Making sense of pedagogy
Over the past few decades, many new pedagogical strategies have been developed in the attempt to improve teaching and learning. An explosion of books, articles, and other publications have been written about these different pedagogical strategies. There has also been an ongoing debate about which approach(es) is/are most effective.
After teaching for many years at both the K-12 and higher education levels and after conducting research in this field for many years, my professional experience and research findings inform me that direct, explicit instruction at the primary and secondary grade levels is very important.
As a general rule of thumb, the lower the grade level, the more direct, explicit instruction is needed, for obvious reasons. In the lower grades, most students lack the requisite mental models (schemas), knowledge base, skills, experience, emotional and social maturity, etc. to learn effectively on their own. The younger the student, all else being equal, the more guidance and supervision and direct instruction he/she needs.
This is why teachers should get to know their students and must listen to what their students have to say so they understand where each student is really at, academically and otherwise. This is why teachers should have a good understanding of their students’ knowledge and skill level and readiness for the course. This is why teachers, as subject matter experts in their field, should know which pedagogical approach(es) is/are most suited for their particular grade level, subject, learning objectives, and students’ backgrounds and readiness.
The nature of learning
Some classes are homogenous, in terms of student demographics and student abilities, and some are more heterogeneous. Depending on the particular mix of students, the teacher may adjust the direct instruction in different ways (for example, to differentiate the way instruction is delivered). In short, a sensible student-centered approach to teaching is focused on producing real learning in students and adjusts the teaching (and other factors) accordingly.
Learning is a complex biological phenomenon and a multifacteed psychological/sociological construct. Therefore, we need effective and holistic ways (for example, periodic formative and summative student assessments, assignments, projects, teacher observations) to determine the degree and depth of learning taking place in students. Measuring academic achievement is, of course, necessary but we cannot just assume that students have learned what they were expected to learn just because the content was taught.
Students, especially at the lower levels, need a structured environment and they need an expert to teach them directly and explicitly on what they need to know in order to build a solid foundation of knowledge and skills as well as the proper habits and attitudes of mind. And, ideally, teachers should do this in a way that is motivating, engaging, and participatory – that is one of the great challenges for teachers.
The nature of teaching
Scaffolded instruction should take into account the students’ background knowledge and readiness. However, this should not be conflated with the lecture only mode of teaching or with the old factory-model or banking-model of education.
For instance, a class with an introductory period of direct, scaffolded instruction of new concepts (teacher modeling and active student observation and questioning) followed by engaged students practicing/applying the concept (learning-by-doing and independent practice) can be highly effective when done in the right way by a skilled teacher. Ultimately, in order for learning to be meaningful, students should be able to apply their knowledge and skills to increasingly complex, real-world problems.
Teaching is one of the most challenging jobs in existence because the teacher has to deal with several variables at once – different student personalities, different family backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds, different personal issues, different levels of academic readiness, and group dynamics, among other factors – as well as the different aspects of the broader school and community environment.
Thus, being a content and pedagogical expert is just one aspect of being an effective teacher. This is why teaching is often viewed as a craft (part art and part science) that is developed over years of education, training, and practice. Although direct instruction is at the heart of primary and secondary school, the most effective teachers will also find ways to integrate more engaging, application-oriented, collaborative learning opportunities such as labs, projects, field learning, and independent inquiry. Thus, if done in the right way, pedagogical approaches such as inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, and project-based learning can be useful complements to direct instruction – they need not be mutually exclusive.
The nature of education
As students progress through the grades, they are expected to become more self-regulating because, with each grade, they are developing a larger knowledge base, a larger skill set, more maturity, more independence, etc. When students become adults and enter college (or the workforce), constructivist-oriented approaches to learning become increasingly appropriate because students are expected to become more like experts in their fields where they are capable of constructing new knowledge – this is especially true at the masters and doctoral levels.
This is one reason why the schooling model (where the student attends classes for several hours a day and does most of his/her work in the classroom) and the higher education model (where the student attends classes for a few hours a day and does most of his/her work outside of the classroom) are so different. In essence, the models are flipped to a large degree to reflect the different stages of student learning and personal development. Thus, we should not conflate the basic education model with the higher education model.
One specific pedagogical method is not inherently better or worse than another across the entire educational structure. It would be difficult to argue that there is only one pedagogical method that is inherently superior to all others for every grade level and every subject across the entire educational system, given the complexity of learning development throughout the different life stages.
Rather, the appropriateness and effectiveness of any one pedagogical approach depends, in large part, on the grade level, the type of course, the learning objectives of the course, and the needs and readiness of the student(s). Education is, by definition, a structured system of formal learning. It is designed to develop novices into experts over a very long period of time – about 12 years at the primary and secondary levels and then up to another ten years (to complete a doctorate) at the tertiary level. Since the ultimate goal of education is to produce learning in students, understanding the principles of learning design can help create a more effective class setting.
Patrick Blessinger is an adjunct associate professor of education at St John’s University, New York City, United States, and chief research scientist for the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association or HETL.
Blessinger, P. (2020). Making sense of pedagogy. Higher education tomorrow. Volume 7, Article 2. https://www.patrickblessinger.com/making-sense-of-pedagogy.
Copyright ©  Patrick Blessinger
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and as such do not necessarily represent the position(s) of other professionals or any institution.
The article is based on a blog post submitted by the author at https://learningspy.co.uk/literacy/constructivism-is-not-a-pedagogy/.