January 20th, 2016

Broadening Pedagogical Knowledge by Learning from Other Disciplines


faculty meeting

The bulk of scholarship on teaching and learning continues to be embedded in our disciplines. It ends up there because that’s where it counts (if it does) and because there’s a long-standing and still fairly widely held belief that the teaching needed for a particular kind of content is unique. Unless you know the content, you can’t know how to teach it.

This idea gained traction during the ’90s when Lee Schulman advanced the idea of pedagogical content knowledge. Effective teaching from this perspective depends on the link between what you teach and how you teach it. So, for example, differential equations are taught more effectively with some kinds of problems than others. If you don’t know differential equations, you won’t know those problems.

Teaching Professor Blog What and how we teach are linked, but there are other connections besides those between method and material, and those connections aren’t all unique to the discipline. All (well, almost all) teachers want students engaged, and student engagement in physics and philosophy doesn’t look all that different. All teachers are concerned with classroom management issues. If students are dealing more with their phones than the material, the content is irrelevant. All teachers have a responsibility to prevent cheating. All teachers aspire to use fair and equitable grading practices. Course design principles transcend disciplines. The features of a good multiple-choice question are not discipline specific. And then there are those student characteristics that challenge teachers in every field: passivity, lack of motivation, low self-esteem, less than adequate study skills, and excessive grade-orientation start the list.

I am not against pedagogical scholarship done within the disciplines. I use it all the time in these posts, but I do want to dispel the belief that teaching and learning in each field are totally unique. When the idea of discipline-specific pedagogical knowledge first broke, I started looking for articles in the discipline-based journals that articulated what that knowledge was for a given field. Beyond a few pieces that identified good examples and sample problems, there wasn’t much.

There’s an equivalent criticism that can be leveled against those of us who write broadly about teaching and learning. What we write about identifies interests and concerns shared by faculty, but we’re identifying them by default, not by design. Moreover, we aren’t thoughtfully considering whether engagement that looks the same might not have some interesting details that are dependent, not just on what we teach, but on whom we’re teaching and the circumstances of instruction (large or small class, face-to-face or online, etc.).

Good scholarly work on teaching and learning is being done in every field. Much of that work addresses issues about these shared aspects of teaching and learning. Articles on cell phone use, clickers, group work, evidence-based teaching, classroom management, and, yes, engagement are appearing in all the pedagogical periodicals. However, nesting the bulk of the scholarship in our disciplines compromises its effectiveness on several fronts. First, there is a great deal of wheel reinventing indicative of our failure to learn from each other. Second, rather than the scholarship moving forward collectively, our knowledge of teaching and learning spins in disciplinary orbits. There is almost no awareness within a discipline that other disciplines are dealing with the same issues. Articles and studies are well referenced, but only to work done in the discipline.

Beyond missing the opportunity to learn from each other, we are unable to summon the full weight of evidence supporting the efficacy of certain instructional approaches. For instance, there is evidence that group work facilitates learning (not always or automatically, for sure) across a wide range of fields. What’s being discovered in any one field is persuasive, but when the same things are being documented across different fields, it becomes compelling. But in reality that’s not being done, because it’s pretty much impossible to track down all the findings and integrate them in any sort of systematic way.

I’m short on solutions and well aware that regular readers of this blog recognize our many shared interests and the value of pedagogical knowledge that’s being generated in fields other than our own. The question for us is how to better advance pedagogical knowledge that goes wide as well as deep.

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  • aidemoreto

    The idea discussed in the article is related to the "topic replacing subject" reform in Finland. I believe, looking at the big picture, as they do in Finland, will resolve the issues about cross-disciplinary pedagogy: http://blog.stcloudstate.edu/ims/2015/03/24/educa

  • drjessicacannon

    Just want to point out that Instructional Design, a field that focuses on developing instruction and training based on sound design principles independent of content and delivery, has been around since at least the 1970s and has a literature of its own that would speak to the needs you identify. Additionally, Quality Matters, an organization that aims to provide similar standards for online course design (also independent of content or discipline), has been around since 2003. So, I'm a bit confused at your discussion of 'pedagogical knowledge across the disciplines,' and how you see that as separate from instructional design. I would also suggest that it is not "impossible to track down all the findings and integrate them in any sort of systematic way," when there are quite a few places to find this type of discussion by searching for "instructional design," taking to the instructional designers employed by most universities (often in the IT or library), or even on generalized discussions/blog like MindShift (http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/).

    • I was a bit confused by this as well. In my experience as an instructional design practitioner for over 15 years now in higher education (and having a doctorate in this field), we don't really use the phrase "pedagogical content knowledge." Rather we look at "pedagogy" (really andragogy) and "content" as separate, but interrelated elements that the instructional design process pulls together with the ultimate goal of creating learning environments conducive to learning.

  • Laura Shulman

    sorry could not find where to email about "Having a Conversation About Extra Credit" which was also mentioned in the recent emailed article. I cannot seem to use the links that come into my mailbox. I can find most articles by going directly to the FacultyFocus website but could not find the one about extra credit. Can you provide the actual URLs and not just links when you email content? Please just reply here with the direct URL for "Having a Conversation About Extra Credit"

    • Hello Laura,
      I'm sorry that you were unable to access the program on Having a Conversation About Extra Credit via today's email. You can find it here: http://www.magnapubs.com/group-learning/having-a-

      Please let me know if you have any other questions.

      Mary Bart
      Managing Editor
      Faculty Focus

  • Perry Shaw

    Sometimes when we study diverse disciplines we discover that our own discipline resonates differently. For example, theological education has traditionally been landed with the humanities where we study Biblical studies (cf. literature), ecclesiastical history (cf. history), and theology (cf. philosophy). Increasingly people are recognizing that the forms of theological education that are designed to prepare people for Christian ministry more resemble education, medicine, and social work. The implications are huge.

  • Kathleen Mckinney

    One way we encourage such multi discipline SoTL is to provide SoTL research grants allowing or requiring that proposals come from a multidisciplinary team or travel grants to present SoTL at multidisciplinary conferences. Also, in all our sotl faculty dev work, we urge and help colleagues look for and cite related literature from other fields. Also some examples of such SoTL can be found in part 2 of the book, SoTL in and across the disciplines, McKinney, k. Editor, IU Press.

  • Teresa Kelly

    In researching forms of literacy and content knowledge, I've come across the idea of faculty being trans disciplinary (Henriksen, Good, and Mishra, 2015). Using examples from Virginia Wolf to cryogenics (with allusions to Star Trek and Harper Lee, the authors talk about the idea that we have to think outside our disciplines to foster transferable skills and find new teaching methods. Combine this idea with Asino's (2015) discussions of educational technology as a bridge across disciplines and emerging theories about the promise of digital platforms to change the nature of professional development, and a kernel of solutions begins to form. As Kathleen said, part of the process involves getting the larger educational community to recognize and embrace the idea that interdisciplinary pedagogical research and scholarship is as worthy (academically and monetarily) as research and scholarship within a discipline. There are many digital opportunities for this type of collaboration that those of us who engage in them need to share with our colleagues to encourage them to step out of their academic niche and see what other fields have to offer.

  • I teach in a medium sized transfer college that is not equipped with ID’s. Faculty go it alone to plan and deliver content and rarely is there cross department fertilization of ideas, insights and/or show & tell sessions. When there are gatherings, initiated primarily by the Educational Technology department, people are always keen to learn about what others are doing and how pedagogy is being delivered differently. Lamentations abound about how infrequently we meet and share with promises to do better. However, once back in the home dept. reality sets in. My guess is that this fact of life is more common than not across all institution types. Correct me if I’m wrong, but do ID’s work primarily with SME’s who lead the way in how content is delivered? Maybe it is time to open the silos for more interaction and sharing. After all the focus is on student outcomes and the key critical learning skills we hope to instill is it not?

  • Brian Winkel

    There is a great deal we can learn from other disciplines, but we have to reach out to faculty locally and in their writings, to journals, to seminars and meetings, and through our students who are actually immersed in these other disciplines while taking our mathematics courses. I have spent a life time doing so and it has made me who I am professionally, coming from Noetherian ring theory thesis to differential equations fanatic. Learning about other disciplines is a professional responsibilities if we are to reach out to our students and interest them in the mathematics SOMEONE is forcing them to take for some discipline or reason. Currently, I am directing an effort to do that and more in one area, differential equations. See what I am talking about in SIMIODE – Systemic Initiative for Modeling Investigations and Opportunities with Differential Equations where we are about modeling first teaching of differential equations. Join our merryi band at http://www.simiode.org. It is FREE. Brian Winkel, Director, BrianWinkel@simiodeorg