Between Collaboration and Agency – developing pedagogic literacy

In the first post of this series I made the observation that ‘writing is a linear construct which is attempting to describe and explain a networked concept. Therefore, whilst we attempt to make links between ideas and posts, this cannot be exhaustive.’ I therefore thought it would be interesting not to focus on one of the levels of pedagogic literacy for this post, but to consider the tensions and links which exist in between two elements of the concept, the ‘individual’ and the ‘collaborative’. Shulman (1993) in identifying the presence of ‘pedagogic solitude’ calls for the development of communities of researcher-teachers who are willing to discuss, share and publish their work on pedagogy, resulting in his idea of ‘Teaching as Community Property’. But pedagogy at HE level is diverse, not only by discipline, but context and complexity.

The idea of developing dialogue and critically appraised pedagogic insights all within a community of pedagogues fit within the theoretical framework which Lave and Wenger (1991) call situated learning, central to the development of a Community of Practice (later to be developed further by Wenger (1998)). In Communities of Practice, mutual engagement, interaction and thinking together (Wenger 1998) are all important guiding concepts. These show themselves through mutual engagement in which collaboration is explained as ‘doing things together, talking, producing artifacts’ (Wenger, 2000: 227) to encourage and develop shared meaning which in turn can lead to a shared repertoire of pedagogy; here the social is the unit of analysis and the level at which learning is believed to occur.

Collaboration has become an increasingly popular tenet of professional development and learning. It has an obvious attraction as it gives, as Shulman suggests, a positive opportunity for sharing, critiquing and developing pedagogic ideas and approaches; it is at the heart of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. But is all collaboration positive? Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) position and contextualise collaboration explicitly within their theory of Professional Capital. The case that they make is that if we are to enable the growth of critical, professional teachers then they need to develop their understanding and practice through three ‘channels’:

Professional Capital = Human Capital + Social Capital + Decisional Capital

Here, the growth of the individual (Human Capital) through the development of valuable knowledge and skills is seen as best achieved through collaboration (Social Capital) within a context where they can make authentic and meaningful judgements (Decisional Capital) to develop and innovate their shared practices. However, Hargreaves and Fullan do stress that there are different forms of collaboration some of which can be identified as negative, such as Balkanisation (where separate groups develop within the organisation who compete against each other) or Contrived Collegiality (where the work of groups is formal and driven from the centre) as these do not allow for professional growth and authentic development.

We therefore need to consider the tensions which may exist between the collaborative or social and the agency of the individual. We all bring unique perspectives, knowledge and experiences to pedagogic development and we need to ensure, within collaborative contexts, that the agency of practitioners is retained, each taking what they value from collaboration rather than feeling pressured to agree to a ‘group-approach’. Going back to the notion of situated and social learning developed by Lave and Wenger (1991), learning is regarded as a social construct. Individuals learn through group interaction. This emphasises learning as a change in identity over the generation of explicit ‘knowledge’. However, this focus on the social can lead to the danger of losing the agency of the individual, as Billett (2007: 59) states:

‘….. data from workplaces of different kinds, over time, consistently emphasises the importance of dualities that comprise both contributions or affordances of the workplace and the bases by which individuals elect to engage with what is afforded them and the relationships between them.’

The agency of the individual needs to be seen as relational to the group; the development of both is negotiated, leading to the need to understand both the life history of the individual and the nature of the negotiation. Even in developing collaborative approaches individuals will bring personal meanings and experience, and likewise will take away different lessons from the collaboration. Again, Billett (2007: 65) argues:

‘While a phenomenon may have some common meaning, its construal by individuals will be shaped by particular sets of values, subjectivities and the discourses to which they have access.’

In considering the development of pedagogic literacies, there is both personal and collaborative growth, but these occur in tension. In understanding the development of pedagogic literacy collaboration is important, but we must accept that individuals will take different lessons and insights from working together. Hence, all individuals will develop unique literacies. Learning and development exists neither solely within the individual or the group but within and between them.


Billett, S. (2007) Including the missing subject: placing the personal within the community. In Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, Hughes, J.; Jewson, N. & Unwin, L. (eds.), Abingdon: Routledge, 55-67.

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Shulman, L.S. (1993) ‘Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.’ Change, 25 (6), 6-7. (

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization 7(2), 225-246.


Some Initial Thoughts on Pedagogic Literacy – Contextualising Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

All humans have the capacity to both learn and teach. Children teach each other games, parents teach their children how to tie their shoe laces, how to behave and how to ride a bicycle. Teaching is as ubiquitous as learning; it is part of what it is to be ‘human’. In pre-history, humans taught and learned through mimetic and experiential learning and teaching. However as societies become more complex and individuals begin to specialise in the jobs they do, one pursuit which emerges is that of teaching children. Whilst some have responsibility to look after animals, to harvest crops, or build computers, etc, others become expert in teaching others. This is the obvious extension of the formalisation of the act of education. In specialising in pedagogy (here taken to mean the process of bringing together teaching, learning, curriculum and assessment to enable others to extend their experience of the world) teachers move from an informal process of teaching, i.e. trial and error, often implicit and subconscious, to one which is made explicit, problematic, and around which can be built structures and processes to enable better, more efficient, more creative ways of helping others to learn.

By seeing pedagogy as a process which all people have ability in it becomes a continuum rather than something that some of us have and others do not. Instead, what distinguishes teachers is a heightened awareness, understanding and pursuit of better pedagogy. The elements and processes involved in developing pedagogic skill and insight is what we term pedagogic literacy.  Pedagogic literacy is constituted of a wide repertoire of teaching-related knowledge, skills, values, dispositions and attributes. Figure 1 gives a summary of some of the main features involved.

PL outline

Figure 1. Outline of some of the main features of pedagogic literacy

Pedagogy is a complex process, where complexity should be understood by its scientific meaning of being nonlinear, incompressible, and emergent. Taking each of these ideas in turn, nonlinearity emphasises that teaching and learning do not occur in simple cause-and-effect relationships; by teaching X, I cannot universally predict that student Y will learn Z. Sometimes major interventions will have little effect, at other times the smallest of interactions may have profound impacts. The work of teachers is also incompressible in that any attempt to boil down and summarise the complexity of pedagogy into a simple list is doomed to curtail the depth and breadth of the reality of the pedagogic environment (see this post on complexity and graded observation as an example). Finally, associated with the incompressibility of teaching is the notion that pedagogy has features which are beyond the sum total of factors which come together to make it possible, in other words the act of pedagogy is itself emergent and as such is highly unpredictable at any level other than the most general. It must be stated that by accepting that pedagogic literacy is a complex adaptive system, and hence is incompressible, any model of its characteristics such as that in figure 1 can only ever hope to be a guide rather than a totality. It is given as partial description as opposed to a definitive explanation.

For those teachers who become expert at their job there is a career long investment in engaging in understanding the detail of their chosen profession. The complexity of pedagogy is such that we must continue to develop our understanding over the course of many years; in fact it is a truism that we will have neither a perfect understanding of the processes of teaching and learning nor ever teach the perfect lesson over the course of our career’s span. As a medium for understanding the ways in which individual teachers develop, pedagogic literacy is constituted of a wide (though not exhaustive) repertoire of teaching related knowledge, skills, values, dispositions and attributes.

Figure 1 highlights two important features of the concept of pedagogic literacy. Firstly, we see pedagogic environments as complex adaptive systems in which teachers move between the different levels constantly; they ‘level jump’ as they experience pedagogic events and develop pedagogic expertise. As an example, if a student does not understand a concept or area of knowledge, the values of the individual will work with their professional skills and understanding (personal growth) whilst also operating within the organisational and societal contexts to develop pedagogic solutions to aid understanding. The act of pedagogy is a complex interplay between these different levels and processes. Secondly, given the wide range of knowledge, skills, values and contexts inherent in the pedagogic environment, the development of teachers is emergent, and by extension, pedagogic literacy is an emergent process. Teachers’ developing expertise is more than the sum total of the constituent parts, it has extra value and meaning in its own right. However, pedagogic literacy as an emergent process is not deterministic, in other words emergence does not ensure positive change and expertise.

Over several future posts we’ll develop different aspects of pedagogic literacy to illustrate the ideas, concepts and processes which constitute the pedagogic network. Two limitations must be stressed immediately however. As suggested earlier, due to the incompressibility of pedagogic literacy any treatment can only hope to be a partial description, but is nonetheless useful for it. Secondly, the same problem exists in writing about this concept as Deleuze and Guattari (1987) had in writing The Thousand Plateaus, in that writing is a linear construct which is attempting to describe and explain a networked concept. Therefore, whilst we attempt to make links between ideas and posts, this cannot be exhaustive. However, one advantage in this is that we encourage anyone reading these posts to make links and networks of their own.