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Signature Pedagogy Series, Part 1: Why “Good Teaching is Good Teaching” Can Be a Harmful Myth

When I hear the phrase “good teaching is good teaching,” I cringe. The statement is not false, but it is also not entirely true—and it can harm our young people by not properly preparing them for life beyond K-12 education.

It is frequently made by an administrator justifying why they are able to effectively evaluate teachers from all disciplines…despite the administrator not being an expert in every discipline. I do not mean to say that administrators need to be experts in every discipline taught in their schools, but I do believe they need to know enough about the underlying philosophies and signature pedagogies of each discipline to evaluate the effectiveness of the teaching and learning in each classroom.

Schulman (2005) described “signature pedagogies” as “the types of teaching that organize the fundamental ways in which future practitioners are educated for their new professions” (p. 52). In other words, a science class should use different instructional models and activities than a creative writing class—because they train students to work and think in fundamentally different ways. Schulman (2005) further explained that there are three critical aspects to signature pedagogies: instruction on how “to think, to perform, and to act with integrity.”

Consider, for example, the career of a doctor versus an actor. A doctor is presented with a problem in a patient, and must use a list of symptoms and tests to determine the issue and then prescribe a solution. Using case studies is therefore a great methodology for training those entering the medical profession, and we can see the similarity to the scientific method.

An actor, on the other hand, reads a script and then builds a backstory for their character. They examine how their character speaks and acts in the script, and how they interact with others. The actor attempts to define every facet of this character and then become the character through speech and movement.

Reading case studies about acting would do little to develop an actor’s ability to read and bring a script to life. A doctor attempting to embody the character of their patients in speech and movement would be unnecessary (and potentially quite alarming). For these reasons, the way in which students of the two disciplines (science versus performing arts) are taught must be different.

Of course, there are some pedagogical commonalities across all disciplines. Developing literacy-–the ability to think and communicate in the language of the discipline—and content area vocabulary are skills that occur in almost every course we teach in K-12 education. The student who does not know how to read and work with exponents will struggle as much in algebra class as the first grade reading student who does not know that “ph” makes the “f” sound.

It is reductionist to believe that all classrooms of all disciplines should run the same way, and I argue that we do our students a disservice if we fail to use the ideas of signature pedagogies in the classroom. The teacher who attempts to teach science by only lecture, the history teacher who does not have students analyze primary sources, the writing teacher who only has students diagram sentences—they may be providing the content students need to know to be successful on a test, but they are not providing the skills students need to be successful in careers and in life.

As this series progresses, we’ll examine more aspects of how we determine signature pedagogies by looking at the underlying philosophies of the disciplines and examining how the disciplines operate beyond the K-12 education classroom. We’ll consider the basic signature pedagogies that administrators should look for when in the classrooms of the most common disciplines in K-12, and how administrators can use their understanding of signature pedagogy to provide significant and effective feedback to their teachers.

What’s your take on the idea of signature pedagogies? We’d love to hear from you!

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