was born, lived, and died very much in the manner conditioned by the people before them. Perhaps their model of schooling (and the curriculum therein) had a role to play in this?

Contrary to the practice of curriculum theorizing through top-down approaches that begin with larger policy questions and then work down to analyze how schools work with policy decisions, Bernstein formulated theories bottom-up. He proposed that formal education knowledge in an organization is realized through three message systems: curriculum, pedagogy and evaluation.

‘Curriculum defines what counts as a valid knowledge, pedagogy defines what counts as valid transmission of knowledge, and evaluation defines what counts as a valid realization of this knowledge.’ (Bernstein, 1975, p.85). What Bernstein calls the pedagogic discourse, is a recontextualizing principle which selectively appropriates, relocates, refocuses, and relates other discourses to constitute its own order.

Bernstein (1990) argues that when privileged pedagogic texts such as curriculum and textbooks are appropriated in the classroom by teachers and students, there is evidently the interplay of two text transformations. First, where there is conversion of knowledge appropriated from the field of production within the official and pedagogic recontextualization field. Second, when the translation of the pedagogized knowledge by teachers and students happens in the recontextualization field of the school/classroom. Bernstein clarifies this process of recontextualizing the curriculum through the notions “classification and framing”, that explore the effect of different messaging systems on student learning.

Classification indicates the degree of boundary that is maintained between different things in the school: ‘Where classification is strong, contents are well insulated from each other by strong boundaries. Where classification is weak, there is reduced insulation between contents, for the boundaries between contents are weak or blurred. Classification thus refers to the degree of boundary maintenance between contents.’ (Bernstein, 1971). In this sense, classification is what enables each of the subject content areas to be “insulated” from the other and remain mutually exclusive. For example, what happens in the math classroom is totally isolated and independent of what may happen in the social sciences.

Framing, on the other hand, refers to the ”degree of control the teacher and pupil can pose over the selection, organization, pacing and timing of knowledge transmitted and received in the pedagogical relationship (Bernstein, 1971, p.50). The concept of framing is what helps us understand what forms of knowledge a student has access to and what they don’t; the timing in terms of when and how that content is taught and prioritized. Framing thus helps explain the internal logic of pedagogic practice and to the nature of control over:

  • the selection of the communication
  • its sequencing (what comes first, what comes second)
  • its pacing (the rate of expected acquisition)
  • the criteria
  • the control over the social base which makes this transmission possible

(Bernstein 2000, pp. 12-13).

Simply put, strong classification means things must be kept apart; weak classification means things must be brought together. Bernstein proposes that when classification becomes weaker, we must have an understanding of the recontextualization principles which construct the new discourses and the ideological bias that underlies any such recontextualization.

It is also important for us to ask, in whose interest is the apartness of things, and in whose interest is the new togetherness? If a value changes from strong to weak, or vice- versa, if framing changes from strong to weak or the classification changes from strong to weak, there are basic questions we should ask:

  • Which group is responsible for initiating the change?
  • Is the change by a dominant group or a dominated group?
  • If the values are weakening, what values still remain strong?

Bernstein further proposes that from the variations in the classification and framing, two types of curricula come into play: “open and closed”.

In a “closed” curriculum, classification is strong, which means all subjects are taught in isolation from each other, with strong boundaries separating each of these subject areas. Bernstein (1975) called this a closed or collective curriculum. On the other hand, in an integrated or open model of curriculum, classification is weak; subject areas are not isolated from each other and boundaries are blurred, if at all existing.

While schools can provide and take pride in sharing their journey of co-constructing and curating of the curriculum, there are some aspects that perhaps go unnoticed—the silence between the notes, the hidden messages that we convey due to not being intentional in some of the decisions we make as a unit of study takes shape.

English garden

Drawing on the metaphor of the English garden, curriculum scholars such as Alistair Ross (2000, p.2) compare Bernstein’s notion of classification and framing of curricular knowledge to garden territories defined by different kinds of frames, boundaries, hedges, and pathways. Ross points out that just as the landscape garden separated from the surrounding countryside by a dry ditch or a sunken barrier creates an illusion that the garden and the surrounding countryside are unified, a weakly classified curriculum sometimes creates impressions of a ’weak boundary between what may and what may not be transmitted’ (Bernstein 1975, p.50). These principles of classification and framing are powerful to understand to help ensure that the efforts to decolonize the curriculum are both intentional and purposeful.

While schools adopt open curricular frameworks that enable opportunities for decolonizing the curriculum, what are some essential questions that should be raised by those involved in curriculum development?

  • What items of knowledge should be included in or excluded from a curriculum?
  • What reasons can be given for including some items of knowledge and excluding others? Is there a clear rationale that is commonly agreed upon?
  • How should those items of knowledge be arranged in the curriculum (the sequencing)?
  • Why should we teach this rather than that? Who or how do we decide?
  • Who should have access to what knowledge?
  • What rules should govern the teaching of what has been selected? The teacher or the taught?
  • How should various parts of the curriculum be interrelated (in an integrated model of curriculum) in order to create a coherent whole?
  • How does classification and framing enable students to develop their own professional identities as a part of schooling?
  • How are teachers empowered to navigate the learning landscape as the balance of power shifts in the classroom from the teacher to the taught (student agency)?

The rationale, the intentionality, and the debates around curating the curriculum are equally important as the content that we curate as a part of this process. Being cognisant of how those decisions are made and who makes those decisions are both important to ensure efforts on decolonization of the curriculum goes beyond merely an illusion.



  • Bernstein, B. 1971. Open schools, open society? In B R Cosin et al (eds). School and society: a sociological reader. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 66-69.
  • Bernstein, B. 1971. On the classification and framing of educational knowledge. In MFD Young (ed).Knowledge and Control: New directions for the sociology of education.  London: Collier MacMillan, 47-69.
  • Bernstein, B., 1975. Class Codes and Control. Volume 3: Towards a Theory of Educational Transmissions. London, Henley and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Bernstein, B., 1990. The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse (Vol. 4). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Bernstein, B., 1996. Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity. Theory, Research, Critique. Revised Edition. United States of America: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC.
  • Bernstein, B., 2000. Pedagogic, Symbolic Control and Identity. Oxford, England: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc
  • Charles, Elizabeth. 2019. “Decolonizing the Curriculum”. Insights 32 (1): 24. DOI:
  • Durkheim E. 1964. The division of labour in society. New York: MacMillan.
  • Govindswamy S. 2015 Teacher Perceptions of the development of one school’s own concept-based curriculum programme and its intended and unintended outcomes. Unpublished dissertation, University of Bath, UK.
  • Ross, A., 2000. Curriculum construction and Critique. Falmer Press, London.
  • Scott, D., 2008. Critical Essays on Major Curriculum Theorists. Routledge: London and New York.
  • Draft outline of Bernstein’s concepts—South African Institute for Distance Education - Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence.


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