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Broadening Pedagogical Knowledge by Learning from Other Disciplines

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.

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.