‘P’ is for ‘Pedagogy’: The missing term in the university lexicon.

When designing a curriculum, a focus on content as a starting point tends to be objectivist and considers knowledge as external to the student – as a fundamental ‘truth’. This resonates with many colleagues in the sciences. A student focus tends to be more constructivist and considers knowledge to be internal to the student, as a personal and idiosyncratic construction. This may resonate more with colleagues in the Arts and Humanities.

As the pendulum (figure above) has swung towards the student in recent years, there has been an emphasis on student learning needs and student diversity. However, Simon (1999: 42) has argued persuasively that ‘to start from the standpoint of individual difference is to start from the wrong position’. This is not to argue against a focus on the needs of the student, and the support they need in order to gain expertise in their chosen field. Far from it. But surely the starting point should be the discipline – that central point in the pendulum where the pointer swings fastest.

However, when learning about a new discipline, the specialist terminology of the field can sometimes create a barrier. This is part of the process of learning and engaging with the culture of the discipline. When learning about education, the term ‘pedagogy’ can have the effect of causing panic among academics, and is often confused with the more familiar term ‘teaching’. So why use the term pedagogy?

Simplifying the terminology of education projects an over-simplistic view of the ideas being discussed and results in the complexity of the situation being lost. This can result in a lack of engagement with the topic that appears to offer no challenge. This is what many colleagues within the disciplines would characterise as ‘dumbing down’. So why should we dumb down the discourse on teaching and learning?

For such reasons, it is important that ‘pedagogy’ finds its way into the lexicon of the university teacher as it means so much more than the related term, ‘teaching’. Teaching tends to focus on the ‘what?’ of the classroom, whereas pedagogy offers a focus on the ‘why?’. Only with an appreciation of the why can evidence of teaching effectiveness be contextualised and developed.

Inertia within the pendulum has developed as academics can feel alienated from the discourse on education that is increasingly scrutinised through the lenses of accountability and managerialism. But to regain control of their discipline, rather than pull back from discussions of teaching, academics must engage more fully with that aspect which intersects with student engagement – the pedagogy of their discipline. This is central to the function of the university of they are to avoid becoming centres of non-learning (Kinchin et al., 2008).

The difference between teaching and pedagogy, click on link: pedagogy vs teaching slide[1]


Kinchin, I.M., Lygo-Baker, S. and Hay, D.B. (2008) Universities as centres of non-learning. Studies in Higher Education, 33(1): 89 – 103.
Simon, B. (1999) Why no pedagogy in England? In: Leach, J. and Moon, B. (eds.) Learners and pedagogy. London, Paul Chapman, (pp. 34 – 45).


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