Pedagogy has something to teach us

Inevitable examples of jargon or poor research are no reason to reject an entire discipline, say Debby Cotton, Elizabeth Cleaver and Dilly Fung

December 2, 2020
Students in a lecture theatre
Source: iStock

There are many who believe that trying to direct academics is like herding cats. As people who have all attempted this feat at various points in our careers, we know that some can certainly be resistant to changing their teaching. But the idea that the research evidence of an entire discipline can be ignored simply because of one or two poor experiences with particular education specialists is untenable. Thus, it was no surprise to see an argument erupt on Twitter last week over an article in Times Higher Education titled “Pedagogy has nothing to teach us”.

It would be easy to criticise the author of this anonymous piece, as some have done, on the grounds that they admit to not being drawn to teaching. It is clear that for some in higher education, research is their love, teaching the chore (think about the terminology – “research time”, “teaching load”). But, over the years, a number of quite negative articles about teaching development have appeared; indeed, the arguments are ones that we have all heard from others, and they are worthy of consideration. So we intend to offer here a more positive view of how educational development can help academics develop as scholars.

The first issue raised by the THE article is terminology. The word pedagogy to which the writer objects so violently is not altogether helpful, even to those within the discipline, as it summons up images of strict or pedantic teachers teaching small children! But every discipline has its own language and education’s is, in most cases, no more complex or contested than that of any other field. It is one of the jobs of an educational developer to translate that terminology for those unfamiliar with the discipline. 

A second issue is the use of research to inform policy, practice and decision-making. This is rarely embraced in universities, but using evidence to enhance teaching seems to attract particular ire, with the quality of pedagogic research often being called into question. Without doubt there is some inconsistency and poor research in the literature, as there is in any field. But this is where the guidance of an expert can help sift through papers, draw attention to key theories, and entertain critique and challenge when these come from a position of knowledge.

Institutions need to invest in attractive scholarly roles and career tracks for educational developers with the expertise and standing needed to carry out this role. This is vital if academics are to be helped to understand that while education theories are often context dependent, they offer a springboard for enhancing teaching that goes beyond unscholarly trial and error.

Those developers need to understand discipline-specific as well as generic educational practices and cultures. There is a growing literature on discipline-specific approaches to education and our disciplinary pedagogies can and should form part of our teaching tool kit, supporting our students to engage in important disciplinary ways of thinking and doing.

However, we must also puncture the enduring belief – expressed in the THE article – that because some education research is irrelevant across disciplines, any teaching course that covers a range of subjects is unhelpful. Academics are surely able to recognise that some principles play out similarly across disciplines. Teaching is so much more than telling students about research and knowledge, after all. And there is no doubt that teaching, in and of itself, can generate and extend disciplinary understandings.

Let’s remember that disciplines are neither exclusive nor static. Their infinite nature (forever expanding our knowledge and understanding) and porous boundaries provide opportunities for new ways of thinking and doing to emerge from a range of directions. We have witnessed ourselves how integrating new approaches to teaching and learning can shine a light on disciplinary practices, making the familiar strange and leading to changed perceptions.

As comments under the THE article note, this is an increasingly polarised debate, picking up on binaries that have been pulled into further tension by external pressures, such as the UK’s separate teaching and research excellence frameworks. So we’d like to conclude with a plea to bring teaching and research closer together. As academics with both research and teaching roles, we recognise the importance of using evidence to underpin what we do in higher education – including pedagogic research and engaging students in research processes. We also recognise the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to resolving “wicked” 21st century problems.

Great education, within and across disciplines, engages students in active investigations and connects them with cutting-edge research and practice in their field and beyond – using models such as the Connected Curriculum. As educators, we can model scholarship, not only in our own specialisms but also by drawing on pedagogic research that shines a light on curriculum design, teaching and learning, and student assessment.

Those academics who are willing to doubt what they think they know and to interrogate critically tacit assumptions, received wisdom and “common sense” are demonstrating a truly scholarly approach to being educators. Let’s keep our discussions civil and our minds open – just as we ask our students to do.

Debby Cotton is director of academic practice and PGR co-ordinator (education) at Plymouth Marjon University. Elizabeth Cleaver is pro vice-chancellor (education and digital) at Bucks New University. Dilly Fung is pro-director for education at the London School of Economics and professor in practice at the LSE School of Public Policy.

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Reader's comments (10)

Thanks. Well put. I hope our anon friend has an open enough mind to consider your points.
I agree that pedagogy is valuable, and perhaps the European tradition of Didaktik is even more valuable. Those who prefer the unexamined life of teaching need to read a bit of Socrates and Schön. But I wonder whether we are emphasising Boyer's scholarship of teaching too much. Surely for most higher education teaching and teachers the main goal is quality teaching. Quality teaching may be the same as or at least overlap substantially with scholarly teaching. While scholarly teaching relies on the findings of the scholarship of teaching and learning, they remain different and separate activities. While all teachers should aspire to scholarly teaching, only a minority of specialists are engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Perhaps our emphasis on the scholarship of teaching and learning undertaken by the few is diverting us from developing scholarly teaching amongst the many.
Let's be clear here; education is not a discipline. Any such attempts to establish credibility that it is, just alienates discipline devotees further. A telling line from this article is; "to offer here a more positive view of how educational development can help academics develop as scholars". Well no thanks, if I want to develop my scholarship further I'll take guidance from my discipline's colleagues. They are better positioned to embrace and to advise because they understand my discipline's complexities. Educational Development is nothing more than interference; often by taking a moral high ground posture of 'knowing better'. I have no difficulty in the pursuit of educational curiosity, be my guest; but please reign in this curiosity and please self isolate yourselves.
There is a sizeable literature on effective educational practice grounded in evidence ranging from randomised control trials to qualitative analysis. Quantitative studies are summarised in meta analyses, such as Schneider and Preckel (2017) for higher education and Hattie (2009) for school education. Hattie, John (2009) Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge, London and New York. Schneider, Michael and Preckel, Franzis (2017) Variables associated with achievement in higher education: a systematic review of meta-analyses, Psychological Bulletin, volume 143, number 6, pages 565-600.
Forgive me for asking this question, and with the greatest respect, ... so what??
Educational development is not 'taking a moral high ground posture of "knowing better"', but applying the results of research to practice.
If ALL the research leads to an unequivocal acceptance of those approaches being proposed by educational developers, then you, (as an educational developer??) might have a stronger case. It doesn't though does it?? At the moment educational developers seem only to profess what has emerged from the faculty of opinion, not the faculty of science. My opinion has little in common with most educational development ideas that have been forced on my profession. The debate that educational developers seem to want to have is similar to that of a debate about good parenting. Exchanging views on parenting is both important and captivating, BUT never make the mistake of telling a parent what to do; in your language "applying the results of research to practice". At that point a line has been crossed.
But I have cited 2 studies of educational research which are based on evidence, not on a consensus of opinion. To which I add Kirschner and Hendrick (2020) who summarise 28 seminal studies in cognitive science and educational psychology which inform education. Kirschner, Paul A and Hendrick, Carl (2020) How learning happens: Seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean in practice. Routledge.
I think you have to accept that, despite the evidence you insist exists, educational developers are still struggling to win their arguments. What you get excited by does not excite me. Or indeed many of my colleagues who, at best, humour those who promote prescribed approaches to teaching and learning. Quite frankly many of those within your fraternity have not acquitted themselves well with teaching. This is not to say that my colleagues, or I, dismiss new ideas in teaching and learning, we often have engaging and relevant discussions about both. I think we object to evangelical impositions from our fellow academics from across campus because they infiltrate the soft underbelly of our VC's weakness, and they try infect us with views we don't share. Hence my comment about crossing lines. I would never advocate dismissing your scholarly activities. If you get excited about either the Psychology, Philosophy or Sociology of Education then good for you. If you wish to espouse the evidence you think exists then fine. If you wish to think that the eclectic use of established disciplines has formed another respectable discipline then be happy in your scholarly activities. By all means get excited by the work of others in your fraternity. Please remember, however, there are many others who do not share your views, and we all need to be respected.
I acknowledge that many university academics are poor teachers and refuse to examine evidence that would improve their teaching, but I do not respect persistence with practice which is both poor and poorly informed.


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