The Rise of Pedagogy by Dr. Paul McMillan

Dr. McMillan is a Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. In this insightful and thought provoking blog, he encourages us to engage in dialogue around what good teaching and learning means.

The Rise Of Pedagogy

Despite the fact that there has been a “…disregard for…pedagogy within…North America and the UK” (Waring and Evans, 2015. p. 27), the term has started to surface within Scottish education. Take, as one example, the views of Finn (2009), the then Chief Executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS):

…part of our job as a General Teaching Council is to promote discussion of what good learning and teaching means…I would like to see pedagogy being at the forefront of this discussion.gtc_778x436

Another, related, example can be seen in the GTCS’s recent update of the standards upholding Career-Long Professional Learning. Having been omitted previously, in these current standards (GTCS, 2012), ‘pedagogy’ – or the terms ‘pedagogies’ or ‘pedagogical’ – appear on 12 occasions throughout the 10 page document. From the perspective of the GTCS at least, who control access to, and maintain standards of, the profession, the term ‘pedagogy’ does appear to be an increasing part of Scottish education. It seems timely, therefore, for this blog post to engage with pedagogy. I will first highlight one major theoretical challenge ahead and then move on to point out the potential this term offers for supplementing existing conceptions of teachers and teaching.


Caution: Major Challenge Ahead!

A major challenge of pedagogy is the accessibility of the term. Many people, probably quite rightly, approach pedagogy with some trepidation: this is due partly to the fact that there is no all-embracing definition and partly to the ever-increasing use of complex ideas to define the term. Consequently, over 15 years ago, Stones (2000) identified the uneven nature of pedagogy’s theoretical development as a “conceptual fog” that has frustrated teachers and resulted in the term being little used in schools. Given the possibility that pedagogy could be abandoned in Scotland before its potential is realised, it seems important to make a case for how this term could be used: “to promote discussion of what good learning and teaching means” (Finn, 2009).

Pedagogy: The ‘Bigger Picture’?

Over 20 years ago, Alexander (1994) urged the education profession – teachers and researchers – to start making explicit:

…the educational ideas and assumptions in which…observable [teaching] practice is grounded. Without them practice is mindless, purposeless and random…

In this quotation, Alexander clearly is not suggesting teaching, and the work of teachers, to be “mindless, purposeless and random” pursuits, but rather it can be portrayed in this way by failing to recognise the “educational ideas and assumptions” that shape these practices.

tumblr_ncwpkbixfi1u0a051o3_540Alexander (2008) identifies pedagogy as providing this “bigger picture” interpretation of teaching. According to Alexander (2008), ‘teaching’ and ‘pedagogy’ are often conflated, but there are fundamental differences between these terms. Alexander (2008) separates ‘teaching’ from ‘pedagogy’ in the following way:

…teaching is an act while pedagogy is both act and discourse. Pedagogy encompasses the performance of teaching together with the theories, beliefs, policies and controversies that inform and shape it.

This quotation suggests that pedagogy can transform the act of teaching into a highly informed and thoughtfully driven process. Drawing upon pedagogy as a lens to look at teachers and teaching then, could have a number of benefits:

  1. It recognises the importance of teachers’ professional capabilities.
  2. It acknowledges that teachers have to make sense of their practice against the backdrop of school life and wider society.
  3. It could provide a frame for teachers to understand the reasons and purposes they draw upon to bring their practices to life and create a shared language to discuss practice with colleagues.iStock_000042781940_Double [SolStock] copy


Closing Remarks

While an interest in pedagogy has been displayed by the GTCS, I highlighted the risk of this term being entirely overlooked in schools. If the education profession – teachers and researchers – can find ways to understand the theoretical challenges of this term, and perhaps help each other to do so, the potential of Finn’s (2009) aspirations “to promote discussion of what good learning and teaching means” could come to fruition.

In this blog post there was limited scope to explore further contemporary definitions or look at what Physical Education literature has to say on these matters. I could discuss these issues and many more in future blog posts: to be continued…


Alexander, R. J. (1994) Analysing Practice. In: J. Bourne (Ed.) Thinking Through Primary Practice (pp. 16-21). London: Routledge.

Alexander, R. J. (2008) Essays on Pedagogy. London: Routledge.

Finn, A. (2009) The Language of Leadership. GTCS Education News Centre, Issues 28. Available at: Accessed on 12 August 2012 at 13:21.

GTCS (2012) The Standard for Career-Long Professional Learning: Supporting the Development of Teacher Professional Learning, General Teaching Council for Scotland. Edinburgh: GTC.

Hamilton, D. (2009) Blurred in Translation: Reflections on Pedagogy in Public Education, Pedagogy, Culture and Society, Vol. 17: 1, pp. 5-16.

Stones, E. (2000) Iconoclastes: Poor Pedagogy, Journal of Education for Teaching: International Research and Pedagogy, Vol. 26: 1, pp. 93-95.

Waring, M. and Evans, C. (2015) Understanding Pedagogy: Developing a Critical Approach to Teaching and Learning. London: Routledge.




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One thought on “The Rise of Pedagogy by Dr. Paul McMillan

  1. The term pedagogy has been widely use in the educational research literature for many years. I myself used the term ‘critical pedagogy’ in my 1988 book Physical Education and Curriculum Study. Dr McMillan is right though to point to the possible inaccessibility of the term, notwithstanding its longevity. One difficulty is that it is used in a variety of ways by education scholars. For example, in the US, it is common to find scholars talk and write about curriculum and pedagogy, while theorist Basil Bernstein’s three message systems in pedagogic discourse are curriculum, pedagogy and evaluation. Since the 1990s and in the company of colleagues such as Doune Macdonald, Kathy Armour, Ashley Casey and others I have consistently used the term pedagogy to refer to the interaction and interdependency of curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment. More recently, we have employed the same concept of pedagogy in our work on pedagogical models for physical education. Happy to supply references to papers if anyone is interested.

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