Why no pedagogy?
In Robin Alexander's excellent 2008 book Essays on Pedagogy, he asks why there is no pedagogy in England based on consistent principles.
There is little consensus about pedagogy in the UK, and much of the debate about teaching/education on social media is dichotomous. It is even difficult to reach a personal pedagogy that is consistent with one's own beliefs (see Argyris and Schon's work on espoused theories and theories-in-use).
Is it possible to find a consistent, principled, pedagogy? Or do the dilemmas/dichotomies we face as teachers render this impossible?
Beyond dichotomous pedagogies
Alexander describes pedagogy as:
The act of teaching together with its attendant discourse of educational theories, values, evidence and justifications.
We are not just talking about just teaching here, but also the 'purposes, values, ideas, assumptions, theories and beliefs that inform, shape and seek to justify it.'
Alexander suggests that in order to be able to move towards a consistent pedagogy, we must move away from unhelpful dichotomies: we should try to move away from versus/either/or, towards both/and. I think many teachers (perhaps I more than many) have been guilty of thinking in terms of either/or, perhaps in order to make sense of the dilemmas and conflicting beliefs that we face. Perhaps the language of 'both/and' may allow us/me to move towards a pedagogy that is better than best practice, and move away from the language of method x 'works' better than method y.
Instead of debating whether 'traditional' or 'progressive' teaching methods are 'best', we could move towards a pedagogy that considers a mixture of approaches. Instead of having to choose between a knowledge-based curriculum or developing the whole child, we move towards a pedagogy that allows for both. Instead of relying solely on research-based evidence, or only on experiential evidence, we rely on a mixture of the two to guide our decisions.
Alexander describes three so-called 'primordial values', individualism, community and collectivism (which I prefer to think of as a scale). These values are:
...concerned with that most fundamental human question, the relationship of humans to each other and to the communities and societies they inhabit... Human consciousness and human relations involve the interplay of all three values. Though one may be dominant, they may in reality all be present and co-exist in uneasy and unresolved tension.
Individualism, community and collectivism - or child, group and class - are the organisational nodes of pedagogy not just for reasons of practical exigency but because they are the social and indeed political nodes of human relations.
Alexander suggests that many of us (in the UK) hold conflicting political and social values on this 'scale': we value personal freedom at the same time as valuing responsibility to society and equality. Our beliefs about education are based on similar conflicting positions on this scale. These conflicting positions lead to the difficulties many of us face when trying to find a consistent pedagogy.
Towards a consistent pedagogy
This fundamental conflict in our culture may explain the temptation to opt for a simplistic view of pedagogy. One teacher may opt for a heavily individualistic view of education, which might correspond to a view of education as knowledge acquisition. Another teacher may opt for a view of education that only values working with others, perhaps emphasising social aspects of education at the expense of learning the necessary facts. We must incorporate the full scale of primordial values in a balanced pedagogy.
A personal aside: I once said in an interview that my job as a maths teacher was to teach maths, and only maths*. I used to think that ethical and social concerns were not part of this role , that they were someone else's responsibility. But whose? With the narrowing of the curriculum and the reduction in citizenship, PSHE and SMSC education, I would argue that we all have a duty to provide a wider education in our classrooms, as well as becoming more aware of the mental and physical well-being of the children we teach.
A consistent, principled, pedagogy must reconcile values, beliefs, evidence, learning and teaching - but this will not be easy, as Alexander explains:
A pedagogy that is at the same time pluralist and consensual, individualist and collective, local and national, is a tough[er] proposition. But out there are teachers who have achieved it.
The use of and here is key. The words individualist and collective suggest a pedagogy in which classrooms are organised to allow for flexibility between approaches.
The words local and national suggest a way of working with colleagues to develop a pedagogy together, by engaging with research and reflecting on experience.
The final sentence suggests further how this pedagogy may be developed; through listening to and learning from those teachers and educators who are working towards a pedagogy that reconciles conceptual, ethical, empirical, pragmatic and political considerations.
*And no, I did not get the job.