Pedagogy has nothing to teach us

Most lecturers dread educationalists’ holier-than-thou, discipline-blind invocations of the latest teaching fads, says an anonymous academic

November 26, 2020
Pedagogy’s ever-shifting gospel has nothing to teach working lecturers
Source: Getty/iStock montage

Pedagogy. It basically means teaching: “the art, occupation, or practice of teaching”, to be precise, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ve been doing it for more than 11 years now. So, why have I come to dread that word?

Academic faculty talk to each other about our teaching with mixed feelings. It is clear to us that teaching is not the main reason we entered academia; we did that because of the research freedom we thought it would give us. We power through the teaching terms, looking forward to the months after we complete our marking, when we can hopefully find a little time to follow our passions.

Nonetheless, each of us finds certain components of teaching that we enjoy: particular topics we feel passionate about, certain ideas we feel we convey in a unique way and, of course, those rare occasions when a student approaches us after class and asks us a question that does not have anything to do with the final exam. Furthermore, most of us, myself included, do put a significant amount of time and effort into making our teaching good. It is not an aspect of our job we treat as an afterthought; we even take a certain amount of pride in it.

Nor do we have a problem with there being those whose field of research and study is education itself. Like any other academic field, it can be of great intellectual appeal. It can also be useful, shining light on teaching issues that are relevant to us.

What we do have a problem with is when those who study education as an academic field – be it as their primary field of research or as a complement to their primary research field – begin to impose their views on all academic faculty.

This is where pedagogy comes in. When that highbrow term is used, I know that the person talking to me is going to speak of teaching not merely from the point of view of a colleague offering advice based on their own experience. I know I’m about to be subjected to the holier-than-thou approach of someone ready to espouse the newest teaching fads as if they were the gospel truth, often with complete disregard for the specifics of my own field.

I know that such an expert is going to tell me how my course’s web page should be structured. I know that they are going to tell me what balance between lecturing and class activities I should have in my courses. I know they are going to cite studies supporting their beliefs regarding how teaching should be carried out, without engaging in any real debate about the weaknesses and biases of these studies (of which there are usually many).

And I know, worst of all, that such an expert is going to offer their advice to directors of learning and teaching across the university, directors who are desperate for any method of “improving the student experience”, delirious at the prospect of better national student survey rankings and higher rankings.

Such directors are always quick to adopt such advice, as they have been sadly quick to adopt other measures of so-called “quality control” in teaching and assessment (which ultimately guarantee no quality at all). They are happy to ignore the vast differences between academic fields, oblivious to the dangers of implementing blanket policies even within a single discipline, let alone across an entire college or university.

Am I saying that I have nothing to learn from those who study pedagogy? Of course not. I write, in fact, as someone considered by my colleagues to put a significant amount of time and effort into my teaching. But the way that the experts peddle their frequently flawed advice is not progressive, it is dictatorial.

Furthermore, academics’ time is stretched far too thinly to begin with. Our research students often don’t get the time they deserve from us. We do research during our vacations. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen yet another article on academic burnout.

So, dear education experts in universities, please remember: you may view yourselves as akin to Messiahs, blessing us benighted heathens with the revelatory truths of your new religions. You may think that if we would just drop everything and undertake complete bottom-to-top redesign of our courses, our students would learn more and have greater satisfaction. But remember that we can’t just drop our responsibilities for research and administration; we have contracts to fulfil.

Before you work our departmental heads up into a frenzy of evangelical zeal to transform our all-wrong teaching, please remember that you may be overestimating how much you know about how my field is taught – and how it can or should be taught.

And bear this in mind, too: once you utter the p-word, or any of its similarly pretentious relatives, most of your audience has already reached a conclusion that our experience has taught us to be statistically correct: there is no common ground between us.

The author is an academic at a UK university.


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Reader's comments (24)

I'm going to borrow a response to this that I saw online - Somebody has been asked to cut his 4 hour lecture monologue videos down into digestible chunks, hasn't he?
What exactly are you trying to say??
This is simply not worthy of a response.
What a splended approach to a discourse - so why did you comment anyway? Just to move some electrons?
Nicely composed! Can't help but agree. It applies to other areas of professional interest though - dominating agendas and restricting innovation. I have experience of people with very little knowledge or experience of teaching, imposing views and values - to the benefit of no-one other than providing personal satisfaction!
Interesting, but flawed with the every greater codification and control of education perhaps? Certainly in the 25 years of working in University Academia it's been an issue of contention, not helped by some academics attitude to non-academics 'teaching'. One technician I know does more 'teaching' than ANY of their departments individual academics, but even though they hold a professional teaching qualification because they are not an 'academic' they cannot claim to 'teach', not even or especially in their annual appraisal. As a survey of academics and their qualifications to teach in one of the most 'teaching' active departments proved, 99% of academics were not formally qualified to teach. 'Teaching' academics really should improve their qualifications to do so, if only to protect themselves and their job in the future, or there may be little to persuade higher management they are needed when hired in voice actors can deliver pre-recorded lectures without the cost overheads of office space and USS pensions...
Alas, putting a lot of work in to one's teaching does not correlate with it being effective. I've heard many students use similar arguments when presented with low assignment marks. The sentiment that educational research is all very well, as long as it stays in its academic lane and doesn't offer alternatives for change strikes me as negative and blinkered. How changes in teaching and learning approaches are implemented seems to be the problem here, not the need for, or nature of, the change itself.
I can relate with the fact that between you and me there is no common ground.
Ah, the cult of pedagogy! Every one of these courses I've encountered (in 25 years) has been virtually useless, grinding, patronising and with only one correct answer regardless of what you teach. If you don't conform, you don't pass. When I finished my qualification, after a year of being told be responsive to feedback, and the feedback for the this course was almost universally negative, one of the leaders said: 'Yes, that's what participants said last year'. He might have been working on an article on pedagogy and cognitive dissonance for a journal not read by anyone who, you know, teaches actual students. We had our first year curriculum ruined for four years because management listened to some Utopian nonsense which ignored any evidence, of which there was plenty, which didn't conform to the half-arsed, ill-thought dogma generated by someone deemed incapable of being put in front of UGs
Tiptoes in: I am one of those who study/research education... but my standpoint in advising colleagues (which I have been asked to do a lot lately, for my sins my specialty is online education!) is always to ensure that each lecturer's own 'voice' is heard. Students want to sit at the feet of these often world-class minds and hear what they have to say unfiltered by anything that I might suggest to them about how they deliver it. And I am found in front of a class of students myself often enough that I only suggest things I've tried out and which pass the "don't need to turn on the sprinklers to keep the students awake" test :)
The sad assumption (reality) of this article is, "It is clear to us that teaching is not the main reason we entered academia; we did that because of the research freedom we thought it would give us." The primary privilege of university faculty is teaching, research is icing on the cake. Teaching is the reason I entered academia.
I agree! I love my research, but the reason I entered academia was to teach, and I love it. I find it very problematic that it is almost expected that we will somehow think of a major part computer roles as a sort of “nuisance” that needs to be endured. It’s amazing! Except for marking, I’m not too fond of that (even if it is a great teaching tool in its own right)
“It is clear to us that teaching is not the main reason we entered academia; we did that because of the research freedom we thought it would give us.” Unfortunately this article is the sad evidence that far too many academics teaching are doing it because they have to, not because they want to... one fortunately does not need a degree in academic practice to understand the real meaning of the fact that the writer needs to state multiple times: my teaching is good!
Have to agree with the author - pious, preaching, pedagogists don't seem to worry about evidence based practice. Mostly old wine in new bottles and when you look closely the emperor is found to have no clothes. Once I'd worked out what blended learning, flipped classrooms and, yes, technology enhanced learning was I realised I'd been doing it (very successfully) for 20 years. And when I look at the evidence for what I adopted, mostly because it was more efficient, I am glad to read in various meta analyses that at least Ive done, on average, no damage with my "modern" approach. Certainly the students seem to say nice things, sometimes decades later. Others may disagree but in my experience students want to to be taught by experts on their discipline and to learn what they can't find in a book. Staff, smart world beating academics, just want to be left alone to get on with the job to the best of there abilities given all the time constraints and other pressures. Discretionary control is a key moderator of stress in a ever increasingly pressurised world. Trust in academic staff delivering quality research and educational experiences don't have to be at odds with each other. Monitoring of outcomes and delivering feedback to academics is however key as people need to be held to account. If one correlates student satisfaction with their academic experience and research quality, even having controlled for student academic ability, the relationship is very high (r~0.6-0.7). The modern zealous pedagogists seem way more concerned with process than outcome. Indeed, I have often heard some of them say teachers can't be held responsible for outcomes if the teaching process is right. What twaddle! This is just a license to be unassailable and unaccountable. Johnathon Haidt's book on the Coddling of the American mind is a worth a read. In it he speaks of the three great untruths, one of which is "...if I feel it, it must be true". Where is the consistent evidence - and I mean real evidence from well designed quantitative studies - that "modern pedagogies" are worth the energy, effort and cost from a learning outcomes perspective?
The comments here are polarised, as are similar conversations where I work. It feels like the transition to online has resulted in a widening gap in the tussle between teaching and research, and an entrenching of positions on both sides, the evidence-based pedagogy driven teachers and those continuing with more traditional modes of education. There is also the divide between those that see the students as the beating heart of HE vs those who see research as the divine purpose. With the world the way it is, higher education should be a time we help our students navigates differences in opinion so they can deal with the complex global issues facing them. This is a critical conversation, we shouldn't treat this as battle, or we are not being the role models that are needed. I am a practitioner interested in pedagogy. This article could have been written by 80% of my faculty. I welcome the author's contribution because all voices need to feel able to be heard, I do have sympathy for their position and the impossible pressures. The fact this is anonymous speaks volumes, but it concerns me. It suggests our colleagues on the other side of the pedagogy fence don't feel safe to express their views because it's against the prevailing orthodoxy of student-centric HE, and the likely social-media attack . That isn't the way to move towards respectful conversations where we can balance and respect different conceptions of teaching and research. We're both needed and we have to find constructive ways of building a dialogue.
"Pedagogy has nothing to teach us". Hmm, unconscious incompetency?
It might be helpful if hiring/promotion would not primarily be based on impact points (and networking) but more on pedagogic talent. (And yes, I mean talent - you can also learn to play piano, but without talent, it's just a pain for both - receiving and transferring partner).
Comments here fall into two camps - the enemies of pedagogic 'technique training' and people who see teaching as an essential part of academic work. Both miss the point. What I suspect the author is getting at is that a 'one size fits all' view of what works in teaching *any* subject is a mistake. We need good, innovative, evidence-based pedagogical practice in lecture halls and tutorial rooms across the land - but you teach physics in a different way to classics. Any insights that are common to both are likely to be pedestrian at best and inapplicable at worst.
Too many academics at various universities continue to wrongly comment on teaching as though it is a purely academic exercise. To really understand what the practice of teaching is about such lecturers should chat with elementary and secondary school teachers who received some level of teacher trainng. The requirements for teaching are driven by the tried and tested fact that there are individual differences in learning styles and the rates of learning among children, teenagers and adults in both formal and informal settings. As such teachers would write out lesson plans
Yes, interesting the strength of the division here. I err on the side of the article and I know that even questioning the validity of some p********l research raises hackles. I wrote something similar a few days ago I mostly think that doing your PCAP should not necessarily involve embracing the literature and jargon of p*******l reseach. It should be front-and-centre focussed on giving new academics skills to teach. Research into teaching, as the authors says, is of course a valuable research field and can shed light on the learning process (e.g. students rarely listen for more than 15 min, use pictures as anchors, people learn in different ways) but it should be left to the specialists. I separate out from pedagological researchers those valuable folk who help us to use IT and who have been utterly invaluable in our transition to online teaching.
First, why should I believe the author is an academic in a UK university. To be honest, it looks unlikely to me as it is so poorly written. So as someone who has spent 42 year working in, on and around pedagogy as my discipline, I will pass on making any substantive comments
You may not agree with the sentiments, but this piece is, in my opinion, very well written.
Sad that students must put up with a 'teacher' who is not trying to make all of their teaching worthwhile, enjoyable and not all about them as a researcher. I would also add that 80% of what they need to improve their teaching is simple mechanics, not androgogy related. I have helped many teachers teach. Without skills in writing learning outcomes, aligning assessment etc., courses can be very muddled. These are basic skills a lot of teachers lack. Anyway COVID-19 has squeezed me out of the system and now I can help no one... I hope those that remain in Educational Design and Development can help you dear author.