BACKGROUND Nurses are required to base care on research evidence but research findings on nursing practice often suggest that the linkage is poor and ritualistic routines often prevail. AIMS The study explored the origin and nature of knowledge utilised by nurse teachers when developing and implementing a curriculum. METHODS In a single, ethnographic case study data were collected from two curriculum development and two curriculum implementation groups, using interviews, participant observation and documents. The study drew directly on Bernstein's theory of the pedagogic device and cultural reproduction. RESULTS Findings suggested that even though nurse education appears to be dominated by policies and guidelines produced by state agencies, it was teachers operating at institutional and classroom levels who determined what was delivered to student nurses as they relied upon their experience of teaching and clinical practice to plan and implement curriculum. Notwithstanding both national and local aspirations to the contrary, teaching and assessment practices were mostly teacher- rather than student-centred, with heavy reliance on propositional knowledge. CONCLUSION The practices identified within this study may induce approaches to learning that may be antithetical to delivering research based care within a prevailing climate that advocates evidence-based practice, clinical effectiveness and governance.