April 15th, 2015

Pedagogical Knowledge: Three Worlds Apart


We know a lot about teaching and learning, but our knowledge is scattered across three separate domains.

Educational research

The first knowledge domain is centered on the world of educational research that’s been advancing what we know about teaching and learning for more than a hundred years. There’s hardly an educational issue that hasn’t been studied in education or its associated subfields, like educational psychology, adult learning, and higher education. On this large empirical foundation we could rest a more evidence-based instructional practice.

But educational research remains largely unexplored by those who teach, partly because there aren’t strong norms expecting college teachers to grow and develop their instructional knowledge, but mostly because the journal articles describing these studies and their findings aren’t written for practitioners. They’re written to inform the next round of research. That makes them tough for outsiders to read and often researchers aren’t focused on the practical implications of their work. Then there’s the disdain for educational research held by some faculty. “Why should we bother with those who theorize, hypothesize, and ‘study’ what we do every day in the classroom?” I was asked recently. So, there’s nothing we can learn from this work? How naïve is that? I admit that not all educational research is great scholarship, but is all the work done in any discipline flawless?

Discipline-based pedagogy

Then there’s the world of pedagogical knowledge that exists within our disciplines. An increasing amount of it is empirical, and it is practitioner scholarship that makes it more applied and with clearer implications. Some faculty read this type of scholarship (not many), and still fewer contribute to it. The work is based in the disciplines because that’s where it often gets counted. And although this scholarship still doesn’t get counted as often as it should, it’s valued and rewarded today way more often than it used to be.

But there’s a couple of problems with the disciplinary focus on teaching and learning. It reinforces the belief that teaching in a particular field is unique, and if you don’t know the field you can’t possibly know anything about how to teach it. Certainly the content—how knowledge of it advances, how it’s organized, what counts as evidence, for example—has implications for how it’s taught. Teaching problem solving and teaching themes from a novel are not the same. But there are many aspects of teaching and learning that transcend disciplinary boundaries—you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you didn’t believe that. But then not everybody is reading this blog, or the cross disciplinary work on teaching and learning, or pedagogical scholarship from other fields. It’s possible to live in a pedagogical world and miss the fact that it is part of a much larger universe.

The disciplinary focus also prevents us from seeing the weight of evidence that has accumulated for certain instructional approaches—take group work, for example. There is not a discipline where faculty are not using groups, where there is not empirical and experiential evidence that students can learn from and with each other in groups. The learning doesn’t happen automatically, but when group work is carefully designed, implemented, and assessed, there is an enormous amount of evidence supporting that it effectively develops content knowledge and group interaction skills.

Experiential knowledge

Finally, there’s the personal world of experiential knowledge, which is the one that faculty know the best and trust the most. For those of us who have never been trained to teach, it’s what we’ve learned over the years; usually by the seat of our pants and in the school of hard knocks. It’s what works for us and if the evidence says otherwise, most of us challenge the evidence before questioning our experience. Most of time, our experiential knowledge is valid. It’s problematic when this internally derived knowledge base is the only or main source of instructional understanding. Teaching needs a regular infusion of ideas and information from outside—to confirm what is believed and to enlarge what is known and practiced.

I often wonder if teaching and learning don’t continue to be devalued because they don’t rest on a well-known and widely accepted knowledge base. We have what we need to construct one, but we have knowledge worlds that are dispersed and largely unaware of one another. How do we get them to realize that they circle the same sun?

  • As an actual teacher–not a professor, bu a teacher, of children–this article seems to me a perfect illustration of everything that's wrong about higher education in this country. Too many academics with literally nothing to do but write grants and do useless research to get more grants and keep the ball rolling forward.

    College professors seem to live in a fantasy world. They produce all kinds of research telling us pre-postsecondary teachers how to teach, while still standing in front of their students and lecturing for hours at a time. They seem more concerned with jargon-choked journal articles no one ever reads (except to write more of the same) than they are with actually affecting change.

    Every undergrad professor in the country should teach one course per semester at a local high school, middle school or elementary school, just to keep them grounded in reality.


    • John

      Your comment is a perfect illustration of (some of) what's wrong with educators in this country.

  • Perry Shaw

    Thanks again Maryellen. Your observations are always insightful. I have two comments.
    Firstly it is the very interdisciplinary nature of reflection on higher education that I love so greatly. Personally I have training in several disciplines (applied mathematics and statistics, education – I taught high school mathematics for about 7 years, and theology), and there is nothing I enjoy more than trying to develop either conceptual understandings or field research projects that bring all these diverse elements together. I know that you resonate with this and some of the finest in the field have comparable experiences.
    Secondly, I sense that changes are afoot. 🙂 Increasingly the educational research is filtering through to the university classroom, and I am hopeful that this trend will continue into the future. I am very hopeful. The mere existence of this blog augurs well – and as people like you and others write and open space for discussion I suspect that the strengthening of what takes place in the postsecondary classroom is an inevitable outcome.

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  • Karl Schnapp

    The tripartite perspective here is reminiscent of Stephen North's model in The Making of Knowledge in Composition: researchers, scholars, and practitioners.

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