Five principles of pedagogy

Teacher at blackboardPeople talk a lot about “pedagogy”—but what do they actually mean? In this post, I suggest five principles that might help clarify matters.

I have been meaning to write this post for a while, as a condensed conclusion from my long essays, Education’s coming revolution and In the beginning was the conversation. But the the spark that has persuaded me to get it down on paper was given to me by a Twitter conversation with Pete Bell, an ICT Examiner, who quoted J Bruner saying “Teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation”. The argument of this post is that teaching is a lot more than that.

I propose the following five key principles of good pedagogy:

  • motivation;
  • exposition;
  • direction of activity;
  • criticism;
  • inviting imitation.

These principles may of course overlap and/or be sub-divided into sub-principles.


Motivation is what J Bruner was talking about when he says that “teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation”. All of the other principles, if applied, will also contribute to motivation by delivering an effective and engaging instructional process—but there is a sense in which motivation needs to be prior to the “delivery” of instruction. Motivation is likely to be dependent on the personality of the teacher and his or her ability to develop a good relationship with the student, understanding the student’s current world view, interests and experience, and framing the learning to be achieved in a way that makes sense to the student.

This is what people mean when they talk about teaching being “relevant”—although this formulation is not satisfactory because the purpose of teaching is to move the student beyond the limited outlook of ignorant childhood, raising expectations and revealing the much greater possibilities offered by the world outside their existing experience. Relevance to the student’s existing experience is a good starting point but not a good outcome of education.

The dependence of inspiration on the relationship with the teacher means that computers have only a supportive role to play in this field.


Exposition (“chalk and talk”) gets a bad rap. It is transmissive, casts the student in a passive role, and can often be dull. On the other hand, it is relatively cheap and easy to provide, if well done it can be motivating, it gives the teacher an opportunity to establish his or her presence and personality, it can summarise and articulate the key facts, principles and learning objectives. If well done and done at the right time and the right way, it can be an important ingredient in a wider mix—and for all the criticism that is made of it, it is still used heavily by all instructional processes.

Good exposition requires an ability at public performance combined with good subject knowledge, good preparation and often good supporting props. Exposition is easy to do badly: hard to do well. It is not essential that exposition is managed solely by the classroom teacher: online video delivered by e.g. the Khan Academy may provide a useful supplement to classroom exposition, especially as online video can be accessed anytime, anywhere and is likely to be of much higher quality than classroom exposition. That at least is the vision of the flipped classroom.

Direction of activity

As “we learn by doing”, so good instruction must rely heavily on activity. Pete Bell dislikes the term “direction”, considering it too “command and control”—so let me break this down into its constituent parts so we can at least agree what it is we are talking about.

Learning activity design

The design of activities that deliver particular learning objectives in an engaging way is a skilled business, particularly when the medium through which learning activities are delivered becomes digital (the production of serious games, simulations and creative tools is no trivial matter). At the moment, this process is largely performed (normally not very well) by front line classroom teachers. It is a central argument of Education’s coming revolution that this process needs to be systematised and centralised: digital learning activities produced by specialist designers need to become a commodity that can be bought or shared and automatically integrated with learning management software.

Learning activity delivery

Once a learning activity has been designed, the activity needs to be delivered. In the non-digital, physical world, the delivery of learning activity can be summarised by the term “facilitation”. In the digital world, delivery can largely be automated. In practice, a good instructional process will represent a blending of both types of activity.

Learning activity selection and sequencing

The selection of learning activities is a critical role of the teacher and needs to be directed by several further sub-principles. The selection of activities (or “progression management” as I have called it in In the beginning was the conversation) is highly suitable for automation by dedicated software systems.

Analysing the structure of the learning objectives

Clearly, learning activities should be relevant to the current learning objectives, which ultimately are not set by the teacher. What the teaching process does require, however, is the disaggregation of those top-level objectives into smaller prerequisite steps, that will guide the student through the learning in a logical sequence. If you want to teach long division, you need to ensure that the student is proficient at addition and subtraction first.

It is often said that you do not really understand a topic until you have to teach it. This is at least partly because to teach something well, you need to analyse the essential structure of the knowledge being taught.

This analysis is required for course design can be done by a course designer, who does not in turn need to be the same person who designed the constituent learning activities or the same person as the classroom teacher.

Responding to the conceptual state of the student

This may often go under the catch-phrase of adaptive learning. Not only does the teacher need at the beginning of the course to select learning activities that are appropriate to his or her students, but the teacher also needs constantly to monitor the extent of learning achieved by students at each stage of the course, selecting activities that respond to the learning and maybe misconceptions picked up at previous stages of the course. As argued (with reference to Dylan Wiliam) in In the beginning was the conversation, progression management is often a better response to student misconception that negative feedback.

Repetition and review

Memory (both knowing that and knowing how) tends to degrade. Learning activities therefore need to be repeated regularly at first in order to ensure that the learning is laid down in long-term and not just short-term memory. The intervals of review can becoming increasingly infrequent as the learning is mastered.


Much learning in formal systems consists of the mastery of abstract principles. An abstract principle that is studied only in abstract terms is never really understood at all, as the essence of the abstract is the ability to apply it to a range of different concrete contexts.

Similarly, if an abstract principle is only studied in a single context, it is likely that the student will learn only about the context in which the principle is learnt and not about the abstract principle. It is therefore important that the teacher selects activities that illustrate the same principle in a range of different contexts, so the student can practice the ability to recognise and apply the abstract principle in unfamiliar contexts.

Incremental increase in difficulty

It may be demotivating to fail too often—yet ignoring failure is likely to be harmful as it will entrench the undesirable behaviours that led to failure. One way to resolve this paradox is to reduce the chance of failure by sequencing activities so that the difficulty increases in small increments, maximising the chance of success at each stage. This was the approach taken by B F Skinner with machine learning. At the same time, having to progress at a snail’s pace through material that the student finds easy can also be highly demotivating, so this needs to be combined with the adaptive principle.

There are many ways in which activities may be made incrementally more difficult:

  • instrinsically (e.g. by providing longer numbers for a sum in maths);
  • by withdrawing help or scaffolding;
  • increasing the number of stages of a problem that must be navigated;
  • by creating more “open ended” activities (e.g. at higher levels on Bloom’s taxonomy);
  • by unexpected timing (e.g. introducing an old topic out of the blue);
  • by deeper contextualisation of an abstract principle (e.g. use of unfamiliar language).


Some will be uncomfortable with this word—but it is the right one. Criticism should be constructive of course and there are times when criticism may be withheld, to be replaced by progression management or an expectation that the student will work it out for themselves. Ultimately, however, criticism is an essential part of the conversational loop (see again In the beginning was the conversation). It is a key part of the teacher’s tool-set and students should learning to accept criticism in the constructive sense that it ought to be offered.

Component parts of criticism are:

  • evaluation;
  • correction;
  • contextual repetition of exposition;
  • target setting.

At higher levels, the expert evaluation required will be beyond the capacity of computers and will therefore be a primary function of the subject expert. At lower levels (e.g. routine marking of simple problems), offering instantaneous assessment and feedback are functions to which computer systems are well adapted.

Inviting imitation

Humans are mimics. Children and teenagers are naturally programmed to find role models and copy them. Ideally, a child will choose to admire a teacher and seek to imitate them. Children will also imitate each other and the degree to which this sort of imitation will be beneficial will depend on the extent to which the peer culture is constructive.

The criterion on which a teacher is likely to be selected as a role model will in large part be dependent on personality—and this is a tough call for teachers who may be expert at their subject and diligent in marking work, if they are not at the same time seen to be quite as cool as the latest celebrity on big brother.

Teachers can support each other in this respect. The willingness of children to look favourably on their teachers as role models may be influenced by the general culture of the school. Where learning is not respected, it may be almost impossible for a teacher to be a potential role model as well as being passionate about their subject. I suggest the following sub-principles which can help promote beneficial imitation:

  • fostering a peer culture in which learning is valued;
  • the appointment of charismatic teachers in senior position (e.g. Head Teacher, Leading Subject Teachers);
  • the fostering of team-teaching whereby senior teachers can support junior teachers, and junior teachers can, by working alongside senior teachers, learn the tricks of the trade;
  • developing good relationships with students;
  • teacher acting as collaborator (or “guide on the side”), illustrating for the benefit of students ways in which problems can be addressed, which the student can then imitate;
  • good discipline, where rival, negative peer role models are challenged early;
  • personalisation of learning and effective use of praise.

As the last of these points illustrate, there is a relationship between effective motivational strategies and selection of role models: a highly motivational teacher is also likely to be adopted as a role model.

As much of this is a matter of personality, it may be argued that technology has little part of play. However, technology can help in a number of ways, including the management of personalisation and the reporting of learning outcomes to encourage the teacher in giving timely praise.

I would argue that the opportunities for video conferencing and remote tutoring can also help. This can help replace isolated classroom teachers with teaching teams led by “leading teachers” – people who combine compelling charisma with strong subject knowledge, able to champion the cause and help with the difficult task of offering a compelling alternative (and complementary) set of motivations to the modern entertainment industry. Such leading teachers would need to be supported by junior teachers and machine instruction, capable of addressing the bread-and-butter management of learning, reporting and aggregating learning outcome data in forms that are available to the whole teaching team.

Another advantage of the leading teacher concept will be that, being ultimately responsible for large numbers of students, it will be possible to pay leading teachers significantly more than can be afforded for classroom teachers, who are limited by the 30-in-a-classroom productivity ceiling. This will help attract high calibre entrants to the profession and keep them “in the classroom”.


Understanding the nature of pedagogy is a necessary prerequisite to understanding what role technology will have in supporting education—and also to the selection of terms that we should use to describe and classify the business of teaching.

Any comments, criticisms and suggestions for things that I might have missed are, as always, welcome.

10 thoughts on “Five principles of pedagogy

  1. Another fascinating post, thank you. My gut reaction is that the five principles as you have expounded them are *principles for the teacher-led classroom*. Do they apply, for example, to my own process of learning as I read and comment on your blog?

    Even in the school context, I think there are alternatives that need to be explored if we are to break out of the mindset of 30 kids and a teacher in a room being what education *is*. I have been playing around recently with the idea that a teacher’s function should be restricted to constraint and motivation.

    Motivation you covered: children like to learn anyway, so it’s simply a matter of giving them even more reasons to do it.

    Constraint is simply to do with guiding young minds away from distractions. It might be constraint of content or process.

    It is my contention that these two tools, skilfully applied in a context of available content (e.g. web browser) should be sufficient to achieve any learning outcome. For the teacher to do more simply interrupts the student’s own learning process in a way that risks demotivation and disempowerment.

    So I guess I am calling on you to be more radical in your view of what can be achieved in real schools, now, with a combination of access to technology and encouraging teachers to do less.

  2. Hi Ian, Many thanks again for your interesting thoughts.

    To your first question, the answer is “yes” – I am thinking about the teacher-led classroom. In my view, that defines what education and pedagogy are – and I am against the current fashion for focusing on “learning” rather than “teaching”. I have not written a single post focusing exclusively on this point – but my fullest exposition of it is in “The problem with Technology Enhanced Learning” at – scroll down to “Learning”.

    So I don’t really agree with you on the motivation/constraint model – though I recognise that both are important. This post (Five principles of pedagogy) was something of a “from the hip” job and I don’t think it is entirely satisfactory. I will return to the the subject of “what is pedagogy” – in fact I will be presenting on the subject under the title of “What is missing from MOOCs” (answer “pedagogy”) at the Learning Technologies conference at the end of January ( – so that sets my timescale for the full piece – but there is a sneek peek in my “digital dialectic” slide at – its about 2/3 of the way down and I’m afraid I have not added bookmarks yet.

    In short, I think there are two sides to teaching: one is personality, relationships, role modelling and perhaps discipline – which is a sort of motivation; the other (which I think we neglect) is about activity and process – and it is this second part which is, in my view, what teaching really *is*.

    That is where I am coming from anyway. But if you disagree, I really appreciate the conversation.

    Best, Crispin.

  3. After some agonising, I’ve decided to pull quotes from your TEL vs. ICT post here rather than carry the conversation there. I would certainly place myself in the “Pro-learning” camp, though I’m no Constructivist.

    So to the quotes…

    > However much we want our students to learn what we are teaching them, we (qua teachers) cannot induce them to do so except by teaching them.

    I have to call you out here for a circular argument. I wish my students to learn, but I don’t wish to teach them at all. Unless they and I have a consensus on what’s worth learning at the moment, then the whole thing is a non-starter anyway. Yes, I know that lack of consensus the norm in an English secondary school, but it’s utterly counter-productive and entirely avoidable. If you don’t believe me, just go do some classroom observation at Thomas Telford.

    > Use of the word “teaching” does not imply any particular style. You do not have to stand at the front of the class and use chalk and talk.

    Oh but it does, and you do. How many times have you seen it reported that teachers feel guilty if they don’t stand in front of the class and talk at them? We get stuck in our language. Example: you oppose continuing the use of the term “ICT” which has come to mean drilling students to use the fine products of the Microsoft Corporation.

    > You can be an ever-so-subtle facilitator of learning, you can create micro-worlds and other creative opportunities, designed to maximise the opportunities for the student to discover particular insights, as if for themselves.

    Agree 100%. And I love that term ‘facilitator’.

    > The student can fail to write a poem in iambic pentameter … He needs a teacher to point out the mistake.

    He has multiple resources available if he wants to know if he’s iambic pentameter correctly. Why snatch away his control over his own learning by insisting on providing unasked-for feedback that will be, at the very least, rejected on an emotional level. If he is destined to be a poet, or if he just wants to pass an exam, he will ask or get feedback by some other means. And if not, that’s fine. We should always be willing to trade his ignorance on one specific piece of content for the nurturance of his desire to learn.

    What we’re debating, I think, is not whether activity and process should happen as part of formal education. Yes, they should. The question is which activities and processes are most appropriate, and how our view of that should change given the current state of technology.

    • I don’t quite see how you think the argument I used is circular. Though I do agree that the student needs to want to learn – so I do agree that motivation matters. The idea of “consensus” over learning objectives implies a degree of student choice that I do not think is particularly helpful, even if it might sometimes be necessary. Not helpful for reasons articulated by Diana Laurillard, as quoted in my most recent post at Formal learning is about “learning things we cannot know of until we have learned them”. So the most productive form of consensus is one in which the pupil trusts to a responsible teacher to tell them what they need to learn, within a context in which controlled choices may of course be made by the student.

      When you do not have that degree of trust (or deference, if you like) then I agree that you have to make concessions to the student’s current interests – and this is an important part of the very difficult job of drawing back into education the disengaged student. Sometimes such sensitivity to the student’s interests may not come with any significant costs – as when an English teacher helps a student select reading matter that is likely to appeal to their particular interests. But I don’t think you should kid yourself that there may not be significant educational costs for this sort of negotiated curriculum.

      You quote me rather out of context when you take my paragraph starting “You can be an ever-so-subtle facilitator of learning…” What I go on to say is “What you are doing is still teaching—and the underlying process is still fundamentally transmissive”.

      But I don’t think that our disagreement here is not really about what good teaching looks like – but rather about what you call it and where control ultimately lies. I think that one of the biggest paradoxes about our society is that we socialise children to be individualistic. It is not factory hooters and people marching around in step that makes our society efficient – it is diversity and individualism. So the child, in Western society, is original and creative not because they are naturally so, but because they are told to be so.

      Some inline comments:

      What if (as is most likely) he doesn’t even know what iambic pentameter *is*? Under your regime, he will then never learn it.

      This assumes that he has control over his learning in the first place, which I dispute. I think the key motivator for learning is imitation & role modelling. At root, we are mimics.

      I think you are too pessimistic. You are thinking about a rebellious teenager – and your fear of giving feedback is a kind of surrender (I say that not to be critical, because I think we all do it). But an enthusiastic and efficient learner will crave attention and feedback. Small children may shout “look at me” and mature students may say “tell me what I am doing wrong” – but many schoolchildren will not ask even if to be noticed is what they really crave.

      That said, I agree that over-critical feedback can be demotivating and/or unhelpful intellectually, which is why the teacher may wish to address deficiencies in the student’s performance by routing them to an appropriate, remedial exercise, rather than telling them what their problem is and how much they still have to learn.

      Is anyone destined to be a poet? Surely poets are made by the influences which they are lucky (or unlucky?) enough to have encountered in formative periods of their lives? Like good teachers.

      Again, I think there is a defeatist attitude here which says “If I try and teach, then I will not only be unsuccessful in the particular thing that I am trying to teach, but the experience for the learner will be so alienating, that they will never again want to learn anything in a formal educational environment”.

      I don’t deny that this may happen when the teaching is bad. But if our teaching were effective, and it gave the student the satisfaction of learning something useful, then surely that would encourage them to come back for more? So this comes down to how confident we are in our ability to teach effectively? Ultimately, an approach which says “I will nurture your desire to learn by leaving you in ignorance” seems to me like a bit of a contradiction in terms. I would put it round a different way by saying “students’ desire to learn is stimulated when they are successful at learning – and this is more likely to happen when they are well taught”. Is that so controversial?

      In conclusion, I think we disagree over two or three (maybe even four) things.

      1. Whether the term “teaching” can be applied to the sort of practice that we probably both want to see, which does not involve a lot of talk and chalk, but rather activity-based learning. This is more of a semantic argument about what words we should use than a substantive one about what we should actually do.

      2. Nevertheless, you seem to disagree with providing feedback to the student unasked for, while I think that feedback is very important and appropriate to formal education where the ultimate objectives are, by definition, not properly understood by the student.

      3. From the perspective of child development, the extent to which useful learning is driven by the child’s own internal road-map (you?) rather than the social influences to which the child is subject (me).

      4. Ergo, the extent of control which the education system should have over the “what” of learning.

      That seems quite a big gap for what is now quite late on Sunday night. But maybe I have got some of what you were saying wrong and the gap might seem easier to bridge in the morning.

      Best, Crispin.

  4. Pingback: Five principles of pedagogy. Useful in Ghana? | The Ghanaian Mind

  5. Hello,

    Thank you for a very interesting article. 🙂 🙂

    I would add that in the classrooms I’ve been, both as a student and as a teacher, the lack of interest was extreme.

    I would also want to say that I write pretty good (both prose and poetry) and I teach children and adults about emotions through stories and now software and board games and I have to say I never learned the theory of writing. As Einstein was dismissed in school and yet …

    As for the what of learning … While I can’t predict the future, I can confidently say that what is learned in schools is in a great part outdated and unnecessary for the kind of society we seem to have in the 15-20 years from now.

    As for the consensus of the child, I suggest to read about the Montessori and Waldorf systems and their results. That does not mean that we do not learn sometimes things that we will never use in our life, but that we have an agreement with the child that we do it anyway, because no system is ever perfect. And, of-course, that we give the freedom, with some consequences, to have an interest in another field (like I’ve seen so many healthy game-changers of this world have done, being interested in one field and leaving the others to other people).

    As for criticism and praise, I suggest you to read “Punished by rewards” by Alfie Kohn, a book filled with recent studies and research results about the sometimes hidden effects of those two approaches. I can give you some personal effects on me, but I feel it would be out of the scope of this conversation. It is about replacing extrinsic motivation with a more efficient intrinsic one (we can find give you lots of studies and research about this).

    I will just cite this part: “praise was troubling in yet another way: It signals conditional acceptance. Children learn that they’re valued — and, by implication, valuable — only when they live up to the standards of a powerful other. Attention, acknowledgment, and approval must be earned by doing a “job” that someone else decides is “good.” Thus, positive reinforcement is not only different from, but antithetical to, the unconditional care that children need: to be loved just for who they are, not for what they do. It’s no surprise that this strategy was designed to elicit certain behaviors rather than to promote children’s psychological health.” source: . I do not think all of the work of Alfie Kohn is perfect, but he makes some very interesting suggestions about the effects of some common approaches to teaching.

    I love your job and want to thank you for all I’ve learned from your article, besides my small observations.

    🙂 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s