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. An explosion of books, articles, videos and other publications have been produced on these different pedagogical strategies. The differences (sometimes nuanced differences) between the different strategies can make it difficult to discern what strategy may be best in a given situation/context, making it difficult for people (even educators or researchers) to know which are most appropriate in a given setting.

Thus, there has also been an ongoing debate about which approach(es) is/are most effective. A lot of research has been conducted to try to assess and evaluate these various pedagogical methods and strategies in order to determine good and effective instructional design principles. Although challenging, it is important that we continue to do research in all areas that impact education and continue to focus on improving teaching and learning.

Also, there are several conditions and variables (for example, grade level, subject matter, student readiness for the course, student learning difficulties, learning environment, and teacher quality) that influence the nature of teaching and learning. The explosion of research and information on teaching and learning together with the complexity of the teaching and learning process can create uncertainty about the most effective way to educate children. Thus, having a basic understanding of cognitive learning science and basic design principles should help guide teachers in how best to structure and teach their courses in order to meet the learning needs of students.

Research suggests that direct, explicit, scaffolded instruction at the primary and secondary grade levels is important for effective learning in these early years of education. In addition to direct, explicit, scaffolded instruction, evidence-based research suggests what tends to work in producing effective learning (for example, meaningful learning, scaffolded learning, learning by doing, developing metacognitive and self-regulatory skills, mastery learning, critical feedback, and formative assessments). Direct instruction can be used with other teaching strategies and methods.

In the lower grades, most students lack the requisite mental models (schemas), knowledge base, skills, experience, habits, emotional and social maturity, etc. to learn effectively on their own without the guidance of a skilled teacher and adult. The younger the student, all else being equal, the more guidance, structure, teaching, and intervention the student may need to help ensure he/she stays on the right track, academically, socially, and emotionally. The early years are not only important for brain development but also for social and emotional development.

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

The nature of learning

Some classes are homogenous, in terms of student demographics and student abilities, and some 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). In short, a sensible learner/learning-centered approach to teaching is intentional and purposeful and focused on producing real learning in students (that can be measured, empirically) and continually adjusts the teaching accordingly. In addition, other strategies such as appropriate classroom management and student motivation strategies are also important. To those ends, building academic success, and thereby academic confidence, in students is key.

Several learning theories exist as do 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. Learning can be defined as a change in cognition and behavior. Simply put, learning is the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and habits. There are three basic forms of learning: 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 learning may also occur. An effective teacher will know how to use the learning theories in ways that are most appropriate for his/her students.

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. We cannot 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. Valid and reliable assessment methods help educators measure academic achievement which is one of the main aims of education.

Students, especially at the lower levels, need routine and a structured environment and they 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. And, 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.

Furthermore, exceptional learners such as students with learning difficulties require additional support to meet their particular learning needs which will include response to intervention strategies, differentiated teaching strategies, and individual 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 special needs require unique instructional strategies, making a one-size-fits-all approach problematic.

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 helps to make learning more meaningful and interesting. Thus, one of the main goals of education is to develop students’ higher-order thinking skills. 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 can provide insight into students’ knowledge and skill levels and readiness for the course. Instruction should take into account the students’ 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 instructional differentiation.

Thus, direct instruction should not be conflated with the lecture-only model of teaching or with the old factory model or banking model of education. Evidence-based teaching practices can help create a more effective learning process. Teaching is a craft that may take several years to learn effectively but each context is different. Nonetheless, evidence-based strategies can provide a foundation and starting point through which to more effectively organize the lessons.

For instance, a lesson with an introductory period of direct instruction of new concepts (teacher modeling together with active student observation, appropriate note-taking, and questioning) followed by engaged students practicing/applying the concept (guided instruction, learning-by-doing, independent practice, time on task) can be effective when done in the right way by a skilled teacher. In addition, methods such as concrete-representational-abstract teaching can be used to help scaffold the instruction. Ultimately, in order for students to achieve academic success and in order for students to reach a mastery level, students must spend time engaged in critical thinking where they 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 belief systems, 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. Strategies such as culturally responsive teaching may help provide a more meaningful learning experience for the students.

Thus, being a content expert is just one aspect of effective teaching. Teachers must also be pedagogical experts and instructional leaders. 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 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. There are important differences between these various instructional strategies that teachers should know. Thus, approaches such as inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, and project-based learning may be useful complements to direct instruction if structured in the right way – they need not be mutually exclusive.

To that end, 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 towards becoming more self-regulated learners. This entails helping students become more accountable for doing the work of learning and 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), 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 (producing) new knowledge.

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) 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 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.

One specific pedagogical method is not inherently better or worse than another across the entire educational system, 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.

Although there are general principles that are relevant to all grades, subjects, and settings (for example, learner/learning-centered teaching and engaged learning), each course must be designed by the teachers, school leaders, and instructional designers to meet the 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 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 learning design can help create a more effective educational environment.

To summarize, effective educational practices, across the cognitive, social, and emotional domains, can be boiled down to these three core practices: 1) direct, explicit, scaffolded instruction by content and pedagogical experts, 2) adequate time on task by learners through 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 and helps to create a more caring learning community. If implemented effectively, these practices put learners on the road to becoming more self-regulated learners, more mature and autonomous human beings, as well as lifelong and lifewide learners.

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


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