Pedagogy Science

In a recent lively group discussion around transformational learning, a colleague of mine – someone who I have the utmost professional respect for – made an interesting point which made me stop and think.

He was making a point that teachers and educational organisations need to ensure that the pedagogy which we employ and condone is grounded in evidence-based research. He cautioned against educational fads and ‘warm and fuzzy’ practices and invited us to consider what really works in terms of instructional strategies. “Pedagogy needs to become more scientific” he said.

I did some follow up reading that afternoon, keen to make more sense of what this actually meant. I revisited Teachers Make a Difference: What is the research evidence? by John Hattie (2003) – a great article which I hadn’t read in over a year. In his article, Hattie looks to ‘highlight that which truly makes a difference’ and identifies particular practices which – backed by extensive research – are most likely to enhance student learning. His first point, however, establishes the role of teachers as a key source (30%) of variance in student achievement – second only to the student themselves (50%). This means that, according to Hattie, the home, school, principal and peers make very little difference to student achievement.

Hattie then goes onto list the influences in order of effect on student achievement:

Influence Effect Size Source of influence


Students’ prior cognitive ability


Instructional quality


Direct instruction



Apart from students’ prior cognitive ability, the top influences on student achievement – feedback, instructional quality and direct instruction –  are all sourced from the teacher themselves. These came in much higher than computer-assisted instruction (.31), individualisation (.14) and team teaching (.06). I mention these three influences primarily because they were influences strongly encouraged in my previous school – personalising learning for students in a community-based, flexible learning environment with embedded digital technologies.

I’m not saying that these aren’t important elements – and neither is Hattie, as they are all positive influences on student achievement. I also note that this article was published in 2003, and that ‘computer-assisted instruction’ was probably quite different (along with the digital technologies) than what it is today.

What I am saying, though, is that perhaps we need to focus on our teaching practices and what teachers actually DO in a lesson – particularly around the elements of how we provide feedback to students, how we ensure quality of our instruction / productive pedagogies and that we embed components of explicit teaching in our day-to-day. Which brings me to the second article I read as part of this re-think…

In his discussion around educational effectiveness, Rowe (2007) states in his article The Imperative of Evidence-based Practices for the Teaching and Assessment of Numeracy that “a good deal of this student-centred ‘discourse’ and its impact on policy and practice is not supported by existing and emerging findings from evidence-based research”.

Rowe takes a swipe at student-centred, inquiry-based teaching practices when he states  “the widespread and mostly unquestioning adoption of constructivist orientations towards teaching in most areas of the curriculum in Western, English-speaking schools and higher education institutions is problematic, and especially in the teaching of mathematics.”

An important point that Rowe makes here is the constructivism is a theory of learning, not a theory of teaching. What I’ve taken this to mean here is that just because a student may learn through inquiry and may socially-construct knowledge through play and exploration, this doesn’t mean that I, as a teacher, setup an environment for this to occur and then dust my hands and consider my job done.

In describing the features of constructivism, Rowe states “the implicit assumptions underlying such rationale are that ‘intrinsically motivated’ learners, independent of explicit instruction provision, have acquired sufficient prior knowledge and skills (particularly basic literacy, numeracy and study skills) to engage effectively and productively for generating new learning in a given subject matter domain”.

I was also interested in his description of what direction instruction actually meant:

Direct instruction (DI) – sometimes referred to as explicit instruction – “is a systematic method for presenting learning material in small steps, pausing to check for student understanding, and eliciting active and successful participation from all students” (Rosenshine, 1986, p. 60). DI modes of instruction are well grounded in findings from evidence-based research in cognitive science, and give little attention to the ‘causes’ of under-achievement, learning difficulties, or to students’ underlying abilities (Casey, 1994; Coltheart, 2005). Thus, DI programs are designed according to what, not who, is to be taught. Individual differences among students are allowed for through different entry points, reinforcement, amounts of practice, and correction strategies (see: Engelmann, 1999; Hempenstall, 1996).

Summarising the rest of his article, Rowe doesn’t necessarily believe constructivism is ineffective in all situations with all students. What he does posit, however, is that students need to have a high level of explicitly-taught basic literacies  in order to learn effectively through social-constructivism.

While I’m not yet ready to throw out my ideals of rich, personalised, negotiated, authentic, collaborative learning just yet, I see value in – as my colleague stated – focusing on what the research actually says works. Of course, this does not mean we revert back to traditional practices and sit 25 kids down in 25 desks to all learn algebra from the blackboard. But we do need to focus more on our pedagogy – digital or otherwise – and how and why the quality of our instruction enhances student learning.

From my own organisation, the Productive Pedagogies and the Smart Classrooms Professional Development Framework support this.

My argument in this post, therefore, is that we need to offer more opportunities for teachers to engage with professional development which focuses on what quality teaching looks like.

My questions for you:

When did you last participate in professional development which looked at how you provide feedback to students?

When did you last participate in professional development which looked at how you explicitly teach concepts?

When did you last participate in professional development which looked at how you conduct formative assessment and measure understanding?

When did you last participate in professional development which looked at how you put in practice quality, evidence-based pedagogies?

2 thoughts on “Pedagogy Science

  1. You’ve speared something significant with this post Joe. If you base your belief in teaching on a linear hierarchy of skills that a student needs to own, for example Bloom’s (digital) taxonomy, then constructivism and cognitivism will both play a role. Students need to progress through Remembering, Understanding and Applying – all of which require a teacher to “fill the empty vessel” in a cognitivist way. The skills “delivered” may well be thinking skills. By no means will every student graduate from these lower order thinkings skills, but Direct Instruction (or its close cousin Direct Interactive Teaching which) will help more of them reach into the higher order skills progression: Analysing, Evaluating, (Creating.) THIS is where carefully considered, thoroughly scoped and scaffolded arenas are made available for constructivism to come into play, under the influence and supervision of a teacher.

    ICT is useful in different roles at both ends of the skills spectrum. Lower order thinking skills can be characterised by the teacher saying “do this.” Higher order thinking skills can be characterised by saying “show me what you can do.” Reading the Rowe article I was dismayed by the assertion that teacher training for primary schools is dominated by constructivist classroom activities. The analogy which came to mind is of teaching a pilot to fly. In the model I assumed applied, the pilot would be trained in an established progression of necessary knowledge and skills under close supervision (cognitivist approach) to the point where she takes her first solo flight under careful supervision from the tower(constructivist approach). If the article is accurate in its assertions, primary schools are trying to teach their students to fly by handing them a succession of progressively more powerful aeroplanes while standing by and watching. Please tell me I’m wrong!

  2. Pingback: Is Our Pedagogy Scientific? | Emerging Technologies Magazine

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