What is pedagogy and why does it matter?

chalk on brown paper

 The quality of the teaching workforce and the teaching practice in classrooms is one of the biggest levers we have for improving student outcomes. Even after accounting for prior student learning and family background, research suggests that teacher quality is an important factor in student achievement.

So, it follows, that energy, resources and incentives should be focused on improving teacher education, training and development. Teachers' education starts with initial teacher training (ITT) but, in reality, it is a lifelong process. In line with other professions, you are expected to have a lengthy period of specialised training, as well as continuous professional development (CPD) throughout your career.

Teachers are expected to process and evaluate new knowledge relevant for their core professional practice, and regularly update their profession's knowledge base – and be supported in this. Hence the concept (now a mantra) of 'research-informed practice'. This means using high-quality research about effective classroom interventions, and combining it with teachers' professional judgment to improve teaching practice and student learning.

Research is important: it tells us what works, and what is nothing more than a fad. John Hattie (2009), for example, conducted a synthesis of educational research studies to see which teaching practices had the most influence on student learning, and which didn't. Elsewhere, research is shedding lots of new insight; for example, cognitive science is exploring how students learn, the difference between knowledge and information, how knowledge sticks, and how our memories work. Learning strategies, which aid the process of memorisation and knowledge retention, have also been identified. So while research is developing new techniques, it has also led to jettisoning some traditional practice as evidence shows it has little or no effect on student learning.

Yet relying on research alone is not sufficient as it underplays the importance of teachers' professional judgement. Teachers observe and reflect on student learning in their classroom; their decisions are influenced not only by a well-established knowledge base, but also by their experience.

All this supports "pedagogy" or "pedagogical knowledge". It is accepted that a high level of pedagogical knowledge is essential for competent teaching. The OECD has defined general pedagogical knowledge as: "The specialised knowledge of teachers in creating and facilitating effective teaching and learning environments for all students, independent of subject matter." By this definition, pedagogy is teachers' specialised professional knowledge that enables them to teach, and their students to learn.

Shulman (1986, 1987) proposed a typology of teachers' knowledge base comprising of seven categories. The OECD suggests three of these are particularly influential:

  • General pedagogical knowledge – principles and strategies of classroom management and organisation that are cross-curricular
  • Content knowledge – knowledge of subject matter and its organising structures
  • Pedagogical content knowledge – knowledge of content and pedagogy.

A review of empirical evidence on teachers' general pedagogical knowledge concluded three main overlapping components:

  • Instructional process – teaching methods, didactics, structuring a lesson and classroom management
  • Student learning – cognitive, motivational, emotional dispositions of individual students; their learning processes and development; student heterogeneity and adaptive teaching strategies
  • Assessment – diagnosis principles and evaluation procedures.

Further reading

Guerriero, S. (Ed.) (2017). Pedagogical Knowledge and the Changing Nature of the Teaching Profession. Paris: OECD Publishing

K Sonmark, N Révai, F Gottschalk, K Deligiannidi, T Burns 11 (2017). Understanding teachers' pedagogical knowledge report on an international pilot study. OECD 

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