The Basic Concept
Pedagogy refers to the method or practice of teaching. In education circles the term is used in reference to things like instructional strategies and classroom management, essentially, the performance that the teacher puts on each day. But the idea need not be limited to these kind of direct behaviours. Many things which teachers do that don't involve direct interaction with students also have immense pedagogic potential. Montessori, for one, saw the pedagogic role of the students' learning environment, and devised an educational method which leveraged that potential through careful preparation of the environment to allow students freedom of choice while ensuring that those choices would result in meaningful experiential learning.
Pedagogy can be understood as the interface between students and the curriculum. In this sense, some manner of pedagogy is essential to the idea of education. The nature of that pedagogy, however, is an open question. Any curriculum can be learned in a variety of ways, and some things will be taught and learned more effectively in one way as opposed to another. An appropriate pedagogical approach needs to take into consideration both the nature of the content to be taught, and the characteristics of the students who will be learning it. In some cases, a relatively teacher-directed approach may be necessary. In other cases, a less prescriptive, student-centered approach may be preferable.
There is a problem with the way we usually conceive of teaching and learning, because of the strong directionality implied by those concepts, and the way our grammar biases our thinking. If we parse down the idea, 'he teaches science', the implication is clearly that science is something being imparted from the teacher to the students. This naturally leads us to conceptualize the teaching act as some manner of lecture or transfer of expertise.. To some extent this may be legitimate, but it is also seriously limiting because we now know that most students do not learn particularly well, or deeply, by listening to lectures. This 'banking' perspective also leads us to more serious problems when we think of the broader goals of our education systems. The idea of transformative education--teaching for democracy, or social justice, or tolerance, or sustainability--doesn't make sense at all in these terms. These things are not learned through lecture, but through the day-to-day socialization process that comes from studently immersion in their various social contexts (primarily school and family).
Pedagogical choices are often made simply based on teachers' own strengths, comfort zone, and preferences, rather than their specific appropriateness or developmental value. Teachers may be fearful of giving up the sense of perceived control they have when speaking to a classful of quiet students, and lectures dominate. In cases where teachers are not comfortable with their own content expertise, textbooks may dominate. But the medium is the message in all cases. Students who learn scientific content by lecture or textbook are not cultivating scientific thinking or developing their skills of inquiry through the application of the scientific method. Too often teachers focus on the teaching and learning of 'content', by which they mean primarily knowledge-based content, without sufficient attention to the deeper aspects of learning. The question for teachers should be around what students are practicing each day, what we are training them to be, and what dispositions are being cultivated through their experiences day after day in the classroom. Too often, what students are learning is passivity, complacency, deference, disengagement, apathy, or ambivalence. Ironically, teachers often alienate students from the content which is being 'taught' by failing to provide students with opportunities to properly engage with that field of content.
There is a need to step back from the immediate learning objectives identified in course syllabuses, and consider the broader goals of our education systems. We are cultivating citizens, above all, not just teaching subjects. Different education systems have their own grand narratives. I quite pity the Americans these days, whose grand narrative has been operationalized by a decade of NCLB. On the other hand, some small countries such as Mauritius and Tonga are blazing a different path, as they take bold steps towards the re-shaping their education systems around concepts of culture and sustainable development.
When we think about education in these terms, it is no longer sufficient to think of pedagogy in terms of instructional strategies. We need to think of students' learning as the sum total of their experiences in school, and therefore, we need to think of pedagogy as the sum total of what teachers do to shape those experiences. It is not just the teacher's performance during 'show-time', but they way they structure their classrooms, the routines and procedures, the role modeling in and out of class, the use of assessment, the participation in school governance, the connection to the outside community, and so on. The goal for teachers and school leaders should be to align students' experiences as much as possible with the overall goals of education. Consideration should be given to how the subject areas fit into those goals, and then, to how pedagogy can shape students' experiences with the content to make the best contribution to those goals.