Reach for my gun
Whenever I hear the word ‘pedagogy’, like Goebbels, I want to reach for my gun. The language of learning is a mishmash of backward-looking classical, industrial and behaviourist terms, but this is the one that masks an uncomfortable truth. Pedagogy means the ‘science of teaching’ but science is rarely a guiding hand in teaching. More often than not, so-called ‘pedagogy’ is a hotchpotch of confused practice. When you see genuinely efficient teaching, the usual sign being n attentive, engaged, note-taking or active learners, it contrasts wildly with the commonly observed inattentive, disengaged, no- note-taking, inactive (or active in the wrong way) learners.
Pedagogy – the science of teaching
If you want a heavy dose of how unscientific pedagogic talk can be I refer you to the journals Radical pedagogy and Pedagogy, Culture & Society. Here you’ll find evidence-free content of such mind blowing banality that you really will wonder whether teaching can survive the onslaught of non-empirical and faddish thought.
For a sobering account of educational research, I recommend James Tooley’s Educational Research: A Critique, commissioned by Ofsted. It was written some time ago, but not much has changed. It’s a worrying read, or as Tooley says in the Foreward ‘a pretty grim business’. Tooley studied 41 articles across four academic journals and judged them on the quality of their empirical research and within this quantitative and qualitative evidence, with a stress on sample size and the objectivity of the researchers.
What did he find? Most of the papers were of unacceptable quality. He found an abundance of subjectivity, with mostly content taken from secondary sources without citing the primary source. Much of it was ‘second rate’ .... irrelevant to classroom practice and caught up in arcane disputes’. It reminded me of the permanent secretary who famously described the then Department for Education and Schools’ as a ‘knowledge-free zone’.
Seeds of its own destruction
The word ‘pedagogy’ contains the seeds of its own destruction, as the ‘science of teaching’ is hopelessly lopsided if it is not rooted in learning. By side-stepping the real science in the psychology of learning it simply observes one-sided practice. This is not a bad thing in itself, if it is done well, but let’s not pretend that it is anything like a full picture. It’s like a cricket writer writing only about bowling, never batting or fielding (in US pitching in baseball without batting and fielding).
The consequences for the use of technology in this one-eyed view of learning, is that teacherless interventions are not taken seriously. It is assumed that teaching is a necessary condition for learning – but let’s be crystal clear on this - it’s not. The vast majority of actual learning takes place WITHOUT teaching. Teaching can induce good learning but it is not a NECESSARY condition for learning. Most pedagogic theorising assumes it does.
I’d much rather redefine pedagogy as ‘the science of teaching and/or learning’. This really would allow us to develop more radical pedagogies. Actually it may in the end be better to abandon the word altogether. How far could a radical pedagogy go? Let’s imagine we had no existing infrastrucure or practice. Working up from ground zero I’d put forward two sets of ideal features for an optimal pedagogy:
Seven cognitive features:
Achieves high levels of psychological attention
Avoids cognitive overload
Allows efficient encoding into long-term memory
Provides opportunity for spaced practice
Results in efficient recall from memory
Results in the competent application of that learning
Promotes further autonomous learning
Seven practical features:
Accessible – when learners want and need it
Flexible – in a practical format for that learner
Self-paced – matches speed of learner
Personal – suited to that person’s needs
Repeatable – caters for repeated experience
Scalable – available to large numbers of learners
Cheap – cost must be kept low
Traditional teaching rarely achieves many of these fourteen goals. This is simply how it is, it is not an attack on the professionalism or abilities of teachers themselves, it’s simply a losing battle when the cohorts are up, to 30 or more. The basic model– the classroom – is a busted flush.
Teacher pedagogies are difficult to pin down as they are mediated by real people, who have their foibles. Any pedagogic practice is subject to the personality and capabilities of the teacher. If we can develop and capture pedagogies that disintermediate teachers this must be to the benefit of learners and learning. This is a big ask, but it’s one worth pursuing.