On the generic and the specific

I recently read this excellent journal article on the structure of academic self-concept by Arens et al (2021). 

The article is about different models of academic self-concept (pupils self-perceptions of their own performance or ability in school subjects), and looks in part at whether or not there is a ‘general’ academic self-concept (across subjects, example question: ‘I’m among the best in my class at all subjects’) at as well as subject-specific self-concepts (e.g. for maths, English, geography. Example question: “I get good grades in maths’). 

The authors find that both are true, and that both general self-concept and subject specific self-concept predict grades (albeit that the relationship between subject-specific self-concept and grades in that subject is stronger than that between general academic self-concept and grades in a subject). Models that include a general as well as subject-specific academic self-concepts fit the data better than those that only include one of the two. So academic self-concept is both subject-specific and general.

This actually appears to be true of a lot of things in education. For example, grades in different subjects are quite significantly correlated with one another, but the correlation is not so strong as to suggest that they are merely measuring some underlying ‘general attainment’ or IQ (Muijs, 1997; Deary et al, 2007).

The evidence suggests that this is equally true of other areas in education. Pedagogy/didactics are in part subject-specific, but also have strong common elements (think of the use of feedback or explicit instruction). Strategies such as retrieval practice also work well across subjects (Muijs & Reynolds, 2017; Surma et al, 2020). 

Educational leadership likewise is both about specific knowledge of pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, and context and culture of the school, but also about generic aspects such as communication, creating trust, and consistency (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Zenger & Folkman, 2019; Barker & Rees, 2020)

I believe the same is true of curriculum. While subjects of course have their own nature, epistemology and structure, curriculum design also has common elements, such as the importance of sequencing and language. And subjects have connections to one another as well as differences (Asbee, 2021; Meester, 2021). 

This probably all seems pretty common-sensical. Yet in education we are still often drawn to deny this duality of the generic and the specific. Recently there has been a strong tendency to stress the specific. Teaching quality cannot be described in general. Curriculum design. can only be done by specialists and at subject level, and leadership is all about in-depth specific knowledge.

That this view has been stressed is understandable as a justified backlash to a context in which with generic leadership strategies could simply be copied from business, generic teaching methods applied across all school subjects, and curricula based on ‘transferable skills’, a view common in the 2000’s, and still present in the thinking of many across education.

Yet going to the opposite position and claiming everything is specific also appears to be quite an extreme position. In teaching, for example, it appears to gainsay all the evidence that learning itself is a pretty generic process, which would suggest that at least some elements of teaching are as well. All the evidence we have suggests that most things in education are neither general nor specific, but both, and we would do well to remember this before we simplistically replace genericism by specificism instead.


Arens, A. K., Jansen, M., Preckel, F., Schmidt, I. & Brunner, M.  (2021). The structure of academic self-concept: A methodological review and empirical illustration of central models.  Review of Educational Research, 91(1), 34-72.

Ashbee, R. (2021). Curriculum. Theory, culture and the subject specialisms. London: Routledge.

Barker, J. & Rees, T. (2020). 2020: a new perspective for school leadership? Impact. Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching. https://impact.chartered.college/article/2020-new-perspective-school-leadership/

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. 

Deary V, Chalder T and Sharpe M (2007) The cognitive behavioural model of medically unexplained symptoms: A theoretical and empirical review. Clinical Psychology Review 27(7): 781–797. 

Meester, E. (2021). Wetenswaardig. Curriculumontwikkeling voor primair onderwijs. Huizen: Uitgeverij Pica.

Muijs, R. D. (1997). Predictors of academic achievement and academic self-concept: A longitudinal perspective.British Journal of Educational Psychology, 67, 263-277.

Muijs, R. D. & Reynolds, D. (2017). Effective teaching. Evidence and practice. Newbury Park: Sage.

Surma, T., Vanhoywhegen, K., Sluysmans, D., Camp. G., Kirschner, P & Muijs, D. (2019). Wijze lessen. 12 bouwstenen voor effectieve didactiek. Meppel: Ten Brink.

Zenger, J. & Folkman, J. (2009). The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders; Second Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. 

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