Pedagogy is back on the agenda after a long period of neglect, with new guidance encouraging professionals to think about what should be taught and how it should be taught, writes Cliff Jones

It is now several years since the old CPD working group in the DfES was told that the government thought it was about time that teachers were reintroduced to pedagogy. Of course, you might say that it never went away; that teachers have always talked to each other about what should be taught and how they should do it and about what should be assessed and how they should do that as well. The trouble is that since at least 1988 teachers have largely received official wisdom and not generated it for themselves.

Even today we have Lord Adonis telling teachers to concentrate upon synthetic phonics to the exclusion of other methods when helping children to learn to read. You may also be told that pedagogy is what teachers need to know in order to work effectively. The trouble is that the needs of teachers are often decided by others and the same goes for decisions about what is regarded as effective.

In my view, pedagogy should emerge from the exchange of knowledge among and between teachers and interplay with well researched theory. Discussion of experience, expertise, interests and values gained and critically examined over time is crucial to the process. Anything else is not really pedagogy at all. It is, instead, the implementation of a given orthodoxy. Quite a different thing.

If, however, schools and teachers are allowed and encouraged to think and to take decisions about what they do (in other words, engage in pedagogy) the risk to government is that the centrally imposed curriculum and system of assessment will begin to crumble.

We now also have the notion of personalisation with which to cope. The Gilbert report (2020 Vision) provides much to digest here. We have to think of it as personalised learning. You will receive much advice about personalised learning. If you remember the white paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, you will have taken note of the section that referred to personalised learning as (I summarise):

  • ensuring that children who fall behind in English or mathematics or have a particular gift or talent receive intensive support 
  • using extended schools to provide access to extra support
  • providing every school with support and guidance on tailoring their teaching 
  • ensuring that schools have expert advice on how to support children facing particular challenges.

That provides the other prop underpinning the new guidance on pedagogy and personalisation. These two notions have been intertwined so that each has to be tackled with the other. You may find it a little strange that, on the one hand, you are being empowered to stretch your professional, pedagogic capacities but, on the other hand, you are being told to use them to implement a centrally endorsed policy. But there is a lot to be gained from the notion of personalisation providing that it is not confined to particular groups of children (all children have gifts and all children have talents) and also providing that very careful and limited use is made of such popular ideas as learning styles and emotional intelligence. The criticism in the Coffield report of what is on offer under the heading of ‘learning styles’ is really devastating.

A statement of core principles

From the start the national strategies have provided opportunity for teachers to combine collaborative examination of their own work with an interrogation of theory. You might almost say that this was pedagogy by stealth. The new advice and guidance is designed to take this a stage further: to help inform professionals as they manage learning for children and young people and take into account ages, abilities, the contexts of learners and the requirements of subjects.

You may have taken part in the consultation process that has led to Pedagogy and Personalisation. You will certainly have received several exhortations to align what you do to Every Child Matters. From this process and other work come what are presented in the guidance as the core principles of pedagogy:

  • Ensure every learner succeeds: set high expectations.
  • Build on what learners already know: structure and pace teaching so that they can understand what is to be learned, how and why. 
  • Make learning of subjects and the curriculum real and vivid.
  • Make learning enjoyable and challenging: stimulate learning through matching teaching techniques and strategies to a range of learning needs.
  • Develop learning skills, thinking skills and personal qualities across the curriculum, inside and outside the classroom.
  • Use assessment learning to make individuals partners in their learning.

Some might think that this is all blindingly obvious but I think it is useful to have such a statement of principles. It provides a basis for legitimating the professional thinking of teachers.

The four domains of pedagogy

The compilers of Pedagogy and Personalisation have divided pedagogy into four domains. They overlap to some extent and they all relate to the principles above:

Subject and curriculum knowledge

This domain includes concepts, methods of enquiry, an understanding of progression and how assessment for learning can be used, appropriate teaching and learning models and key skills.

Teaching and learning models

This includes direct teaching, cognitive and social models.

Teaching repertoire

This is presented as a set of skills and techniques that ‘demand pupils’ active engagement in learning.’

Conditions for learning

In effect this simply means making learning happen or ensuring that there are no barriers to learning.

Those of you who are familiar with the work of the national strategies will be aware of the resources that have been produced to support professional learning in these domains.

The advice and guidance goes on to look in more detail at a number of aspects of pedagogy and personalisation.

Theories of learning and teaching

We are provided with a set or menu of theories. They are as follows:

  • Acquiring and learning skills, procedures and academic knowledge.
  • Developing and acquiring concepts, reasoning, processing information and thinking creatively. 
  • Constructing knowledge, addressing misconceptions, solving problems and reasoning empathetically.

It is good to see that the practice of providing helpful classifications of theories and informing us where to find further information has been carried over from the previous work of the national strategies. We are told, however, that pupil attainment can be enhanced by consistent use of specific and appropriate models of teaching and learning. Given the pervading influence of norms in our assessment system perhaps the better word would have been achievement. It will not help teachers if their professional standing is dependent upon always improving their league table position.

Hours of hard work sorting out how to mix the most useful theories on teaching and learning with an intelligent use of professional experience and expertise will ultimately come to nothing if the results are judged according to our present system of assessment. This is why I am somewhat dubious about the use of the word ‘effective’ when it is applied to teaching. At one time it was a word whose meaning was established by the interplay of practitioners and researchers. Now the word is ‘owned’ by government and its agents and is usually defined by league table position.

Pedagogy and personalised learning in settings and schools

This final section of the advice and guidance emphasises the development of a shared understanding and common language to talk about pedagogy. There is also, we are told, a strong link here between pedagogy and personalisation, which means that ‘all children, whatever their starting point, are able to fulfil their potential as learners.’

If this is the short definition of personalisation it seems fair to ask what on earth has been going on since the early 1980s when the designers of GCSE coined the phrase ‘Know, understand and can do’, later taken up by the designers of the National Curriculum. This phrase encapsulated a philosophy which meant that whatever we did as teachers or examiners we had to provide the opportunity for all children to learn at and to demonstrate their optimum. Accessibility was then the key concept, together with differentiation by outcome rather than by task. It seems as though all of this was forgotten as continual testing and inspection became such dominant features of the educational landscape and criterion-based assessment lost out to the norms expected by government. Maybe we now have an opportunity to recapture lost ground. But maybe not, since it is likely that pupil level data, based upon the existing system of assessment, will be used to identify underperforming children.

There are, we are told, ‘three essential and interrelated elements that need to be in place in a small group, classroom, or whole school/setting for personalised learning to be both effective and successful.’ Each element has equal importance.

  • How children learn. This means that teachers need to have an understanding of theories of learning and how these relate to individuals or groups of children. 
  • What children learn. This involves knowledge about key subject concepts, progression within and between subjects and areas of learning. 
  • Assessing children’s achievement and their learning needs. This means making use of formative and summative assessment, diagnostic marking, questioning and response to plan next steps in learning and provision.

Under the sub-heading of ‘Inclusion and diversity’ we are also reminded of the statutory obligation to establish pupils’ entitlement irrespective of social background, culture, race, gender, differences in ability and disabilities. Three approaches to supporting pupils with special educational needs are outlined. They are:

  • using access strategies which ensure that difficulty in one area of the curriculum does not hold the learner back in another
  • ensuring the provision of special means of access, including communication systems such as braille, British sign language or Makaton
  • providing, for children with difficulties with cognition and learning, more examples to enable them to apply a concept, more practice in applying the concept and more opportunities to generalise the concept from one context to another.

Let teachers fulfill their potential too

This encouragement to think as a group of professionals about what should be taught and how it should be taught and what should be assessed and how it should be assessed is both welcome and overdue. Without engagement in such activity it is difficult to claim any valuable status as professionals. It is likely to become an important part of professional learning. I believe that the compilers of this advice and guidance should be congratulated for their achievement. Certainly they have had to work within terms of reference that might not always have been comfortable for them. They have not been in a position to question or disregard government policy. But they have, I think, provided a framework that can be used to build up the quality of professional learning.

I suggest, however, that unless the needs of teachers are arrived at by teachers engaging with policy rather than by simply struggling to work out how to implement it; and unless the shackles of testing and inspection are loosened we shall not benefit from this exercise as much as we could and should. Children will only fulfil their potential as learners if teachers are permitted to do the same.