Knowledge Building Project

Project Contact

Dr Peter Woelert

Project Details

This project examined two important disciplines, history and physics, in the markedly changed environment for schools and universities in the 21st century, and in the context of ongoing debates about knowledge and the purposes of education today.

It used interviews with a large number of teachers and academics across different kinds of schools and universities to examine changing practices and pressures across the education trajectory, and to develop a perspective on and new questions about what is being set in train in education today.

Research questions and aims

  1. What kinds of knowledge and priorities are now being developed within the teaching of history and physics in secondary schooling, undergraduate, and postgraduate research-oriented education?
  2. How are cross-disciplinary, outcomes, competencies and productivity agendas impacting on institutional thinking in each stage?
  3. Is the Australian policy emphasis on learning outcomes and on auditing and managing education achievements in schooling and higher education distorting and undermining knowledge building?
  4. What are the specific forms of knowledge associated with physics and history and how might these be best facilitated in the organization and ordering of curriculum across the education trajectory?



The project was funded as an Australian Research Council Discovery Project 2011-2015 (DP DP110102466).

Research Outcomes

Selected findings from the Knowledge Building Project are highlighted below.

A fuller account and discussion of project findings is available via the Knowledge at the Crossroads? book and in other publications generated by the project (available via the publications tab above).

Selected findings

Researching across schools and university

  • Schools and universities are often researched in isolation from each other, but we show commonalities of concerns across both, and implications of change at either level for the other parts of the education trajectory.

Knowledge and education policy

  • Different structures of knowledge represented by physics and history (vertical/horizontal paradigm convergent/paradigm divergent) are pertinent issues for curriculum and research, but are often inadequately addressed in Australian policy and management which favour uniform templates for curriculum progression and to measure research outcomes.
  • ‘Innovation’ agendas often take too little account of domain specificities and underpinnings of new work.

History and physics as forms of knowledge

  • Our findings confirm some earlier depiction of differences between these as ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ forms of knowledge, but also show that the translation into school curriculum faces some similar challenges for both disciplines.
  • We found much similarity in how historians and physicists talk about what is ‘powerful’ in discipline-based study, and that they see this as in conflict with some outcomes-based, short-term and utilitarian agendas in recent reforms.
  • Differences in the two forms of knowledge do provide different kinds of challenges for each in the current reform environment, both as school subjects and in universities. For physics, issues relating to ‘knowledge explosion’ and mathematical underpinning are big curriculum challenges; for history, political agendas and overarching university reforms are areas of concern.


  • Historians and physicists accept accountability in principle, and are open to and involved in interdisciplinary research. But they are concerned about current forms of performance management and research priority setting that distort the knowledge work itself.
  • Disciplinary training produces not only particular knowledge and skills but also forms of identity and dispositions. It is these as well as particular knowledge and skills that are important initial underpinnings of interdisciplinary research and teaching. It is this systematic formation within the form of knowledge that is potentially weakened by some organizational changes to universities that are now in train.

Competencies, skills, vocationalism

  • Both school and university teachers in history and physics are concerned about the effects of short-term vocational agendas on student choice of subjects and their disengagement in foundational subjects.
  • In relation to knowledge-building, these ‘traditional’ disciplines offer depth and ‘problem portable’ knowledge as foundations for students, compared with skills-focused and problem-focused curricula.

Australian schools and the history curriculum

  • The project shows some mismatch between how teachers understand what is important in doing history and how politicians (of both sides) see this.
  • Interviews with history teachers indicate the difficulties of achieving content selection for civic purposes without overloading content and undermining the time needed for history to be effective as a field of study for students.

Published Research


  1. Yates, L., Woelert, P., Millar, V. and O’Connor, K. (2017). Knowledge at the Crossroads: History and physics in the changing world of schools and universities. Singapore: Springer.

Peer-reviewed journal articles

  1. Yates, L. (2012). ‘My School, My University, My Country, My World, My Google, Myself…What is education for now?’. The Australian Educational Researcher, 39(3): 259-274.
  2. Woelert, P. (2012). ‘Idealization and external symbolic storage: The epistemic and technical dimensions of theoretic cognition’. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 11(3): 335-366.
  3. Yates, L. (2013). ‘Revisiting curriculum, the numbers game and the inequality problem’. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45(1): 39-51.
  4. Woelert, P. & Millar, V. (2013). ‘The ‘paradox of interdisciplinarity’ in Australian research governance. Higher Education, 66(6): 755-767.
  5. O’Connor, K. & Yates, L. (2013). ‘Disciplinary representation on institutional websites: Changing knowledge, changing power?’. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 46(1): 1-16.
  6. Woelert, P. (2013). ‘The ‘economy of memory’: Publications, citations, and the paradox of effective research governance’. Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy, 51(3): 341-362.
  7. Woelert, P. (2013). Technology, knowledge, governance: The political relevance of Husserl’s critique of the epistemic effects of formalization. Continental Philosophy Review, 46(4): 487-507.
  8. O’Connor, K. (2014). MOOCs, institutional policy and change dynamics in higher education. Higher Education, 68(5): 623-635.
  9. Woelert, P., & Yates, L. (2014). Too little and too much trust: Performance measurement in Australian higher education. Critical Studies in Education. 56(2): 175-189.
  10. Savage, G., O’Connor, K. & Brass, J. (2014) Common Core State Standards: Implications for understanding curriculum, equality and policy making’. [Perspectives editorial]. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 11(1), pp. 18-20.
  11. O’Connor, K. (2014) Standards or curriculum? Policy constructions of the what and how of schooling. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 11(1): 18-20.
  12. Savage, G. and O’Connor, K. (2015). National agendas in global times: Curriculum reforms in Australia and the USA since the 1980s. Journal of Education Policy, 30(5): 609-630.
  13. Woelert, P. (2015). Governing knowledge: The formalization dilemma in the governance of the public sciences. Minerva: A review of science, learning and policy, 53(1): 1-19.
  14. Woelert, P. (2015). The ‘logics of escalation’ in performance measurement: An analysis of the dynamics of a research evaluation system. Policy & Society. 34(1): 75-85.
  15. Yates, L. & Millar, V. (2016) ‘Powerful knowledge’ curriculum theories and the case of physics. The Curriculum Journal, 27(3), 298-312.
  16. Millar V. (2016) interdisciplinary curriculum reform in the changing university. Teaching in Higher Education, 21(4), 471 – 483.
  17. Yates, L. (2016) Europe, transnational curriculum movements and comparative curriculum theorizing. European Educational Research Journal, 15(3), 366-373.

Conference proceedings

  1. Woelert, P. (2014). Between ‘autonomy’ and ‘control’: A comparative perspective on university governance reforms. Paper presented at EAIR - The European Higher Education Society Annual Forum 2014, Essen, Germany.

Publications in newspapers/opinion pieces

  1. Woelert, P. ‘Critical case of too much information’. The Australian, Higher education section, 24 October 2012.
  2. Woelert, P. ‘In research, more is less’. The Australian, Higher education section, 5 December 2012.
  3. Woelert, P. & Millar, V. The interdisciplinarity mismatch. LH Martin Institute Newsletter, 3 June 2013.
  4. Woelert, P. Research citations more than a number’s game. The Australian, Higher education section, 12 June 2013.
  5. Woelert, P. Australian research funding cycles are impeding innovation. LH Martin Institute Newsletter, 15 November 2013.
  6. Woelert, P. Why our university funding debate wouldn't make sense to Germans. The Conversation, 22 October 2014.
  7. Woelert, P. From performance to conformance: The ‘coercive’ effect of performance-based research governance systems. Higher Education Development Association Blog, University of Oslo, 2 July 2015.