Moving Past Pedagogy Guilt

The internet has helped us learn more about the research- and practice-derived principles of effective teaching and learning. It’s an amazing time to be an educator, to be able to learn so much and connect with so many to improve our instructional practices. One of the recurring themes of online discussions of pedagogy and instructional design, one that I believe and reinforce here on my blog, is the importance of cultivating higher order thinking and learning. The research here aligns with the constructivist view of learning, that students must be given the chance to experience learning first hand by trying and doing. This is true, but what about those moments when you feel some direct instruction or memorization practice would be helpful? Is holding that belief representative of you being out of touch or unwilling to adjust your teaching based on the latest research?

It can feel that way sometimes, but it isn’t necessarily true. I define pedagogy guilt as the feeling of guilt we have when our beliefs in the value of hands-on, constructivist approaches to learning don’t align with all of our teaching practices. It’s something I’ve felt before and have been wrestling with for awhile, particularly in those moments when I return to the “sage on the stage” position as the deliverer of knowledge.

Recently, I read an article that’s helping me move past this feeling of guilt and figure out how to balance these teaching strategies I previously felt were divergent in philosophy. In their article, Ertmer and Newby (2013) propose an integrative approach to instructional design that incorporates aspects of behaviorism (e.g. habit formation and memorization), cognitivism (e.g. application of knowledge), and constructivism (e.g. hands-on and open-ended learning experiences). Their rationale is that each of these perspectives have differing implications that align best with different kinds of learning, such as those in parentheses above. All of these kinds of learning are important; for example, a student who wants to be an architect will have trouble maximizing learning from a PBL experience focused on designing a house if she has no background knowledge about scale, measuring, and other base level understandings. On the other hand, a student who learns about scales and measuring but never has a chance to experiment with these ideas will quickly forget this knowledge and feel the disconnect between school and her experiential reality.

The key here is balance. Traditional instructional design relies very heavily on behaviorism and, in an effort to fix this imbalance, we tend to over-correct and eliminate learning practices that may actually be the best suited for certain kinds of learning goals. Based on my own values and those shared by many others, this balance would tend to skew toward constructivist approaches, but that doesn’t mean those approaches or any others alone are enough to create impactful learning experiences. From a completely anecdotal perspective, I’ve also found that balancing these pedagogical approaches keeps things more interesting for students, and they don’t mind learning base level facts if they can see a thread between these facts and the experiential work they’re also doing.

In my context of the school-within-a-school, we currently have students begin a unit by researching a list of core concepts and vocabulary, developing an understanding of how they all fit together under the umbrella of the unit, and then they start to construct their own ideas and consider how they might be able to extend their thinking in meaningful ways. This isn’t the only way to do it, and the craft of teaching comes into play in terms of how you plan, implement, and revise the balance of approaches based on the impact it’s having on students. Moving along the spectrum from memorization to meaning construction is fluid and there’s no reason to feel guilty in those instances when traditional practices are the right tools for the job.

Full Citation:

Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly,26(2), 43-71. doi:10.1002/piq.21143 (Original work published 1993)

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