Pedagogy: Exploring Definitions by Dr. Paul McMillan

In a previous blog post, entitled ‘The Rise of Pedagogy’, I tracked the way in which the term pedagogy has started to surface in Scottish education (click here to view my October 2016 entry). ‘Pedagogy’ has become “ubiquitous” in the field of physical education (Tinning, 2010). With so much talk about pedagogy it is not always easy to understand different definitions. At the risk of oversimplification, this blog post briefly examines two popular ways in which pedagogy is defined in physical education. It closes by contemplating how these definitions could start to inform the practices of teachers and researchers in schools.

 Who Has The ‘Real’ Pedagogy?

Given the ubiquity of the term pedagogy, and the diverse definitions that feature in the literature, readers of this blog may be inclined to ask, “Who has the ‘real’ pedagogy”? The answer is: no single, all-embracing definition exists. I am sorry to disappoint those seeking to find the ‘real’ pedagogy. It has progressed in so many overlapping directions that it is impossible to identify a unifying definition. While I will not be able to unveil the ‘real’ pedagogy here, I will move on to look at two of the main ways in which the term tends to be defined in physical education.

One popular way to define pedagogy is to recognise that a dynamic interplay exists within and between the teachers, the pupils, and the settings where educational activities take place. These types of definitions acknowledge that a teacher has to make sense of a great number of local and wider influences to decide on appropriate courses of action for her or his classes (see Armour, 2011). Another popular means of defining pedagogy is to recognise the need to actively challenge the ways in which education, knowledge, and politics shapes what happens (and what does not happen) in school settings. These types of definitions have become particularly prominent in the 21st century, bringing a ‘transformative’ edge to ideas about pedagogy. These definitions lead teachers to not only question the agenda(s) of those individuals endowed with the power to make decisions in educational settings, but also to investigate these norms with pupils to create a more democratic society (see Tinning, 2010).

I have outlined two popular ways in which pedagogy tends to be defined in physical education:

  1. Pedagogy as a dynamic interplay between teachers/learners/educational contexts.
  2. Pedagogy as interrogating the connections between education/knowledge/ politics in schools.

Moving from this theoretical overview of pedagogy, I want to consider briefly how these two quite different definitions could start to inform the thinking of teachers and researchers at an applied level.

Pedagogy: Possibilities For Practice

There is much ‘good’ practice currently taking place in physical education (McMillan, 2017). However, I do, also, understand the complex (and challenging) nature of teaching and learning. Indeed, the complexity is such that Ovens et al. (2013) question if it is even possible for teachers and researchers to grasp “the ‘messiness’ that is inherent in complex educational settings” (p. 1). In response to Ovens and colleagues, I suggest that definitions of pedagogy could provide helpful frameworks for teachers and researchers to better understand the “messiness” of teaching and learning. The definitions outlined in this blog post could provide similar, but slightly different, insights about teaching and learning for both parties.

For teachers, these definitions could, individually or collectively, provide a means to think about practice:

  • by presenting different insights into teaching and learning to those currently featuring in their practices;
  • by offering a shared language to discuss practice with colleagues (including researchers), and;
  • by making explicit the key features of practice – responsiveness, negotiation, and adaptability – required to bring these definitions to life.

For researchers, these definitions could, individually or collectively, provide a means to think about practice:

  • by recognising a more complex picture exists in educational settings than is currently conveyed in the literature;
  • by fostering a shared language to discuss practice with colleagues (including teachers), and;
  • by offering a lens for tolerating the ‘messy’ nature of practice and support efforts to capture the ‘good’ work currently taking place in schools.

Closing Remarks

While I stressed there was no all-embracing form of pedagogy, I shared two main ways in which the term tends to be defined in physical education. I suggested that there is scope for teachers and researchers to engage with the two definitions featuring in this blog post to throw light on the complex nature of our work in schools.

In this blog post there was limited scope to consider what either of these two definitions might actually look like in practice; that is, when teachers and pupils come together in a class. I could provide an outline sketch of these ideas in a future blog post about pedagogy: I’ll be back!



Armour, K. M. (2011) Sport Pedagogy: An Introduction for Teaching and Coaching. Harlow: Prentice Hall.

McMillan, P. (2017) Understanding Physical Education Teachers’ Day-To-Day Practice: Challenging the ‘Unfair’ Picture. In M. Thorburn, (Ed) Transforming Learning and Teaching in Physical Education. London, Routledge.

Ovens, A., Hopper, T. and Butler, J. (2013) Reframing Curriculum, Pedagogy and Research. In A. Ovens, T. Hopper and J. Butler (Eds.) Complexity Thinking in Physical Education: Reframing Curriculum, Pedagogy and Research (pp. 1-13). London: Routledge.

Tinning, R. (2010) Pedagogy and Human Movement: Theory, Practice, Research. London: Routledge.


Share Button

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *