The Myth of Pedagogy

God help me, but I really enjoy reading edu-blogs: whether they contain tips, opinions, polemical rants or genuine philosophical analysis, they are all grist to my reading mill.

However, practically all the blogs that I have read buy into what I think of as the Great Myth of Pedagogy. In fact, I think all teachers (including myself) buy into it to a greater or lesser degree. Although, on reflection, perhaps members of SLT buy into it more than most.

What is this myth? It is based on the fallacy of magical thinking:  as human beings, we all too often make causal connections or assume correlations between two events based on what is essentially superstition, rather than logic, evidence or reason.

“11Sc5 met their GCSE target grades because of the extra targeted intervention that I instigated.”

“Erm…you do know that only 3 of them ever turned up. And they were the ones that actually didn’t need to turn up.”

“Targeted, proactive intervention. It’s the way forward!”

“So — you’ll actually be doing the targeted, proactive intervention every day after school next term, then?”

“No, of course not. I can’t waste time standing in front of a whiteboard reading powerpoint slides at students! I’ll be too busy coming up with innovations like T.P.I. — targeted, proactive intervention!”

“Oh. Goody.”

As a teacher, I believe that what I do in the classroom makes a difference. I wouldn’t stay in the classroom if I didn’t believe that. However, what I am much less certain of is what exactly it is that I am doing that is actually making a difference.

Many years ago, a short story by the much underrated SF author Robert Sheckley had a profound influence on me. The story was called “Pas de Trois of the Chef and the Waiter and the Customer”. In this masterful story (which probably doesn’t sit easily in the SF genre), three narrators describe what happened in an Indonesian restaurant on a Mediterranean island some years ago.

The Chef seeks absolution for addicting the Customer to his uncommonly delicious rijstaffel dishes and precipitating the man’s decline into obesity and illness. The Waiter is racked with guilt because he used jazz music to hypnotise the Customer into overeating: he played an artfully chosen sequence of classic jazz records over the restaurant loudspeakers and observed the customer eating in time to the music. Finally, the Customer confesses that he harboured a mad passion for the young Waiter and kept eating at the restaurant because he was convinced that the Waiter was shamelessly flirting with him.

The basic shape of the story is the same according to each of the narrators; however, none of them agree on salient details such as the others’ names, nationalities or motivations. More poignantly, at the climax of the story when the Customer walks out of the restaurant for the last time, each of the characters remembers an entirely different fervidly overwrought final conversation.

Author Michel Faber (another Sheckley aficionado) writes that the message of “Pas de Trois of the Customer and the Waiter and the Customer”  is

that people inhabit different realities. By this I don’t mean that people differ in their ability to perceive the objective reality of the lives they share with others. I mean that each of us tends to live in an alternate universe, which may bear only the most incidental relationship to the universe inhabited by the next person.

There are undoubtedly some objective realities in the classroom that teacher, observer and students would agree on. But what are they? I am not sure.

The room the lesson was held in: yes. The subject matter of the lesson: probably. The absence or presence of serious misbehaviour (e.g. throwing chairs, fighting): yes. Whether the teacher was confident and knowledgeable about the lesson content: yes, probably. Whether the teacher chose the most effective activities to teach the material: no. Whether all of the students were engaged all the time: no, probably.

I hope you see my point. But where does this leave us?

My answer is: we are no worse off than before, and we are probably better off in that we have acknowledged our ignorance and we are not pretending to knowledge that we do not possess, and we are not indulging in “educational voodoo” or magical, wishful thinking.

Now I am not suggesting that this state of affairs cannot change. As more scientific research is done (perhaps along the lines of the double-blind trials or further refinements in neuroscience) we will build up more reliable knowledge of what really works in the classroom.

In the meantime, I believe that we are essentially in the “pre-scientific” age of the classroom. We are like blacksmiths before the advent of the science of metallurgy. We have a range of traditional techniques and rules of thumb that work very effectively, but we are not always sure exactly why or how they work, at least in a scientific sense. We simply know that these kinds of techniques have worked in the past. Blacksmiths knew that if they hammered a piece of iron a lot it would become harder; teachers know that “learning happens when people have to think hard” (Prof. Robert Coe‘s Simple Theory of Learning).

That’s my purpose as a teacher: to make students think really hard about stuff. By whatever means necessary.

An old proverb suggests that “It is better to light a candle than complain about the dark”. And so it is. However, the first indispensable step is to say: “Hey, is it just me or is it really dark in here?” and cautiously begin feeling your way forward.



Filed under Education, Philosophy, Science, Society

19 responses to “The Myth of Pedagogy

  1. >>As more scientific research is done (perhaps along the lines of the double-blind trials or further refinements in neuroscience) we will build up more reliable knowledge of what really works in the classroom.

    I’m afraid I rather doubt it. I no longer buy into the Great Myth of Pedagogy – and it’s liberating!

    Could I modestly refer you to my blog post and the book mentioned therein: ‘Everything is Obvious – when you know the answer” by Duncan Watts, himself a physicist?

    Human behaviour is too multivariate for us *ever* to succeed in pinning down anything more than the most outline of rules and causality. The most helpful thing is to stop trying, and simply treat each and every lesson as a unique new experience, to be interpreted and developed using one’s cunning built up anecdotally over the years.

    As you say, the rest is smoke and illusions deployed in the name of Scientific Education by individuals and organisation with too many vested interests at stake.

    • Thanks, Ian. I liked your wise, witty and humane post. I read and enjoyed the Duncan Watts book as well. I remain cautiously optimistic about the scientific enterprise, but would concede we’re in the equivalent of Kepler’s Platonic solids phase at the moment.

      • I’ve had the phrase ‘quality of teaching’ (in the national sense) reverberating annoyingly round my head all day. Your post emphasised the futility of such things admirably – such that I just had to post again 😉

  2. Pingback: Never mind the breadth – feel the quality. | teaching personally

  3. Oh, and by the way, in order to make a success of the scientific enterprise, you need to know what you want it to achieve. In my view, even that is probably different for each individual in each class.

  4. Very nice! Thank you for writing this!
    I think pedagogy is often misused instead of didactics (just because of the unfortunate connotations of the latter word). I am trying to translate my Finnish thinking of pedagogy and didactics into English language, and they come out approximately as “the ways I can help children learn” and “the art & science of instruction” — which obviously are two very different things, just as they should be, too, because learning and teaching are two very different phenomena occurring in the same space. While teaching in Finland my fellow teacher and I used to joke how fortunate it is that students keep on learning even in spite of us (we do have a wicked, self-depriving sense of humour…).
    Educational quality is a complicated matter and I really dislike the teacher evaluations focused on students’ learning products (instead of supporting the learning process), because that reflects the blind subjectivity of administration/governance of education. There is a very nice article in Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research about educational quality. (Wittek, L., & Kvernbekk, T. (2011). On the Problems of Asking for a Definition of Quality in Education. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 55(6), 671-684.)

    While pedagogy (or andragogy, if you are teaching adults) is not the answer for magically imparting information to students’ minds and forcing them to check all the correct answers in exams, it is still a very useful tool for teachers, and in my thinking the essential middle ground in between the content knowledge of curriculum and the deeper value level reflection of teachers thinking/learning process. Knowledge of pedagogy helps up to choose how we want to teach.


    • Many thanks for this comment. It would appear that the debate in Finland is somewhat more nuanced than in the UK! I will try and obtain a copy of the article you mention (and may blog about it).

  5. solocontrotutti

    “As a teacher, I believe that what I do in the classroom makes a difference. I wouldn’t stay in the classroom if I didn’t believe that. However, what I am much less certain of is what exactly it is that I am doing that is actually making a difference.”

    I’ve had that thought too.

    I think the problem is not one of science per se but how we view science.

    I think if you liberate yourself from causal based science premise and start to conceptualise a more pragmatic ways of interpreting the world then perhaps that is a start and pedagogy will seem more rational.

    The problem with the natural scientific method is that it can diminish learning. I think the Hirsh / Willingham, “core knowledge” agenda does just that. It has a few basic causal facts and then generalises out from there beyond the evidence they have.

    I’ll have to blog on it.

    • Thanks for the comment! My intention in the blog was not to criticise science per se but rather what I consider to be its misapplication or its premature application. In the meantime, pragmatism will have to do!

  6. Replying to your ‘Myth of Pedagogy’ blog, it seems clear to me that this is important to you. You’re writing about a truth that you’ve discovered, that pedagogy isn’t a real thing. Incidentally, you say all teachers, including you, buy into it – it may be interesting that truth, as valid belief, is established in the empirical scientific world by peer consensus. That’s why we rely on peer review.
    I am interested that you place magical thinking as the alternative to logic in establishing causality. Causal connections are always made on the basis of evidence of some kind, even if the evidence is that two things merely happened at the same time, or we have prior knowledge that brings them together in the easiest way, the availability error. The issue is whether or not the evidence is any good – people do their best even if the conclusions are wrong.
    You say ‘I don’t mean that people differ in their ability to perceive the objective reality of the lives they share with others’ and follow it with ‘I mean each of us tends to live in an alternate universe’? If we all had the same reality based on shared perception we’d live in a shared universe surely? Your list of objective/non-objective realities doesn’t help me to see your point I’m sorry to say. Would everyone agree on the reality of the room? Legal systems gave up using eye-witnesses because they were notoriously unreliable.
    I admire your hopefulness that randomised controlled trials and neuroscience can tell us what work pedagogically in the classroom, although neuroscience is taking a bit of a battering at the moment as an expression of the wishful thinking of the those who believe that if we do enough looking we can see the little structures in the brain that do the work of thinking and knowing. When you’re doing stuff in the classroom you’re doing pedagogy, the art and science of teaching, there can’t be a vacuum. When you come to the edges of your understanding are you relying on educational voodoo or magical wishful thinking, as you put it? Are you waiting until the heroes of science and magnetic resonance scanning tell you what to do? You say you’re relying on tradition and rules of thumb, hammering away in class and assuming that nothing changes – iron is always the same iron, children are always the same ch…… oh hang on that doesn’t work does it? The children aren’t the same in 2013 as they were in 1913 because the world isn’t the same, even if the iron is, the same. So maybe this particular base metal requires different hammering.

    So that’s the answer you’re looking for – it is really dark in here and some people are shining some light into some parts of the darkness, and they’re not necessarily indulging in educational voodoo, wishful thinkers or magicians. Looking beyond the assumptions about reality made by empirical science, at the possibilities of different ways of knowing different truths could be one way to go.

    • Thanks for some really interesting comments.

      The position I was trying to explain (perhaps with more passion than clarity) is that I disapprove of Pedagogy represented as body of scientific knowledge.

      I think there is much to learn from the shared knowledge and techniques that teachers have developed over the years, but that this is analogous to the body of knowledge of a craft such as that of a blacksmith rather than to a scientific discipline to which pedagogy is often compared (incorrectly, in my opinion).

      I think there are many objective facts about the universe about which people can agree, so that in that sense then of course we live in a shared universe. However, there are many other facts (in the sense of justified true belief) about which people would not agree (my blog post “Through Other Eyes” gives another perspective on this), so in that sense we each inhabit a different universe.

      I think “magical thinking” is a common fallacy against which we must all be on our guard and that we must always be aware that correlation does not equal causality.

      However, I do believe that we can establish reasonable levels of confidence in some causal chains and that the scientific method is usually the best way of doing this.

      I think that “always the same iron comment” underestimates the craft-knowledge of a skilled blacksmith — I believe that they would adapt their techniques based on both experience and trial and error (the prototype of the scientific method). I am certainly not of “keep-hammering-away school”. Although there are differences between the children of 2013 and 1913, I would suspect that the similarities outweigh the differences, and that the “craft-knowledge” of most teachers allows them to adapt their approach in suitable ways even if presented with that challenge.

      I am not sure that there are “other ways of knowing” that have the same reliability and utility as empirical science and other empirical methods, but I would be delighted if some came to light.

      In essence, I think I am arguing for a grounded, empirical approach to the theory of teaching, rather than what I perceive as a common tendency to equate correlation with causation.

      Again, many thanks for the comments.

  7. Pingback: The Gift of Screws | e=mc2andallthat

  8. There is no pedagogy in the same way that there is no scientific study which inevitably leads to better friendships or marriages.

    I don’t want to live in a world where an algorithmic solution to the problems of love and caring and service exist.

    • I would imagine there are a number of empirical (and perhaps scientific) studies that would give insight into better friendships and marriages. There are too many variables in these situations that to make such a process inevitable, but I would expect the insights to make it more likely. I agree that simplistic algorithms would probably be unhelpful in complex human interactions, but remember that even the Ten Commandments can be classed as an algorithm.

  9. Pingback: Still Working Away In Our Silos (Thank Goodness) | e=mc2andallthat

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