Saturday, December 13, 2008

Pedagogy – faddish, non-empirical and lopsided

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.

Radical pedagogy

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.

Future pedagogies

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.


Anonymous said...

List the variables in educational research. Popper would go mad.
Read Latour and evolve your simplistic thinking.

Donald Clark said...

First time I've seen Popper and Latour mentioned in the same post. I have learnt lots from the former and nothing from the latter. the 'actor-network' theory is more wishful than complex thinking. I'll stay with the falsifiable variables - it's not difficult.

Stephen Downes said...

> If you want a heavy dose of how unscientific pedagogic talk can be...

Instead of referring to two entire journals, it would be better to refer to specific assertions and to show that they're unscientific.

It's not that I'm disagreeing with you, it's just that such a hand-waving assertion is no better than the practices you are criticizing.

David Jennings said...

Hi Donald,

Just wondered if you'd read Guy Claxton's work in this area, such as his recent "What's the Point of School?"

I confess I've only heard him talk about so far, but on the basis of his previous work I think he uses research shrewdly. He outlines the qualities of a successful exploratory learner, including (taken from my notes of his talk, so may not be phrased as elegantly and coherently as they are in his writing):
* Scepticism: the ability to be a good tester of sources.
* Determination and persistence.
* Observant, and able to maintain focus, knowing the pleasure of being rapt (i.e. flow)
* Patience
* Knowing how to be experimental
* Imaginative, good relationship with own intuition
* Collaborative and independent
* Degree of self-awareness and reflectiveness

Donald Clark said...

Come on Stephen - this is a blog not a peer reviewed journal. Is everything you say always explicitly backed up by a full scientific study? I'm allowed to paraphrase - that's blogging!

The piece includes a scientific study into four educational journals by Professor Tooley. This was a fine piece of work. In fact, the two Journals on pedagogy I mention are even worse that those hammered in the Tooley study, in terms of scientific rigour.

Donald Clark said...

I've seen Guy talk (indeed shared a platform with him this year) and liked his reserach based suggestions, which I blogged earlier in the year (Learnish).

His scepticism on learning styles is admirable as are his recommendations on the language of learning. His 'pedagogic' thories, I feel, lack psychological vigour.