Who Leads the Dance…Pedagogy or Particulars?
PART II : Who leads in the dance?
So what is the nature of the relationship between our instruction and our content? Perhaps an analogy may help to illustrate it:
In ballroom dancing, such as a waltz, there are two dancers – the gentleman and the lady. In our educational parlance, these dancers are pedagogy and particulars:
Pedagogy: That is, the skills, methodology, and rules of teaching. These necessitate a well-thought out approach to teaching, its dynamics, skills, and influence, well summed up in Gregory’s Seven Laws. This teaching emphasis requires a thorough understanding of the students’ frames and how they understand and apply the lesson.
Particulars: That is, the content choices, the unique emphases of the written program. This is what we call the curriculum or course work a school requires for its students. (By the way, many folks think that “curriculum” is synonymous with the materials, books, etc. Not so. The materials are just the tools chosen to achieve those curricular objectives.) The classical movement has certainly produced a welcome revival of interest in using great and lasting literature, ancient languages, primary documents and a stress on what used to be the widely-accepted content of a rigorous education. A worthwhile but, albeit, tall order.
The nature of the dance – someone’s got to lead, someone has to follow:
Both of these ‘dancers’ – the skill of teaching and the curriculum content – must obviously be considered in our schools. Both will and should have a very powerful impact on the students. But both cannot be given equal emphasis – one will shape, guide and have priority over the other. Why do I say that? Because both of these necessary components in our schools are strong enough to ‘lead the dance’, i.e. shape, guide and lead the entire school’s academic program and greatly affect its quality. Also, both have loyal adherents that stress each one’s importance, based on their philosophical leanings. Have you ever had two bosses directing your work? Not a pleasant situation. Even if they initially agree on most things, it won’t be long before there are employees loyal to one over and against the other boss. Our Lord said a man can only serve one master at a time. Which will it be?
So, back to our dancing metaphor:
For our first dance the Particulars (content) act as the gentleman and lead the lady (Pedagogy). The hallmark of the school’s work then becomes how much and to what kind of content the students are exposed. Sounds normal, right? The Particulars, written by vastly disparate authors and publishers, each with their own intrinsic philosophy of learning, greatly influence the amount of money spent on materials, the curriculum guide objectives, the pace and nature of the instruction, and the timing of the students’ work. The primary determiners of the school’s success are high student GPAs and grades, typically heavy homework amounts, standardized tests scores above the 90th percentile, National Merit awards, and other measures of academic prowess. College prep course work takes precedence in time, funding and planning over the actual methods of teaching.
How do I know that? Consider: If a teacher does an extremely poor job teaching it doesn’t matter if the content is high octane, the students will do poorly. No argument. But in a content-lead program, especially a classical one, even a mediocre teacher can appear successful by trusting in the quality of the material to silence concerns from the less-informed. Also frequently in our schools, the mediocre teacher puts the onus on the many motivated students to work harder to grasp the difficult material. The teacher can be a johnny-one-note, lecture-fits-all type of instructor and still appear to be successful because the students are bright enough to find a way, scraping and clawing, to spit back Herodotus one-liners on a test. Or worse, they have the necessary acumen to parrot, even at the rhetoric level, the teacher’s lofty-sounding opinions. So that’s a classical education? Never mind that these same students, like all students who sit under the cram-it-in model, forget at least 50% of what they were taught, almost by the time they cross the stage to get their diploma! Did they ‘learn to learn?’ Who knows? At least their transcripts look impressive…
Now for our second dance: Pedagogy is the gentleman and leads the lady (Particulars). The curricular emphasis of the school is now on how the students are taught, and the content follows the lead. Now what happens? First off, the teachers are held more accountable for the students’ success. A scary thought for those of us who love the material but not the work it takes to pass it on. In many cases, if they’ve taught before, teachers have to UN-learn some habits, as well as learn ‘new’, historically-proven methods. Mediocrity is quickly evident in teaching because the administration has a high priority on actually working with and evaluating the instruction, with the goal toward real, recognizable and measurable improvement. The students subsequently benefit because the teacher is compelled to teach with the grain, that is, knowing and using the nature and frame of the students. That doesn’t necessarily mean seeking to appeal to their desires or all their current interests, but rather studying and using the way they were made. We’ll examine this more in the next part.