by Dr Dean A. Dudley
Every year I question pre-service and practicing teachers about their understanding of ‘pedagogy’. Whenever I ask for a definition of that word, “pedagogy”, the response across the room from anyone teaching for longer than a few years and some of my more attuned undergraduates is “the way of teaching”. My first response to this used to be one of relief as it means this was one more piece of educational jargon that did not need to be revisited in my learning session. About five years ago, something of far greater concern dawned on me; the definition my students had been taught or learned from others is wrong! Not only is it wrong but also may be the root of a far greater problem in education today.
The origin of the word comes from the Greek term “paidagogeo”, which literally means “to lead the child”. Many scholars and educational systems have gone on to redefine pedagogy in a modern sense as “the art and science of teaching”. It is this definition that needs examination in what pedagogy seeks to achieve, how we communicate what it takes to achieve it and how it is being enacted in practice.
If pedagogy is actually the art and science of teaching, how much is art? How much is science? Many scholars argue that science and art are at opposite ends of the same spectrum. In the minds of many contemporary scholars, they are fundamentally opposed yet each involve a process of observing phenomena to describe and understand the world around us, or in this case, teaching. This is a recent and dangerous development in academia. The understanding of a balanced contribution to knowledge of both art and science was the foundation of the age of enlightenment and produced many of history's most revered contributions to it. Feel free to examine the works of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dickens, Shakespeare and Newton to name but only a few. These are revered scholars who saw the balanced contributions of art and science as necessary to understanding one's existence. They recognised that in art and science, it is the “process” that provides us with the “truths” on which knowledge is based. Understanding the concepts of teaching and learning are no different.
It is however, the fracturing of art and science in academia, and at a greater extent in the new discipline of education, that has led to science being marginalised in our understanding of pedagogy. Science recognises that one reason why “truths” should not be considered absolute is the fact that they cannot be tested in every place and time. Science accepts it is part of an evolutionary process, that it will always have more questions to answer. Art, however, is void of such “process” responsibilities because it doesn’t subscribe to having to answer questions after its creation. It celebrates that knowledge in the moment in which it is captured.
The result is many teachers’, principals’, education system managers’ and academics’ understanding of pedagogy has become skewed towards one end of an artificial spectrum that posits ‘art’ and ‘science’ at opposing ends of knowledge construction. In most instances, the preference is given to the art. The art of teaching is inspiring and deals with the emotions of the teachers and students. We commonly read in school newsletters or hear in our staff meetings about the newest and most engaging ways of teaching. Unlike science, the art is neither dry nor takes years to test. It does not involve collecting large samples of data and trying to obtain a generalised perspective of teaching practice for the greater good. Rather, it simply provides an opportunity for teachers and scholars to celebrate cross-sectional and, more often than not, bias interpretations of accomplishment.
Pedagogy, for most teachers, has therefore become a process of collecting as much art (i.e. theories, technology, even coloured tables indicating different thinking styles) as they can to satisfy a perceived art-savvy population (students). Teachers are not to blame, though, for this art bias. Managers of their education systems and many researchers are forcing their preferred genre of art on to the schools they manage and claiming it to be rigorous, evidence-based research. However, does the art of teaching constitute evidence without the supporting science?
The marginalisation of science in pedagogy became apparent to me in 2009 when I had a paper reviewed for a highly acclaimed academic journal. The most critical comment read: “Experimental research is inappropriate in schools”. It made me question whether the purest methods of scientific exploration (i.e. experimental research methods) have now become inappropriate for understanding teaching practice. If so, how can system managers and researchers claim their changing of school systems, in everything from the colour of the desks to entire buildings, is based on “rigorous, evidence-based research”? The short answer is: they can’t. Without strong scientific method linking cause and effect of teaching practice, the art-driven pedagogy being forced on teachers by researchers and system managers is little more than the coloured soup cans of an Andy Warhol painting.
Like Andy Warhol's art, it appeals to some and not others. It is impossible to argue that it is more significant in our understanding of art, in the same way it is impossible to argue that a new teaching strategy is more significant on learning without some quality science to substantiate the effect it has. This is why teachers become so disengaged with research when their system managers claim their justification for change in schools is based on evidence. My research and interactions with teachers every day tell me they want high quality evaluation of their practice so they can determine the effect they are having on the learning of their students, however, only a balance of creative teaching on the part of the teachers (Art) AND strong scientific method provided by academics working with teachers (Science) can create that type of evidence.
The science of teaching has done much to isolate itself from the art of teaching too. Especially in the last century. The writings of Da Vinci, Socrates, Newton and Voltaire verged on being comical in their writings. So much so, it takes little more than a high school education to learn and even be entertained by the dialogue in which they engage their audience. The language of ‘science’ no longer appeals to wider society. Look at the declining numbers of high school and university students who actively avoid taking subjects that require any level of scientific literacy.
As educators (whether practitioner or researcher) must now work to ensure that our school systems and scholars find the NEXUS of art and science in their understanding of pedagogy. The creation of this understanding in schools means education systems can encourage strong creativity of teachers but also accept scientific exploration into teaching practice. Only then can any system truly claim it is using “rigorous, evidence-based research” in its practice.