Jo McShane used to think that pedagogy was just a stuffy academic way of saying ‘teaching’, but after attending a conference on the subject she finds that it means a great deal more

Everyone knows what pedagogy means, don’t they? It’s that word no one quite knows how to pronounce (hard or soft second ‘g’?) used by Ofsted inspectors, PGCE tutors and other suited educationalists to describe what most mortals know as ‘teaching’. You might occasionally wheel it out yourself for occasions when one would wish to appear scholarly. Yes, pedagogy is what you call teaching when you are being interviewed for a whole-school teaching and learning post, or filling in your NPQH application. End of story?

I thought so, until I attended an international seminar organised by the School of Education at the University of Manchester on the issue. Sponsored by the journal Pedagogy, Culture & Society, the seminar sought to explore pedagogy as an object of research via a variety of presentations. The theme for the day rested on an important premise: that there can be ‘no assumption that a true definition of pedagogy exists – only defensible definitions’.

The slave and the scholar

We kicked off with David Hamilton (Umeå University, Sweden), who proposed some important considerations about the link between pedagogy and demagogy, both of which I had to ‘Wiki’. The results of this were provoking. According to Wikipedia, pedagogy is ‘the art or science of being a teacher’ and it ‘generally refers to strategies of instruction, or a style of instruction’. The word comes from the ancient Greek paidagogeo, literally ‘to lead the child’. In ancient Greece, the paidagogos was a slave who supervised the education of his master’s son and led him to school. So pedagogy is about walking the walk, or leading your learners. And what of demagogy? According to Wikipedia, it is a ‘political strategy for obtaining and gaining political power by appealing to the popular prejudices, fears and expectations of the public.’ Was Hamilton implying that we teachers are quite literally engaged with walking the walk beside our learners while coaxing them to follow us deeper into the educational wilderness with our motivational and aspirational rhetoric, goals and gilded hoops? Certainly, to say that the educational process is about supporting, walking beside and leading is true. Also true is the fact that the educational world is infused with a potent combination of theoretical and political rhetoric, which makes Hamilton’s musings feasible on a number of levels. I smiled as I imagined a cast of beleaguered teachers walking beside their classes and lugging behind them their immaculately boxed sets of strategy materials. Just as this image was beginning to settle in my mind, the seminar progressed to receive Lynn Yates of the University of Melbourne’s ideas about curriculum and pedagogy, and we were invited to consider that pedagogy may be ultimately fallible. ‘Try telling that to a strategy consultant’, I heard myself mutter. Surely all of this stuff about there being a solid and right way to proceed with such matters can’t be wrong? After all, it is written down. And backed up by OHTs and flowcharts. And housed in every school in the realm. An uneasy feeling spread through my being as I considered that one day, we might be looking at ‘Mysteries’ and ‘Metacognitive Plenaries’ with the same mocking retrospect with which we view the educative processes of the Victorian age. I suddenly realised that I had some awful news to break to my fellow pedagogues as I walked beside them, glumly carrying my once beloved copy of the Teacher’s Toolkit. Further shocking revelations were just seconds away as Tamara Bibby from the Institute of Education (London) bade us consider the impact of defining pedagogy as ‘the interrelationships of people’ on our understanding of learning and teaching. What does the slave/scholar relationship really mean in a modern context as we walk our charges through SATs and beyond, and what is the significance of the ‘one too manyness’ of the classroom in this long and potentially hazardous journey. How many lyres and lutes can a modern teacher juggle?

Reclaiming passion

The final leg of our journey was a stirring one, led by David Halpin (Institute of Education, London University), who urged us to reclaim passion in our educative practices by considering the relationship between love in its many forms and pedagogy. ‘Yes!’ I cried (internally). At last, I have worked out what this is all about. Pedagogy is about service, an educative journey, interrelationships and to a certain extent rhetoric and persuasion. But it is also about love. We do not have to tread the ‘holy ground’ between the teacher and taught, referred to by DH Lawrence, to talk meaningfully about the functional role passionate yearning for success can have in the educational journey. As Halpin himself says: ‘Love, after all, is at the summit of our moral vocabulary, while education is a profoundly ethical activity, concerned centrally with enabling individuals to pursue worthwhile lives, using pedagogic means that are appreciative and beneficent.’ So there we have it. Pedagogy is so much more than a barely pronounceable verb used by the stuffy, the academic, the out of touch and the soon-to-be-interviewed. The ancient footsteps of the pedagogue lead us to a vast and dynamic world whose loves, practices and relationships must move with our ever-evolving social, industrial and communal needs. I challenge you to set down your lyre for a moment and consider what that means to you.

Further information on the journal Pedagogy, Culture & Society is available at journals/titles/14681366.asp