What is a Pedagogue?

Sean Michael Morris

It’s not uncommon for people who teach to be unaware of pedagogy. That doesn’t mean they don’t practice pedagogy, or that they haven’t engaged in pedagogical discussion. It means they are less conscious, or unconscious, of the pedagogy they employ in their classrooms than, say, the likely readers of this piece. I have taught many teachers who, before arriving in the seminar room for training, first looked up pedagogy in the dictionary.

This is, of course, perfectly fine. Pedagogy, like parenting, is a lot of what we’ve learned from our predecessors. We may raise our children as our parents raised us; likewise, we often teach as we were taught. If the majority of our instructors were lecturers, we’re likely to lecture; if they centered class activities on group work, then we’ll employ that instead. Most higher education instructors receive very little or no training in pedagogy, and so — thrust into the classroom because they have knowledge of their field — they teach with the tools available to them. Teaching is, a lot of the time, a matter of tradition, a matter of habit. And in a world where 60 to 75 percent of teachers are adjunct or dreadfully underpaid, habit is expedient.

Just as teachers are not all pedagogues, neither are pedagogues necessarily teachers. Notable pedagogues (Paulo Freire, bell hooks, John Dewey) have been teachers as much as writers, but this isn’t true of all. For a pedagogue, the classroom is a laboratory, a place where experiments in learning take place. It’s the pedagogue who looks for new ways to inspire active learning in a classroom; who invents the “flipped” classroom; who encounters an LMS and decides to break it instead of simply reside within it. The pedagogue looks at the walls of her classroom and instead of seeing mandatory boundaries, sees the invitation to take students outside.

And more: the pedagogue takes what she does in class, and she distributes it. She publishes, she blogs, she talks excitedly in conference seminar rooms (and conference elevators), she makes documentaries, she teaches teachers, she teaches the public.

I like to think of pedagogues as fashion designers. They can be a bit blithe to the quotidian concerns of classroom teaching. They move online discussions out of the forum and onto Twitter, and when a good teacher asks, “but how do you grade tweets?” the pedagogue replies: “Oh, I don’t bother with grading!” The pedagogue is concerned more with big ideas, the themes of education, its ethics and morals and goals, and a lot less with grading mid-terms, quizzes, and preparing well-researched lectures.

This can be infuriating and confounding for teachers, especially when they need solutions to classroom issues that are very real, and very immediate. But asking a pedagogue for answers requires patience, and a willingness to take risks in the classroom. Pedagogy is at home in dialogue, not Q&A. When we have trouble with participation in an online discussion forum, the pedagogue may give us 10 useful tips, but may instead ask us to revise our syllabus, to look at the germ of our course planning for the problem.

It’s not entirely true that pedagogues have no good ideas for classroom practice. They do. They’ve done little else in their classrooms besides solve problems. But the pedagogue’s solutions are the solutions which, years after she implements them in her own classroom, become the habit and tradition of brand new teachers.

Pedagogy is essentially a critical thinking exercise directed at learning and teaching. Pedagogy asks us to never teach by rote: never assume the use of a podium, or an overhead projector, or desks situated in rows, or a chalkboard, or walls. Teaching should be a determined thing, an intentional thing; and every exercise we design, every component of the LMS we engage, every grade we assign should reflect our intentions. And more than that, our philosophies.

What is a Digital Pedagogue?

Entering a classroom, we think first about its walls. We think about where the desks sit. Where we will stand. Whether there are windows, where the doors are, how the chalkboard, whiteboard, or overhead projector are arranged. And then we make decisions about teaching based on these environmental considerations. Should we rearrange the chairs? Should we stand behind the podium, or should we sit on the desk? Making decisions about how teaching will occur — what it will look like, how it will be performed — is as much a response to the environment in which we teach as it is to the lesson we have planned.

What about when we teach online? Where are our walls and chairs and podium in digital space? For some, the coded boundaries of the LMS replace the solid borders of the classroom, and discussion fora become the arrangement of chairs. Video lectures have been used to replicate an instructor’s presence on the screen, and quizzes with algorithmically automated teacherly responses offer feedback in lieu of written notes and gold stars. But it’s important to think bigger about where the walls are, where our teaching territory lies.

And here’s why: because when we teach digitally — whether online, or in hybrid environments (and all learning today is necessarily hybrid) — walls become arbitrary. All walls. And all seats and all podiums and all chalkboards, too. LMSs have more than snack-sized shortcomings, but the biggest dilemma they pose is that they create the illusion of digital learning without really ever encountering the Internet. Like all illusions, this is misleading, because digital learning (and by necessity, digital pedagogy) takes place all over the web.

Individual digital tools have been largely created in order to contain the Internet. They are like stalls at a public market. In one, you can buy fresh produce, in another jewelry, in another tie-dye shirts and aprons. Each is meant to give you a specific interaction with part of the whole. This is also true of traditional classrooms. You go to room 202 in the Humanities building to learn English, but you go to room 556 in the Science building to take your math class. The LMS, the market stall, the classroom all have this in common: they make particular and small that which is widespread.

But there are few true walls on the Internet, only the walls we choose. We may teach part of our class on-ground and part of it within an LMS, or we may put our syllabus online and conduct backchannel discussions on Twitter between classes. But as teachers we can never be certain that our students will choose the same walls we choose for them. While they are in our on-ground classroom, they are also on Twitter and Facebook. They’ve just “pinned” a photo of our slideshow to Pinterest. And by doing so, they’ve made the class extant, and their own participation ongoing. They’ve broken the walls of the classroom (or the LMS) on their own, and so broken down the boundaries of when and where learning takes place.

That students can break the walls between which we plan our teaching means that we must adjust our pedagogical approach. And that’s the core of digital pedagogy: an acknowledgement that the space of learning is more fluid and adaptable than we might have planned on.

Before getting lost in the discussion of what tools to teach, or whether to teach tools in place of (or next to) teaching content, it’s important to ask the question: are we teaching digitally? And if we are, there are a number of consequences.

  1. Our digital pedagogy must inevitably acknowledge the ability of students to control and choose containers for their own learning.

  2. We cannot compensate for all the ways that students will choose to process and curate their learning in digital spaces, and so it becomes vital to teach students not about particular tools, but about how to choose tools for their use.

  3. In order for students to choose tools for their own use, they must have a sense of themselves as learners much more than a sense of us as teachers. Digital pedagogy is necessarily learner-centric.

  4. We must empower students to use the web (because they will anyway) in ways that support their learning. This means integrating the use of smart phones, tablets, and laptops in on-ground classrooms. It also means inviting students to connect with each other outside of the ways we intend them to connect. Let learning go where they go.

Digital pedagogy is different from teaching online because it allows us to open up learning and teaching in ways that gravity-bound education doesn’t permit. When we bring the Internet into our teaching, we open our students (and ourselves) to the potential of networked, connected learning.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Sean Michael Morris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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