April 02, 2019

How has reading around pedagogy affected my teaching practice? – C.L Davison

After being set our initial university assignment exploring the ‘implications of current theories of Cognitive Development in teaching and learning’, I was dubious about what effect theorists who died decades ago could have on my day to day practice in the classroom.

The importance of research-led practice had been drummed into us, but even after writing my initial assignment on the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, I was unsure where they fitted into my educational experience, or how I was supposed to use their theories. Part of the issue was, it seemed to me, that they were summarising the obvious. Piaget’s description of the development of children (Muijs 2012) and Vygotsky’s points on supporting or ‘scaffolding’ students to get to the next level of understanding (Gray and Macblain 2012) all seemed to be common sense, except coined in elaborate terminology.

I couldn’t be sure whether my perception of these theorists was because their points seemed obvious, or whether because, and I think more likely, they were so fundamental in shaping modern education, theory and research that their ideas have become ingrained in the education system and those of us immersed in it.

Despite my initial, somewhat uninspiring, encounter with pedagogy my engagement with pedagogy and research was far from complete. I was concerned by what I initially deemed to be the restrictive nature of the theories. Piaget suggested specific ages at which children develop, but was that still the case almost four decades after his death? Was behaviourism (Skinner, 1974) the only way to develop effective behaviour for learning in the classroom? Did I need to include all of Gardner’s multiple intelligences (Gardner, 2004) in every lesson?

Then, however, the light bulb moment occurred, in which I connected with a piece of pedagogy. I realised my misconception was that pedagogy was a script, an idea that one subscribed to unconditionally and acted upon unquestioningly. In fact pedagogical theories could be used as a device, developing my understanding of the way students learn. Once understood they act as an informed base from which to experiment and explore different ways of teaching and learning, not a straightjacket dictating the direction of my practice and my development as an educator.

The first piece of pedagogy which inspired me to recognise the versatility and power of research-based practice was Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 1956). Initially created by Benjamin Bloom and a cohort of educationalists, its intention was to categorise different levels of thought, enabling them to be quantified and therefore compared and tracked. I originally used Bloom’s Taxonomy to structure my lessons, demonstrating to students how we were going to make progress and ensuring I had progressive levels of challenge throughout. Moreover, I soon realised the flexibility of the taxonomy as a tool to develop students’ critical thinking skills and encourage their own independent learning skills. I have since experimented with a variety of ways to do this, including creating Bloom’s question cards, which can be used by students to challenge themselves or each other to develop higher levels of thinking.

The realisation that pedagogy wasn’t restricted to its original form and purpose, that instead it could be used as a platform to explore different teaching techniques and ideas and that a variety of ideas can be synthesised to create new and exciting investigative techniques in the classroom, was a turning point in my cynicism against pedagogy. I am currently exploring a variety of cooperative learning techniques, creating a pick and mix of ideas and theories that I think will work for my students, in my classrooms, for my style of teaching. This is not to say that I’m ‘improving’ pedagogical theories, but rather exploring how they can work for me, as a way of ironing out some of the difficulties I face with some of my classes.

And in my opinion, this is the most effective way to use pedagogy. Initially it should be used as a base to develop understanding, but after that you have to make it work for you; test it out, create resources, synthesize ideas until you find the best fit for you. Pedagogy is not effective until it is understood and treated as a vehicle for exploration, not a rulebook.


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