Community as curriculum in accounting – #rhizo15 week 3

In week 3 of #rhizo15, Dave Cormier challenges us to think about the idea that “content” in educational settings is really just another word for people and the communities they operate in (at least that’s my attempt to sum up his argument in a sentence). He links this to the idea that humans are particularly good at creating abstractions, which we then all believe in so as to make sense of the world we live in. These abstractions include money, government, law, marriage and lots of others. This approach, I discovered a couple of years ago, is sometimes referred to as social constructionism – a colleague who is very familiar with this field recommended John Searle’s Making the Social World as a good overview, and I found the book interesting, if slightly heavy going. But in reading it, I realised that I could pinpoint my first realisation of this idea shortly after I started teaching.

At this point I should explain that I am a Chartered Accountant by profession, and proud of it, although people often seem to think I don’t fit their stereotype of an accountant. Accounting is a very fruitful area to explore these ideas as it deals almost entirely in “socially constructed” realities. Money, companies, financial statements, management accounting techniques, shareholders, investments – all of these are things which we have created as a set of communities. They have no objective existence, are only sustained by the fact that people believe in them, and would all vanish if the human race went extinct. When we teach someone how to do management accounting or the rules for financial reporting, for example, all we are doing is sharing the consensus that has built up over the decades and centuries about how these things should be done. That consensus changes over time and will continue to change.

The book that helped me understand all this, that I read in my early teaching days, is called Relevance Lost: Rise and Fall of Management Accounting by Johnson and Kaplan and was published in 1991. I found it riveting and still feel it should be required reading for all accountants. It traces the history of management accounting techniques in American businesses, showing that they arose in a specific set of historical circumstances which in many cases have changed drastically. The authors believed that management accounting was no longer fit for purpose and later went on to develop the two most important ideas that management accounting has seen in recent decades – the balanced scorecard and activity-based costing (both of which, incidentally, remain far too under-used).

So the concept of “community as curriculum”, or that content means people, doesn’t feel odd or uncomfortable to me – in fact in accounting it is more or less stating the obvious. The accounting curriculum represents the current consensus of the community of accountants, expressed through the syllabi which the accounting bodies determine. But it does raise two quite important questions for me, which continue to nag away:

  1. It is easy to see that accounting knowledge is based entirely on social constructions, but surely some knowledge is not. Two chemicals, for example, will react together a certain way regardless of what the community thinks. Don’t the physical sciences have certain objective knowledge, a curriculum if you like, that exists independently of the community? So does this require a different teaching approach to the social sciences?
  2. The issue of community membership cannot be ignored. In most (if not all) fields of knowledge, we will not allow anyone who feels like it to define the curriculum. A certain level of competence must be required first. Someone who qualifies as a Chartered Accountant has demonstrated sufficient expertise to be accepted into that particular professional community and will play their part in the ongoing development of accounting. At present, this entry is quite formal, controlled by professional bodies and largely dependent on passing written exams. I suppose in a sense this entry represents the community accepting the person. But this all feels quite archaic and restrictive. Are there better ways of deciding who is fit to join the community and who is not? I would love to tap into some creative ideas about how else this could be done.

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