Disentangling Pedagogy from Epistemology

By Bill Jerome and Dr. Benny Johnson
Cross-posted from the original location at acrobatiq.com

Because Pedagogy

Dating back to my time at the Open Learning Initiative, I had sat in some meetings and felt the percussive impact of pedagogy — or “The P-Bomb” as I thought of it. Not having been trained in cognitive sciences like many of those around me, I simply deferred to those who invoked the word “Pedagogy.” Once deployed in an academic setting, it often served as the final word in many matters. (Dear internet, I would love a sketch of this). On the whole, this was a very good thing indeed because it emphasized the focus of what we were working together to achieve. Sometimes we can reach conclusions or make assumptions we believe to be based on sound pedagogical thinking but when investigated can prove otherwise. (We will get to what I think is a counterintuitive example of this in a moment). Being guided by pedagogy continues to be the driving force of the work I do, though outside of the academy, I’ve learned to be a bit more skeptical (and I am more informed) when the P-Bomb is deployed as if it is a mystic force that cannot be understood; only believed in with solemn nods of agreement. If it were a meme, it would be this:

Because Pedagogy

I think it is important to sometimes stand back and ensure when we are using the word, we are in agreement about what we are all talking about. That is my most critical point I wish to make. As a primary example, however, it frequently seems to have become conflated in general discourse in one critical way we should aim to disentangle so that we can ask meaningful questions about it.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
– Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Pedagogy Or Epistemology?

Recently I have had the opportunity to see a number of presentations and discussions around work being done in the adaptive and online learning space, for which I am grateful, but something was nagging at me in the back of my mind. I felt that the room was nodding along with thoughts of good pedagogy but something wasn’t sitting right. The following morning my colleague Dr. Benny Johnson and I met in a café like you do when in Seattle. He was able to capture succinctly the disconnect I was having. Pedagogy was being conflated with epistemology.

Aside from referencing a dictionary (or modern equivalent) and thinking critically when we hear the word pedagogy used, this is one area in particular we can be cognizant of: “Are we conflating pedagogy with epistemology?” More in depth discussion: Epistemology or pedagogy, that is the question by Paul A Kirschner, 2009.

It is naturally intuitive to think about this and come to the conclusion that “real world discovery” is the best way to learn. It simply makes sense when you hear a sentence such as “Doing the real work of a scientist teaches students to become scientists while being motivating and engaging.” In fact for novices, this can be counterproductive by ratcheting up extraneous cognitive load.

In an earlier publication, Kirschner writes:

[…] inherent flaws in considering and using the epistemology of the natural sciences as equivalent to a pedagogic basis for teaching and learning in the natural sciences. It begins with a discussion of the difference between practicing science and learning to practice science. It follows with a discussion and refutation of three commonly held motives for using practicals in science education. It concludes with the presentation of three new, better motives for their use.
Epistemology, practical work and Academic skills in science education
Paul A. Kirschner, 1992.

The practical takeaway for us today is not to confuse immersive (usually quite gorgeous, engaging, and expensive) virtual spaces built for the explorers among us for good pedagogy just because they are attractive and make those of us who are not novice learners excited and motivated. The chief principle of the human-computer interaction discipline is “You are not the user” and it applies directly here: “You are not your student.” Engagement is critical indeed, but for my part, I would not want to sacrifice good pedagogy designed for novice learners. In fact, despite the considerable enthusiasm generated by these environments, research has not shown an advantage commensurate with that enthusiasm, and cognitive load theory cautions that for novice learners such realistic task assignments can easily lead to cognitive overload.

My view on that subject is of course just that, but we should at least all be equipped to recognize the difference and make decisions accordingly. And when you hear someone deploying the word pedagogy and you think it might not be, be prepared to raise your hand and say, “You keep using that word…”