Bernstein dispatched

A lively meeting of the Higher Education and Theory Reading Group took place on Wednesday 21 May 2014 at the Regent Street building of the University of Westminster. The focus of the discussion was on the mode of discourse that Bernstein constructed, which might be termed ‘structuralism-without-structure’, but decidedly not a form of discourse on its way to post-structuralism, in order to articulate the following position.

In “Social Class and Pedagogic Practice”, which develops the argument begun in “Class and Pedagogies: Visible and Invisible”, Basil Bernstein (1975, 2004) contends that the overall effect of adopting an ‘invisible pedagogy’ teaching model, as a specific modality of progressive, child-centre pedagogy, is to shift ‘power’, in terms of being able to select and privilege one social class of student over others, from one middle class fraction to another middle class fraction. This to say, power is shifted from a managerialist class marked by their position in an older, market-based, productivist, industrial economy, to a professional class marked by their position in a newer, state-centred, administrative, service economy. This selection and privileging is achieved primarily through the social form of the pedagogy, as a cultural relay, and its social class assumptions, not its content.

The implied criticism, then, is that an ‘invisible pedagogy’, while progressive, continues to exclude working class and other children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It therefore constitutes an elitist ideology, albeit one that is based on position in a hierarchy of knowledge, as defined and sustained by the state, rather than a social class hierarchy based on position in a production economy, as defined and sustained by the market.

What is the potential contemporary relevance of Bernstein’s thought, applied to higher education in the early 21st century?

One potential avenue might be to explore the move towards online, distance education and the e-learning pedagogic model.

Would the lesson be that the adoption of this pedagogic model, once more, simply selects and privileges specific middle class fractions over certain others (how defined?), while continuing to exclude the working class (re-defined for an international context and a re-articulated mode capitalist enterprise) and other disadvantaged groups. E-learning, therefore, remains an elitist ideology.

A question then arises: can there be such a pedagogic model as ‘open educational practice’ that differs significantly from ‘e-learning’, both in its distributional effects and its ideological apparatus? Or is it just another example highlighting the impossibility of a progressive education that would not be exclusionary and therefore unethical.

For a more prolonged engagement with Bernstein’s discourse, see:

Parsons, A. (2014a) The scene of teaching. A work in progress. Poiesis and Prolepsis [Blog]. Available at

Parsons, A. (2014b) Scholarisation, classification. Poiesis and Prolepsis [Blog]. Available at


Bernstein, B. (1975). Class and pedagogies: visible and invisible. Studies in the Learning Sciences, 2. Paris, France, Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Develelopment. Available at:

Bernstein, B. (2004). Social class and pedagogic practice. In S. J. Ball, (ed.) The RoutledgeFalmer reader in sociology of education. London, UK: RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 196–217. Available at:


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