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.

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