What Is a Pedagogue?

It’s not uncommon for people who teach to be unaware of pedagogy. That doesn’t mean they don’t practice pedagogy, or that they haven’t engaged in pedagogical discussion. It means they are less conscious, or unconscious, of the pedagogy they employ in their classrooms than, say, the readers of this blog. I have taught many teachers who, before arriving in the seminar room for training, first looked up pedagogy in the dictionary.

This is, of course, perfectly fine. Pedagogy, like parenting, is a lot of what we’ve learned from our predecessors. We may raise our children as our parents raised us; likewise, we often teach as we were taught. If the majority of our instructors were lecturers, we’re likely to lecture; if they centered class activities on group work, then we’ll employ that instead. Most higher education instructors receive very little or no training in pedagogy, and so—thrust into the classroom because they have knowledge of their field—they teach with the tools available to them. Teaching is, a lot of the time, a matter of tradition, a matter of habit. And in a world where 60 to 75 percent of teachers are dreadfully underpaid, habit is expedient.

Just as teachers are not all pedagogues, neither are pedagogues necessarily teachers. Notable pedagogues (Paulo Freire, bell hooks, John Dewey) have been teachers as much as writers, but this isn’t true of all. For a pedagogue, the classroom is a laboratory, a place where experiments in learning take place. It’s the pedagogue who looks for new ways to inspire active learning in a classroom; the pedagogue who invents the “flipped” classroom; the pedagogue who encounters an LMS and decides to break it instead of simply reside within it. The pedagogue looks at the walls of her classroom and instead of seeing mandatory boundaries, sees the invitation to take students outside.

In Decoding Digital Pedagogy, pt. 1: Beyond the LMS, I said:

“Pedagogy has at its core timeliness, mindfulness, and improvisation. Pedagogy concerns itself with the instantaneous, momentary, vital exchange that takes place in order for learning to happen.”

Try something new! is the pedagogue’s mantra.

And more: the pedagogue takes what she does in class, and she distributes it. She publishes, she blogs, she talks excitedly in conference seminar rooms (and conference elevators), she makes documentaries, she teaches teachers, she teaches the public.

I like to think of pedagogues as fashion designers. They can be a bit blithe to the quotidian concerns of classroom teaching. They move online discussions out of the forum and onto Twitter, and when a good teacher asks, “but how do you assess tweets?” the pedagogue replies: “Oh, I don’t bother with assessment!” The pedagogue is concerned more with big ideas, the themes of education, its ethics and morals and goals, and a lot less with grading mid-terms, quizzes, and preparing well-researched lectures.

This can be infuriating and confounding for teachers, especially when they need solutions to classroom issues that are very real, and very immediate. But asking a pedagogue for answers requires patience, and a willingness to take risks in the classroom. Its home is in dialogue, not Q&A. When we have trouble with participation in an online discussion forum, the pedagogue may give us 10 useful tips, but may instead ask us to revise our syllabus, to look at the germ of our course planning for the problem.

It’s not entirely true that pedagogues have no good ideas for classroom practice. They do. They’ve done little else in their classrooms besides solve problems. But the pedagogue’s solutions are the solutions which, years after she implements them in her own classroom, become the habit and tradition of brand new teachers.

Pedagogy is essentially a critical thinking exercise directed at learning and teaching. Pedagogy asks us to never teach by rote: never assume the use of a podium, or an overhead projector, or desks situated in rows, or a chalkboard, or walls. Teaching should be a determined thing, an intentional thing; and every exercise we design, every component of the LMS we engage, every grade we assign should reflect our intentions. And more than that, our philosophies.