Making sense of pedagogy

Patrick Blessinger

Over the past few decades, many new pedagogical (teaching) strategies have been developed in an attempt to improve teaching and learning at all levels. An explosion of books, articles, videos, podcasts, blogs, and other publications have been produced on these different pedagogical philosophies, theories, and strategies. A cottage industry of consultants and companies has arisen to promote, sell, and implement many of these new theories and strategies. Even some well-intentioned educational reformers may latch on to one particular philosophy, theory, or strategy in their zeal for educational transformation.

In an age where education at all levels has become extremely important and vital to a healthy democracy and a vibrant economy, it is no surprise that some people may be in search of a “holy grail” or “magic bullet” to cure all of education’s challenges and problems. Furthermore, it is no surprise that even the field of education can be afflicted with the “flavor of the month” syndrome. However, popularity should not determine what is effective in education. When dealing with the complexity of human learning and human behavior, there are no quick fixes, shortcuts, panaceas, or simple solutions – if there were, humans, over the thousands of years of human civilization, probably would have discovered or invented it by now.

In addition, educational philosophies, learning theories, and teaching strategies that appear to be similar are often conflated with one another, thereby ignoring key differences among these theories and strategies. The growing list of terminology for the different educational philosophies, learning theories, and teaching strategies can also make any discussion of the topic confusing or overwhelming, especially for those not well-versed in the topic of teaching and learning.

Sometimes, different terms may be used interchangeably when perhaps they should not be or they may be used inappropriately, both in the popular press and perhaps even in the academic literature. Also, the differences, sometimes nuanced differences, between the various theories and strategies (for example, direct instruction vs explicit instruction) can make it difficult to discern which terms may be appropriate in a given situation, making it challenging for people (even educators and researchers) to know which are most effective in a given situation.

Furthermore, terms may be used with a specific definition in mind or they may be used with a more generalized meaning (for example, Direct Instruction vs direct instruction). Although it is not the intent of this article to provide a detailed description or explanation of all the varied terms, one of the goals of this article is to provide, hopefully, some clarity to the overall topic. The explosion of research and information on teaching and learning together with the complexity of the teaching-learning process can create uncertainty about the most effective ways to educate children.

Given the importance of teaching and learning to the educational enterprise and the central role it plays within all educational institutions, all of those involved in education (for example, parents, students, leaders, policymakers, researchers, and especially teachers) should be wary of educational fads, gimmicks, ideologies, and the like that are not based on valid, reliable, and rigorous scientific research.

It is within this context that one should carefully examine the many studies that have been conducted across many educational contexts and over many years using a variety of research methods. To that end, the body of scientific research that has been accumulated over the past half-century strongly suggests that there are qualities and characteristics that define effective teaching – teaching that tends to produce deep learning in students.

Important factors in teaching and learning

In the area of teaching and learning, especially at the lower grade levels (primary, middle, and secondary education), it is useful to start with the basic premise that effective teaching drives effective learning. Effective teaching requires an excellent teacher. Research suggests that the presence of a high-quality teacher is the most important factor in producing high-quality learning and academic achievement in students, for it is the teacher who works directly with the students on a daily basis, and it is the teacher, along with school leaders, who plans, organizes, leads, and implements the curriculum, instructional strategies, and learning activities, and it is the teacher who is primarily responsible for molding student behavior and motivation, among other qualities.

In short, an effective teacher is a critical factor in shaping an effective classroom environment. Other key factors that influence academic achievement include the student’s academic ability and motivation, home environment, school environment and leadership, and student peers. Research suggests that about half of the variance in academic achievement in students comes from students’ own cognitive abilities. Apart from that factor, the process of teaching (hence, the teacher) accounts for the largest variance in student learning.

However, regardless of a student’s natural abilities, it is still a primary task of the teacher to get the most out of those natural abilities – that is, the teacher as coach, mentor, and guide. It stands to reason, therefore, that schools should focus on improving the quality and effectiveness of teachers (and, concomitantly, the teaching process) since they are a school’s most valuable asset. Thus, it follows that providing teachers with the necessary support and resources is important.

Given the complexity of student backgrounds, personalities, beliefs, and abilities, as well as the demands from other educational stakeholders, asking all of this from one person – the teacher – is no small task. This is why continual professional development is important for teachers and why teachers must be respected as professionals at every level of education, as with all those who work in education.

Teachers continue to grow professionally throughout the course of their careers. Perhaps no other profession asks so much from one individual on a daily basis and perhaps no other profession has a bigger impact on the development of future citizens and on the trajectory of the nation and the world. On average, about 10% of new teachers quit the profession after their first year. Therefore, it is important to the long-term health of society that we attract and retain excellent teachers, many of whom work in challenging classrooms.

Given the complexity of the profession and the importance of producing deep learning in students, it is important to have a good understanding of what actually works in the teaching and learning of children and adolescents. Within this context, there has been an ongoing debate about which pedagogical approach(es) is/are most effective.

To date, a lot of research has been conducted to try to assess and evaluate these various pedagogical methods and strategies that teachers use in order to determine effective instructional design principles. Nonetheless, it is important that we continue to do research in all areas that impact education and continue to focus on continually improving the quality of teaching and learning.

In addition to the core factors (that is, teachers, students, school leadership, student peers, and home), grade level and subject matter also influence the teaching-learning process. Thus, having a good understanding of cognitive learning science, child development, and learning design principles should help guide teachers and educational leaders in how best to structure educational programs in order to meet the learning needs of all students at all levels, including students with learning difficulties and disabilities.

What tends to work

Research suggests that direct, explicit, scaffolded instruction (DESI) at the primary, middle and secondary grade levels is important for effective learning. DESI provides a consistent framework through which to deliver high-quality, rigorous instruction while still allowing for instructional flexibility. DESI can be used with other teaching strategies and methods for a more well-rounded and targeted approach to learning. There is no need to discard all other teaching strategies and there is no need to become overly prescriptive or dogmatic about which teaching strategies to use.

In addition to DESI, evidence-based research suggests what tends to work in producing effective learning (for example, meaningful learning, learning by doing, developing metacognitive and self-regulation skills, mastery learning, critical feedback, and continual formative and summative assessments) and what tends not to work such as learning styles and unassisted discovery learning.

In the lower grades, most students lack the requisite mental models (schemas), knowledge base, academic skills, life experience, study habits, emotional and social maturity, etc. to learn effectively on their own without the direct guidance and expert knowledge of a skilled teacher and caring adult. The younger the student, all else being equal, the more guidance, structure, teaching, and intervention the student needs to help ensure he/she stays on the right track, academically, socially, psychologically, and behaviorally.

The early years are not only a critical period for brain development but they are also a critical period for social, emotional, and behavioral development. Thus, direct instruction with guided and independent practice and specific, critical feedback and assessment serves as the foundation for good teaching.

Teachers should assess and get to know their students so they understand where each student is at, academically, personally, and otherwise. Teachers should have a good understanding of each student’s knowledge and skill levels and readiness for the subject being taught (for example, benchmark assessments). This is why school administrators, as educational leaders, and why teachers, as subject matter experts in their field and as pedagogical experts in teaching, should think carefully about which mix of pedagogical approach(es) is/are most suited for their particular grade level, subject matter, learning objectives, and students’ backgrounds and readiness for the subject/course.

Thus, curricula planning (for example, pacing calendars and curriculum maps), lesson planning, and the use of rubrics are important components in teaching and learning. In addition, teaching aids such as physical manipulatives and concrete models, visual and representational models, concept maps, anchor charts, and graphic organizers can help students more readily understand the concepts being taught. Possessing a mastery of the foundational knowledge for each subject is necessary for students to become an expert in the subject.

However, while foundational knowledge is a necessary condition for deep learning it is not necessarily a sufficient one. Over time, students must also learn how best to apply this knowledge base through higher-order critical and creative thinking skills which will allow them to not only become consumers of knowledge but also producers of knowledge.

Nonetheless, for any subject like reading, writing, math, and science students must first be taught the building blocks of the subject in order to build a solid foundation upon which to reach higher levels of learning (for example, Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives and SOLO Taxonomy). Furthermore, it is important for teachers to have well-defined and empirically valid rubrics and standards by which to assess the quality of learning.

In addition, graphic organizers, anchor charts, and concept maps, for example, provide a scaffold upon which to organize and understand foundational concepts and thereby help students more clearly comprehend key concepts. Putting anchor charts of key concepts on the classroom walls and/or as handouts helps to create a more immersive learning environment.

The nature of learning

Some schools are highly diverse in their student makeup while others are less so. Some classes are highly homogenous, in terms of student demographics, abilities, and behavior, and some classes are more heterogeneous. Thus, depending on the particular mix of students, the teacher may need to adjust the direct instruction in different ways (for example, to differentiate the way instruction is delivered or the way students are grouped or how the seating is configured).

In short, a sensible learner/learning-centered approach to teaching is intentional, purposeful, and focused on producing deep learning in students (learning that can be measured, empirically) and continually adjusts the teaching accordingly as students develop cognitively, emotionally, and socially over time.

In addition, appropriate classroom management and student motivation strategies are also important. To those ends, building academic success, and thereby academic confidence, in students is key to developing more self-regulated learners – students who want to learn and understand the importance of learning. Perseverance is one of the key characteristics of a successful learner.

Several learning theories exist as do several teaching strategies. Learning can be considered a complex biological phenomenon as well as a complex, multifaceted psychological and sociological phenomenon, which is what makes the process of teaching and learning so challenging. Students need continual opportunities to learn in varied ways (for example, Universal Design for Learning) so providing multiple representations of a concept can help create deeper learning in students.

No one learning theory is inherently better than others. Thus, those established learning theories that have stood the test of time through empirical research provide a more holistic understanding of how learning works and provide a more holistic pedagogical repertoire for teachers to draw upon. Each theory helps explain a part of the puzzle of how children develop and how learning works as they develop through the different life stages.

Learning can be defined as a change in cognition and behavior. Simply put, learning is the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and habits. Learning may be classified in different ways. One way is to classify learning as formal, nonformal, and informal. Education and schooling is a type of formal learning (that is, learning delivered in a structured environment with a curriculum taught by qualified teachers), although nonformal and informal (such as incidental learning) learning also occurs at the same time.

An effective teacher will know how to use learning theories and teaching strategies in ways that are most appropriate for his/her students in his/her given context. In short, education should provide a safe space where everything is an opportunity for learning and where teachers strive for teachable moments.

Therefore, we need effective and holistic ways (for example, periodic formative and summative student assessments, assignments, and projects) to help determine the degree and depth of learning taking place in students. It is too risky to assume that students have learned what they were expected to learn just because the content was taught or just because they were exposed to the content in some way or just because they say they understand the material or just because they look busy. Valid and reliable assessment methods help educators measure academic achievement empirically.

Students, especially at the lower levels, need routines and a structured environment so they can develop good work habits and good mental discipline. Students require continual practice where they are engaged in rigorous yet meaningful learning activities in order to build long-term memory and expand their mental stamina and build their perseverance. They also need a caring adult and expert to teach them directly and explicitly what they need to know in order to build solid foundational knowledge and skills as well as the proper habits and attitudes of mind.

Ideally, teachers should do this in a way that is motivating, engaging, participatory, and culturally responsive – that is one of the great challenges of teaching. If effective teaching was easy, anyone could do it but this is not the case. Effective teaching requires years of education, training, and experience in order to effectively internalize the knowledge and skills needed to be effective. Thus, ongoing education, training, and professional development are necessary, as in any profession.

Furthermore, exceptional learners such as students with severe learning difficulties or learning disabilities require additional support to meet their particular learning needs which includes targeted response-to-intervention strategies, differentiated teaching strategies, and individualized educational plans. Depending on the type and severity of the learning difficulty, these students will require additional support from learning specialists using a mix of strategies tailored to each student’s unique needs. In short, students with unique needs require unique instructional strategies.

Apart from learning the different types of knowledge (factual, conceptual, procedural, metacognitive), learners need to learn the strategies, methods, and tools needed to apply what they are learning to solve real problems – this requires critical thinking and it also helps to make learning more meaningful and interesting. Thus, one of the main goals of education is to develop students’ higher-order critical thinking skills, as depicted in Bloom’s Taxonomy and in the SOLO Taxonomy.

So, for instance, when a student is taking a science course, students should not only be learning the content but should also be learning how to think like a scientist. When a student is taking a writing course, students should also be learning how to think like a good writer, and so on. In addition, one of the key elements in the learning process is the social interaction between the teacher(s) and the students and between the students themselves because learning is primarily a social process.

The nature of teaching

Diagnostic assessments at the beginning of the course provide insight into students’ knowledge and skill levels and readiness for the course. Instruction should take into account each student’s background knowledge and readiness. Once the teacher has a better understanding of each student’s cognitive readiness for the course and each student’s particular learning needs, then the teacher can adjust the course variables accordingly, including differentiated instruction and remediation.

Thus, direct instruction should not be conflated with the lecture-only model of teaching, with the factory model of education, or with rote learning. Evidence-based teaching practices can help create a more effective learning process. No matter how good the curriculum or how well-resourced the school is (albeit important factors), learning is facilitated by teachers within specific contexts (that is, situated learning).

Effective teaching, therefore, becomes central to achieving learning objectives. Teaching is a craft that takes several years to learn effectively but each context is different. Nonetheless, evidence-based strategies provide a foundation and starting point through which to effectively organize and teach the lessons. Effective learning does not happen by accident.

For instance, a lesson with a brief introductory period of direct instruction of new concepts (teacher instructing and modeling together with engaged student observation, active note-taking, and questioning) followed by engaged students practicing/applying the concept (guided instruction, learning-by-doing, independent practice, time on task, time needed to learn) can be effective when done in the right way by a skilled teacher – sometimes referred to as the “I do, we do, you do” model.

Depending on the students, teachers may also need to review or reteach previous concepts to reinforce those concepts to improve long-term memory of those concepts. Furthermore, students can work on problems together in small groups as the teacher monitors and guides their work (that is, conferencing). Teachers can then help struggling students through guided instruction and critical feedback to keep them focused and on the right track.

In addition, methods such as concrete-representational-abstract teaching can be used to help scaffold the instruction and provide multiple representations of the concept and thereby improving the time needed to learn by students (that is, efficient and effective use of instructional time). Ultimately, in order for students to achieve academic success and in order for students to reach a mastery level, students must spend adequate time (that is, time on task) engaged in critical thinking and problem-solving where they apply their knowledge and skills to increasingly complex, real-world problems, and thereby, reinforce the knowledge and skills in long-term memory.

Teaching is one of the most challenging jobs in existence because the teacher has to deal with several variables at once – different student needs, different student personalities, different family backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds, different belief systems, different personal issues, different levels of academic readiness, different student abilities, different group dynamics, among other factors – as well as the different aspects of the broader school and community environment. As such, strategies such as culturally responsive teaching may help provide a more meaningful learning experience for students.

Thus, being a content expert is just one aspect of effective teaching. Teachers must also be pedagogical experts, classroom leaders, and student mentors, among other qualities. 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 and guided instruction is at the heart of primary, middle, and secondary schooling, effective teachers will also find ways to integrate more engaging, application-oriented, collaborative learning opportunities such as labs, projects, field learning, and independent inquiry. These complementary learning activities are important because they also help create a more well-rounded and varied learning experience. Thus, teachers should implement these different instructional strategies thoughtfully and with great care.

To that end, approaches such as inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, game-based learning, and project-based learning may be useful complements to direct instruction if structured in the right way and at the right time – they need not be mutually exclusive. Thus, one of the main roles of the teacher is to guide and facilitate the social learning process – to help motivate students to want to learn and move them toward becoming more self-regulated learners. This entails helping students become more self-responsible for doing the work of learning as well as creating the right learning environment where they are guided by a caring teacher. Again, this is no small task.

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), students are expected to become experts in their fields because they are more capable of producing new knowledge on their own (for example, undergraduate research).

College-level students are more capable of producing new knowledge because they, presumably, have acquired enough foundational knowledge to work with and draw from – knowledge accumulated over many years of schooling and contained within their long-term memory. This is one reason the educational philosophy of constructivism tends to be more appropriate at the college and university levels because they are working with students who have already acquired a large knowledge base and skill set to work with.

In addition, because constructivism is an educational philosophy, rather than a specific learning theory or teaching strategy, its application to children can be challenging. Nonetheless, constructivist approaches like guided inquiry learning may be applicable in specific situations like science labs and field learning.

Children and adolescents, on the other hand, are in the process of building their foundational knowledge and require more instruction – instruction that is direct, explicit, scaffolded, systematic, and consistent. Thus, the central aim of instruction is to help build a large knowledge base and to develop the rigorous thinking skills necessary to use that knowledge in increasingly complex ways (for example, advanced problem-solving).

This is one reason why the school model (where the student attends classes for several hours a day and does most of his/her work in the classroom under the direction and guidance of a teacher) 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 in a more self-regulated way) are different. In essence, the models are flipped to a large degree to reflect the different stages of student learning and human development. Thus, we should not conflate the basic education model with the higher education model and we should not conflate child and adolescent learning theories with adult learning theories.

As such, one specific pedagogical method is not inherently better or worse than another across the entire educational system, from novice to advanced expert, given the huge diversity of the educational system. It would be difficult to argue that there is only one pedagogical method or educational approach that is inherently superior to all others for every grade level (from pre-school to doctoral studies) and every learning domain (from the sciences to humanities to the arts) and every subject across the entire educational system (from schools to vocational and community colleges to universities), given the complexity of learning and brain development throughout the different life stages, as well as other factors. In short, a one-size-fits-all approach tends not to work. Context is important.

Although there are general teaching and learning principles that are relevant to all grades, subjects, and settings (for example, learner/learning-centered teaching and active learning), each course must be designed by the teachers, school leaders, and instructional designers to meet the specific learning needs of students. Thus, the application and effectiveness of any particular pedagogical approach depend, in 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 designed to develop novices into experts over a very long period of time – about 12 years at the primary, middle 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 basic principles of instruction can help create a more effective educational environment.


To summarize, effective educational practices in the early years of learning, across the cognitive, social, and emotional domains, can be boiled down to these three core practices: 1) direct, explicit, scaffolded instruction delivered by content and pedagogical experts to optimize the time needed to learn by students, 2) sufficient and consistent time on task by learners through continual practice and learning-by-doing, and 3) a positive, meaningful, and culturally relevant social-emotional environment.

Practices one and two help build knowledge and skills (cognitive development), and practice three helps build emotional and social maturity (psycho-social development) and helps to create a more caring learning community. If implemented effectively, these practices should help put learners on the road to becoming more effective and self-regulated learners and more mature and autonomous human beings.

Patrick Blessinger is a teacher with the New York State Education Department, 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.

Suggested Citation:

Blessinger, P. (2020). Making sense of pedagogy. Higher Education Tomorrow. Volume 7, Article 3.

Copyright © [2020] 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.