We talk a lot these days about pedagogy, but what do we actually mean? Obviously, we know what the dictionary definition is: the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept, but I think we’re far more concerned about methodology than we are about practice.

I just came across this list of questions that should preoccupy teachers on Barry Smith’s blog and thought they were so useful that they might bear repeating:

  • What do my kids find hard? Why?
  • How can I teach differently so the hard bits become accessible?
  • How can I do that without dumbing down?
  • How can kids hide in my lessons?
  • How can I pre-empt the most common errors through precise and concise teaching?
  • How can I convince them that success in this subject is just a set of habits that need lots of practice?
  • How can I make those success habits explicit and ensure they weave through every lesson?

As Barry points out, sometimes teachers spend rather too much time thinking about how to do AfL or some other trendy gimmick.

This seems particularly important to me because, after reflecting on Robert Coe’s presentation on Lesson Observations last month, I’m still troubled by this slide:

What this suggests is that teachers are pretty good at ’emotional support’ and ‘classroom organisation’ but far less god at ‘instructional support’. As Professor Coe explains it, “instructional Support includes dimensions such as a the extent to which interactions promote higher order thinking, give formative feedback, and use language to promote thinking.”

After mulling this over for a while I think maybe one of the reasons we’re not as great at instructional support as we could be is that all this gets boiled down to the steaming fat of ‘pedagogy’. I’m convinced that pedagogy is, at best, a pretty unhelpful label, and at worst just the kind of obscurantist Latin mass that requires a priest class to explain to us mere mortals. It’s gimmicks rather than routines, and tricks rather than hard work.

Much better to think about what matters in our practice, and be alert to what happens in our classrooms.

And we can think about these things is a very sophisticated and exciting way, as proved by Laura McInerney’s Touchpaper Problems:

  1. What is the shortest period of a time in which any person with dyslexia can be taught to spell the 1000 most common words in English?
  2. How can one invoke in a class the emotional state most productive for: (a) prosocial behaviour, (b) evaluative thinking, (c) memorisation, (d) creation?
  3. If a child needs to remember 20 chunks of knowledge from one lesson to the next, what is the most effective homework to set?
  4. What determines the complexity of a concept?
  5. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions under which students will enter a classroom and most speedily engage in productive problem-solving?
  6. What rule best predicts teacher ‘behaviour’ ratings of pupils?
  7. What is the optimal number of times for a student to (a) read, (b) hear, or (c) say information aloud if they are to retain for 1, 3, & 6 month intervals?

(Follow the links for more information on each question.)

Some of the questions that matter to me are these:

  • How can we get pupils to think about what we want them to learn?
  • How can we best infer learning from pupils’ performance?
  • How might difficult threshold concepts be taught most effectively?
  • How should we organise a curriculum to maximise long-term retention and transfer of knowledge?
  • How best can we encourage pupils to commit to deliberate practice and the mastery of new skills?

And, one for school leaders that’s pre-occupying me:

  • How best can we judge the effectiveness of a teacher, and how can we replicate what they do?

These are all questions which might matter to teachers, questions which might be worth thinking about.

Maybe rather than pillaging the next pedagogical convoy that happens to roll past we could instead think about what matters to us, and then starting having a look for some answers.

Maybe you don’t like mine, Barry’s or Laura’s questions; maybe they’re not what matters to you. But what are your questions?

Update: maybe this post from Tait Coles on the style and code of education might prompt a few questions.

And here are Joe Kirby’s questions.