If We Don’t Work on Pedagogy, Nothing Else Matters

Despite the never ending discourse in the United States about how to improve our education system, we rarely talk about pedagogy. If you don’t know this word, consider yourself in good company. The Chronicle of Higher Education posted the following on Facebook this week, making it safe to conclude that a shockingly large number of university professors don’t know what pedagogy is, either.

Pedagogy defines the relationship among students, teachers, and the subject of study. It is about how we shape learning spaces as educators and learners. Ask anyone about the most important learning experiences of their lives, and they will tell you about someone who gave them insight into themselves and the world. They won’t tell you about curriculum. They won’t tell you about standards. And they won’t tell you about funding models. We spend a lot of time talking about those things because they matter. But, they aren’t at the forefront of great learning and teaching. Pedagogy is.

In my first year of teaching, the charter school I worked at required me to attend a seminar presented by a well-known teacher training organization. Over the course of the school year, I received ten hours of instruction in “research-informed” practices to manage my classroom. For example, I was told high school teachers need to transition activities every seven minutes because that was the limit of most students’ attention span. The training defined skilled teaching as a mechanistic series of “best practices.” Though we never discussed it during the training, their approach was rooted in a pedagogy that assumes teachers must fully control the learning space and process, with the goal of students being coerced into absorbing as much information as possible.

Few educators enter the field with values aligned with this kind of pedagogy. We want students to be passionate learners. We want them to be engaged with their peers and the world in productive and positive ways. We want them to leave their time with us better prepared to lead their families, communities, and our world. Frankly, none of these outcomes are easy to achieve. Our culture and society engulfs students in explicit and implicit messages that they aren’t capable of any of these things — especially students of color and those from low income families. To create the learning environments that result in the outcomes we value, we can’t just present information. We have to help students liberate themselves as learners.

Like all relationships, those between learners and teachers are dynamic and ever-changing. As such, effective pedagogy cannot be mechanistic. It cannot be prescribed as a script to be followed. As Paulo Freire points out in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, to do so is dehumanizing to everyone involved. The best teachers I know grapple with pedagogy every day because they are engaged in trying to shape the dynamic relationships in the learning space. Their teaching isn’t a profession, it’s an art.

When we commit to critically engaging with our pedagogy as part of our daily practice, magic happens. In my work founding and leading Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB), an educational institution aimed at preparing social impact leaders, I spent thirteen years working with a cadre of educators and students to create transformative learning environments. Because of the dynamic nature of learning and teaching, we intentionally spurred ongoing discourse among all members of our learning community to identify, name, and understand the tensions inherent in our work. Our goal was not to definitively arrive at great pedagogy. Rather, it was to create a praxis of inquiry, engagement, and reflection that would allow us each to learn and make more intentional and informed decisions as learners and teachers.

One of the tools that our praxis revolved around was our Principles of Learning and Teaching. The Principles were authored and continuously interrogated by all members of our community. In staff trainings and debriefs, student orientations and reflection sessions, and administrative strategy and planning sessions, the Principles provided a framework and language for examining the issues we felt were crucial to keep top of mind as we dealt with the dynamics of learning and teaching. The Principles provided quick access to our core values in ways that provoked critical engagement in the question of how to live these values together.

As the TBB community worked to engage critically with questions about the world, ourselves, and our place within it, these are the principles we identified as key to shaping our learning:

Principles of Learning & Teaching

  1. Learning and teaching require intentionality, humility, and critical reflection on the world and ourselves.
  2. The teaching/learning relationship is triangular, where teachers serve as guides, helping to illuminate the subjects we explore together as learners.
  3. There is no right way to learn.
  4. No one holds a monopoly on truth.
  5. We should strive not to have an answer for every question, but a question for every answer.
  6. Learning and teaching are intellectual, social, cultural, spiritual, and emotional processes.
  7. Learning and teaching are neither linear nor immediate — it can only start where you’re at.
  8. Each person is responsible for their own learning.
  9. Aim for greatness and believe in everyone’s capacity to achieve it.
  10. Celebrate every win.

The outcomes of our work were astounding. Students invariably reported a sense of purpose and direction for their learning. They described a sense of ownership of the process. Perhaps most importantly, the students could identify a clear relationship among their core values, their understanding of the world, and the tensions they were grappling with as they tried to create the life they wanted to live.

If we want to improve education in the United States, we need to shift our attention to pedagogy. Teacher training needs to center around pedagogical theory and practice rather than classroom management. Our school communities need to create a culture where we each have the tools and understanding necessary to own our learning and identify its purpose. When we commit to these things, we will set the stage for learning that is transformative for all.