Debates about pedagogy are particularly heated at the moment, and one does not need to look hard to find a point of view. Should children be taught via direct instruction? Yes, or no? Should children work independently? Yes, or no? Should children learn through oral recitation? Yes, or no? Should children be taught through a form of Socratic dialogue? Yes, or no? In the worst cases, the ‘yes or no’ answer to each question gets associated with particular educational philosophies and it becomes assumed that ‘to be a traditionalist’ or ‘to be a progressive’ is to associate with one set of these answers. I want in this post to say a little about why I think these arguments are misplaced.
I have argued previously that teaching methods should not be prescribed. My argument there was primarily that I would rather a teacher did what he or she believes in and can make work, rather than be forced to do something that he or she does not believe in. If a teacher is doing something that is clearly working, and they can offer a persuasive account of why it works, then let them get on with the job. This is not to say that we should not challenge one another and be open to alternative ways of doing things – that is part of being a professional. But when suggestion turns to coercion, then I start to worry that we are going back to the days of the pedagogy police being active in schools.
All of this, however, points to a wider point about the relationship of pedagogy to curriculum. Many of the debates about pedagogy relate to universal maxims – “one must use group work!”, “the teacher should teach from the front!”, “teachers should use more dialogic methods!”, and so on. I over-simplify somewhat, but I see a great deal of debate on Twitter that makes the assumption that the teaching method being advocated is intrinsically a good thing.
But I would question whether any method is ever intrinsically good. My Aristotelian leanings will shine through here, but I would always argue that any given method needs to be understood in the context of what is trying to be achieved. I have quipped before that group work is a brilliant tool for teaching a choir or a rugby team, and that is because those are group activities by nature. This is not to say that getting members of a choir or a rugby player to work on something individually is not important (it clearly is) but you would always want a significant component of the teaching to take place as a group. Such examples are perhaps a little blunt, but the principle I think is sound: let the nature of the thing being taught drive the pedagogy, and not the other way round.
A curriculum provides us with this guidance, although a curriculum is only ever a proxy for the wider practice that we teach. The curriculum is not the discipline of history, but rather an interpretation of the discipline. One of the reasons we need experts teaching subjects is that they understand this relationship and the problems it entails. A teacher needs to have an eye on the curriculum and an eye on the wider thing being taught, using this to elucidate his or her teaching aims, and the content (and I use the word in the broadest possible sense) to be taught.
And it is this, I would suggest, which should drive pedagogy. Not a sense of universal maxims, but rather action directed by purpose. Any debate about teaching methods needs to take place under the auspices of “what am I trying to teach?” This, however, creates problems for generic debate, particularly in a medium such as Twitter that encourages brevity and simplification. The best discussions about pedagogy on Twitter take place between teachers of the same subject, and involve scientists, or mathematicians, or historians, musing over how to achieve the ends they set themselves. The worst discussions about pedagogy on Twitter take place between teachers of different subjects: devoid of any common sense of purpose, these discussions fall back on notions that a method is ‘intrinsically good’ or ‘intrinsically bad’.
This is not to say that generic discussions about pedagogy are a waste of time. Nor is it to say that teachers of one subject have nothing to learn from another. I would argue, however, that where discussions do take place in a generic sense, then the fundamental limitations of that conversation are recognised and appreciated.