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It’s Time to Talk About Pedagogy

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

by Steve Saville

" A bad curriculum well taught is invariably better than a good curriculum badly taught: pedagogy trumps curriculum. Or more precisely, pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught.''

- Dylan Wiliam

And so we collectively take a deep breath and leap into a brand new, shiny school year.

He rā e tō, he rā e puta mai anō

Sun sets and then rises again. Another day begins, the journey continues.

Looking back over the last couple of years and reflecting before leaping into the new year, there is one theme that stands out for me that I believe needs addressing.


Most schools that I have had the pleasure to work alongside over the last three years have been on a journey of change that has initially centered on either curriculum change, curriculum development, timetable change, structural cohesion, or preparation for mandated changes (Aotearoa/NZ Histories Curriculum/Digital Technology Curriculum etc.)

The initial focus in nearly all of this has been on curriculum/assessment and processes. All of which are vitally important. However, once we started any implementation work on any of these initiatives we quickly realised that what we were really dealing with, when looking at sustainable and meaningful change, was not curriculum, or content, or structure - but pedagogy, the ‘how’ not the ‘what.’

What was really enhancing or obstructing successful change or development was teacher positioning, awareness, efficacy and collaboration. A concept nicely summarized above by Dylan Wiliam.

No real surprise I guess, but having identified that it was the art of teaching and the required focus on pedagogy that was the crucial factor in cementing change, the problem remained regarding how to address it. It is easier to deal with content than it is to deal with the practice of individual teachers. That is far more personal, and often far more raw. No hard working teacher wants to have their areas of potential development laid bare unless that process takes place in a culture of care and in a safe environment - and this doesn't exist unless it has been carefully nurtured.

So how do we actually deal with PLD and teacher development around pedagogy?

In fact I would ask a different question, how often do we, in school, even discuss pedagogy?

How often do we focus on the spirit of teaching, the essence of what makes a great teacher, and how meaningful and deep are these discussions if they do take place?

"Teaching. The magic Weaving Business."

- Sir John Jones

An outstanding teacher empowers, inspires and fosters self-belief in their students. It is a skill and it is an art. All too often though discussion and exploration of pedagogy was part of our training that, for many of us, took place in the dim and distant past, when we looked at Vygotsky and Piaget (for example) wrote an essay (definitely/maybe - sorry, couldn’t help the Oasis pun) and then promptly forgot all about them as we immersed ourselves in the helter skelter world of a beginning teacher.

All too often subsequent pedagogical development revolved around observing an ‘expert’ practitioner rather than examining our own personal pedagogy. And this is possibly as good as it got. Think of the PLD offered in your school recently. How much of it was genuinely concerned with pedagogy and the development of you as a skilled practitioner of an art? How much time you, as a teacher, spend on reflecting on your art? In what forums, and to what extent?

On the other hand, how much time has been spent on systems, processes, curriculum development/content? Ask yourself, is this balance right? If we don’t review and refine our skills how will any meaningful developments be transferred to our learners?

The danger is that this year looks like we will be busy preparing for, and implementing mandated initiatives such as the curriculum refresh. We are still coming to terms with the literacy and numeracy standards, still investigating the place that structured literacy has in our programmes, still developing our understanding of Mātauranga Māori, the list goes on. We are in danger of being swamped time wise with content and continue to ignore pedagogical growth.

We have heard so much about growth mindsets, and there is no doubt that as educators we certainly need an ability to embrace flexible approaches - but mindsets need fostering, they need nurturing, they need attention, they need to be watered and they need to be valued.

It is all very well to be told what pedagogy is and how important it is, but do we take the time to nurture it on an institutional and personal level, and do we share in open, transparent, trusting environments?

It has long been my belief that the best PLD is just down the corridor, but how do we set up communities in our staff to share pedagogy, not just strategies? And how do we ensure that these are spaces of equity and equality where the enthusiasm and idealism of a beginning teacher has the same voice as a teacher who has the wisdom of years in the classroom? Both valid voices must meet equally.

If we need guidance on how to approach these discussions then we certainly don't have to look far. This diagram from the Ministry of Education certainly establishes three areas of focus.

(Diagram source here)

If we look at Māori pedagogical practice, we certainly get guidance around placing an emphasis on the student at the centre of the teaching/learning paradigm and the importance of relationships expressed as a desire to see the students as holistic, multi dimensional people and to be seen as such themselves. For more detail here please refer to the thesis of Paul Stucki.

If you need a framework to start the process of examining the pedagogy of a school, or an individual teacher, then I offer the following resource as a framework.

The validity of this pedagogical reflection and development is hard to refute, the prioritizing of time to allow for this process is the first step in showing how we value it, and it is also the first step in showing respect for ourselves and our colleagues as skilled practitioners who, given the time and space, will reflect, share and learn to ensure that how we deliver learning that empowers and engages our learners.

Read PART 2 Creating the right conditions for pedagogy growth here

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