Pedagogic Hegemony

Hegemony is an interesting word. It describes the dominance of one idea (or culture or social group) over another. Users typically adopt a critical tone when using the word; hegemony is established and maintained by imposition.

Pedagogy is also an interesting word. It captures the actions taken by a teacher in a classroom, as well as the structures used to organize schools. Further, pedagogy implies design to reflect a certain philosophy.

As I near the end of my 30 years career working as a teacher and instructional leader, I see pedagogic hegemony as an increasingly serious problem. It is also a problem I expect will continue to affect my work as I move into a new role supporting teaching and learning in community colleges.

First, let me define the term:

Pedagogic hegemony is the imposition of one’s preferred method of instruction on all teachers in all subjects who teach all populations of students.

Those who have been in education for more than a few years are familiar with the cyclic nature of pedagogic hegemony. A “new thing” arrives on the scene. It is promoted as “the solution to our teaching problems.” “Once you adopt it,” teachers are assured, “your students will perform as we know they can. This is the missing piece that you teachers need.” The message is clear: Regardless of what or who you teach, the pedagogy we are imposing is how you should be teaching.

Second, let me establish I am not against innovations:

I understand continuous improvement. I found this a worthy goal even before it became a “thing” in education. For me, continuous improvement is grounded in understanding the philosophy, organization, and practice behind a wide range of pedagogies.

The most effective teachers, I have found, are those who have honed the craft of understanding a particular problem, then finding and refining on of the many choices available and using it to meet the immediate needs of students. This happens only when one has awareness of, ability to differentiate between, and then use (probably with some modification) a teaching method.

In the next section, I argue that hegemonic pedagogy, but please be assured that I am open to any and all innovations, and I am not rejecting innovative practices because it is contrary to the pedagogy that is hegemonic in my classroom.

Third, let me argue that pedagogic hegemony is a terrible way to lead instruction:

Learning is a vastly more complex phenomenon than is allowed in the popular culture and in many classrooms. Each brain is different and it arrives in school with unique structure and function that has emerged from cultural, cognitive, and physiological circumstances. In school, there is the temptation to teach to the “average” brain, and there is some (limited) validity to that approach. Some “things” are common to all brains. Our public schools must teach everyone. These are reasons we group students for instruction and adopt other practices, but we must recognize these will fail some students, and it is the responsibility of teachers to react (and it is the responsibility of school leaders to support those reactions).

The pedagogic decisions teachers make and the actions they take are based on their assessment and understanding of the students who will experience the lesson, the nature of the ideas they are to teach, the types of actions they want to observe after the teaching, and a myriad of other factors. It is not possible that a single approach is appropriate for each type of teaching and learning that is undertaken in a classroom. .

When I was a science teacher, I asked students to learn the parts of a microscope. This prepared them to follow my directions so we could use expensive devices while minimizing the risk of damage. I also asked them to design experiments (to measure the speed of sound for example). I further asked them to take a stand on ethical experimentation. Each of these required me to provide differing levels of direction, information, and interaction; adopting a single strategy that ensured success in one ensured failure in the others.

Experienced educators understand that many students arrive in their classrooms fully prepared to learn what we want them to learn. They are motivated, connected to the teacher, and have the resources necessary to engage with the curriculum. Other students need additional interventions to learn what we hope they learn; this is not a criticism of the student, their situation, their previous teachers, or any other factor. Good teachers embrace the “take-them-from-where-they-are” reality of the work.

Many of the interventions that become hegemonic pedagogies emerge from interventions that were developed for, and that are very successful with, specific populations. Advocates reason that interventions that work for difficult populations must work for all populations; but they are mistaken. Good teachers use specific interventions where they are needed, but not elsewhere.

I am reminded of some of the teachers who are best at teaching students to read. They have an amazing knowledge of different interventions, and they will try each until they find one that works with a particular student. They do not, however, impose those interventions on all readers.

A final reason pedagogic hegemony is a bad approach to education is the fact that we have a responsibility to prepare students for varied and unpredictable situations and to be powerful learners on their own. When we impose a pedagogy, we are imposing a model of what learning is and how it happens.

I think about the insistence that teachers provide clear outcomes (most recently I have seen these labeled “learning targets”) at the start of each lesson. In some cases, for example when the there is a very specific skill to be learned, these can be helpful. In other cases, for example when we want students to apply what they have learned to a new situation, stated learning targets provide scaffolding that limits their thinking and removes the need to fully understand the situation. Writing instruction provides perhaps the clearest example. When teaching student to edit, clear goals that are common to all are sensible. When working to craft clear narrative, such goals only get in the way of emerging writers and hide the reality that writing is messy.

If we can conclude one thing about teaching and learning it is that there is no single organization, strategy, or practice that “works” in every situation. When school leaders or anyone else advocates for practices that are integrated into every course and classroom in exactly the same way, they are demonstrating they lack sufficient understanding of teaching and learning to be making such recommendations.