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Pedagogy v. Content Expertise

Note: Michael Bromley, a teacher in Washington, DC, is guest-posting this week.

I'm finally coming to terms with modern education theory, or pedagogy. Six years ago I was hired to teach U.S. Government, and was put directly onto something called "World Cultures." I was given the textbook and told to teach the first three chapters on prehistory and the first civilizations. I'd never even heard of "Sumer," although "Mesopotamia" and "the land between the rivers" sent me back, most vaguely, to my own high school ancient history class. I spent the next four years teaching this class, running it twice a year. You want to know about the Indus Valley, I'm your man.

Meanwhile, this thing we call "classroom management" became my larger concern: how to arrange kids, discipline, engagement, student preparedness, and all those things that make up the classroom experience. I tried a thousand things. At the end of the year we'd discuss what worked, re-design our strategies, and then try 'em out the first weeks of the next school year: thus would restart the cycle of working out the next best idea. It's the nature of the classroom, and it's an essential reason why education is more art than science: no single thing works, and what works in one class won't necessarily work in another.

Into my second year along came a new administration, very professional and oriented on pedagogy. We were now required to incorporate certain elements into our lesson plans, regardless of the subject and based on proven education theory. I liked what I saw: the essence of modern pedagogy made sense to me in terms of what does it take to engage a student. Since then our professional development has been built around these principles and--attempts at--examples of their practice.

I took what I thought I could use, and fumbled my way through the classroom with it all: group activities, kinetic learning, note-taking strategies, etc., etc. Two years ago, my classes all changed in a curricular restructuring of our department, and I went from teaching one core class and an elective to teaching five all new courses. All of a sudden, pedagogy was out the window, and all I had was a mad dash towards figuring out the new content. All the old tricks of pedagogy went nowhere: here I realized that no matter the teaching strategy, if you don't have something valid, interesting, and important to teach there will be no learning. So I went hard and harder at one core idea: that every day I would teach something important. To make it important, I had to know it and know it good. Suddenly, not only did student engagement connect, my own engagement exploded. I grabbed everything I could on these new subjects, books, magazines, and hours on the internet reading about it all. I spent the next summer reading on it as much as possible. The history of the world now crowds out my old Civil War books. If you want Rome, I'm your man.

Now I actually knew what I was teaching. Near the end of the school year, a student raised his hand. "Mr. Bromley, you really know this stuff, don't you?" The day happened to be my birthday, and I told him there could be no better present, ever. "Yes, Yannick," I said, "And that's why you are learning so much." Yannick's pride was manifest, and with it I felt that I could close out a successful school year.

In June, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released a report showing core historical illiteracy among American school children. In response, famed historian David McCullough told the Wall Street Journal, "People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively because they're often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing."

Wait a minute, there, David, hold on: modern pedagogy states that qualified, education-proficient teachers can teach anything, so long as the correct strategies for student engagement are followed. Isn't that the problem? David replies, "You can't love something you don't know any more than you can love someone you don't know." Amen, brother, and this is how I have finally come to terms with pedagogy. All the knowledge in the world won't a teacher make, but neither will all the pedagogy: use the strategies, use the studies, but most of all know it, and know it good. If not, your students won't either.

--Michael Bromley

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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