If you can’t convince them; confuse them. – Harry S. Truman

Pedagogy is defined as either the function or work of a teacher or as the art or science of teaching. As such, it probably seems a bit extreme to hate the word. Whilst I’ve always disliked it for its clunky, unlovely sound that neither here not there. I’m not going to rail against its pronunciation but rather its usage. It has become, I contend, a weasel word.

When people talk about pedagogy, what do they really mean? Why do they choose the word over, say, teaching? Teachers teach –  do we really need a special word to make us feel more important about what we do? I think there might be two main reasons for its use. The first is an entirely forgivable urge to sound clever. I really understand this and sometimes have to struggle against my desire to sound impressive by using abstruse or specialist phrasing. There’s a time and a place for this type of vocabulary, but it isn’t when you want your audience to understand what you’re on about. I try to take as my maxim words often put in Einstein’s mouth: that any explanation should be “as simple as possible but no simpler”.

The second and more troublesome usage of pedagogy is where it becomes a baffle. It can sometimes seem when listening to, or reading the work of an ‘expert’ that there’s a distinction drawn between ‘pedagogy’ and ‘just teaching’. Pedagogy can be used to conceal the inconsistencies in the unintuitive, the abstract, the complex and the plain confused. Don’t understand what I’m talking about? That’s because it’s pedagogical! It leads people to says things like, “Pedagogy is about guiding the learner to own their learning process.” That sort of statement appears significant, but what does it actually mean? I instinctively distrust those who use the word and suspect it’s there to suggest that they have knowledge and expertise you don’t. Maybe it’s used to obfuscate the fact that they don’t actually know anything worth saying?

One of my favourite pieces of feedback I sometimes get after speaking to teachers is that what I’ve said is ‘common sense’ or ‘obvious now you’ve said it’. That’s not to say that everything worth doing has to be common sense or obvious, it really doesn’t. As I outline here, ignorance and uncertainty can be good for us. But it does suggest that complexity for complexity’s sake is to be avoided.

Now, I accept that all this is blind prejudice on my part. A word is just a word. Maybe there are a whole host of excellent reasons for sometimes using ‘pedagogy’ instead of ‘teaching’, but having had a bit of think about it, I can’t immediately see what those reasons might be.


Between them, Sam Twisleton and David Weston have convinced me that the word might be useful when discussing the distinction between subject knowledge and subject pedagogy or pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). Maybe sometimes it is useful to have a word which helps us distinguish between the what and the how of teaching. Mea cupla. This does not excuse the majority of usages however.