We can and must do better.
I am going to start this post by pointing you to someone brighter, smarter, and more coherent today, because Tim Fawns theorizes everything I am about to rant about in his thoughtful “An Entangled Pedagogy.” Honestly, you can read Tim and skip the rest of what I have to offer here.
But if the ravings of a social media addict are more your speed, please, pull up a chair.
Okay, so the conference scene has been wild these past couple of weeks, if by wild you mean the silent nightmare of watching people talk about accessibility in spaces that are violently inaccessible to disabled people or really anyone who isn’t in denial about the pandemic we are living through, but Ann Gagné has you covered on that analysis. But it was also wild because there were a bunch of overlapping teaching and learning discussions happening, and in so many of them — at least the part of the discourse that filtered onto my corner of Twitter, anyway — the idea of “pedagogy before technology” kept coming up, as in we must approach teaching and learning from a pedagogy-first perspective (as opposed to, presumably, a technology-first perspective, which for the record no one is suggesting).
This is one of those phrases in education that we are encouraged to repeat without unpacking. It is a very popular concept in teaching and learning centres, especially those without a particular interest in the digital, because it asserts that true pedagogy is this thinking that happens separate from and in advance of our engagement with the sullying influence of technology.
It is not a phrase I have a great deal of respect for, not least because it seems to me that at least thirty percent of the time I encounter it, the person saying it acts like they are sharing some shattering new insight. I think part of the appeal of this phrase is as a rallying cry for folks who think a certain kind of way about education to find each other. Signals and signposts are necessary, but —
The Wikipedia definition of a thought-terminating cliché is actually excellent:
A thought-terminating cliché (also known as a semantic stop-sign, a thought-stopper, bumper sticker logic, or cliché thinking) is a form of loaded language, often passing as folk wisdom, intended to end an argument and quell cognitive dissonance. Its function is to stop an argument from proceeding further, ending the debate with a cliché rather than a point. Some such clichés are not inherently terminating; they only become so when used to intentionally dismiss dissent or justify fallacious logic.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought-terminating_clich%C3%A9
We are supposed to accept “pedagogy before technology” because we are supposed to accept prima facie that pedagogy is good and technology is less good and that the two operate in separate realms. It ends an argument I’m not interested in ending: namely, it defines a supposed hierarchy in how we think about the arrangement of our thinking about teaching. But if we think about it for even a second, surely it’s obviously untrue.
Technology shapes my pedagogical choices every single moment. If I walk into a classroom and there’s a whiteboard — or more frighteningly, if I’m expecting a white board and there isn’t one — this shapes my pedagogy. If I arrive in class to find that not one student has brought paper or pens to class, this shapes my pedagogy. These technologies are ubiquitous and non-digital, so we don’t think of them as technologies, but they impact our teaching and learning in myriad ways. It’s asinine to pretend otherwise.
I’m not being intentionally obtuse here. I get the intention of the phrase, that the technology we have access to shouldn’t drive our pedagogical choices. I understand that premise: I just don’t buy it. To me, the two are so deeply intertwined and the only reason to hold up one over the other is ideology.
The truth is, as Tim points out in the article linked above, when we assert pedagogy first, even as we do it to eschew a kind of technological determinism, we are suggesting that technologies are neutral, waiting to be folded into any pedagogy. That’s simply untrue, but it’s also dangerous: imagining that technology is unproblematically being led by pedagogy because we will it to be so is denying the power of algorithm and analytic to impact and shape practice. If you are thinking critically about the technological tools you are using in your classroom, you can’t put it last in your analysis; you need to be clear-eyed about the changes the technology makes to your teaching. Because it does.
The LMS circumscribes your choices; the learning curve on any tool is access-limiting; the choice of video or audio or text has an impact on the user. Considerations of these factors happens alongside pedagogical planning, not as an afterthought — if we’re doing it right. There’s simply no way to engage in critical digital pedagogy if you always already think that technology is on the backfoot.
“Pedagogy before technology” comes from a good place, but it lacks nuance and it also lacks faith in our colleagues to be able to have complicated conversations. It’s not “pedagogy before technology.” It’s “technological considerations need to be made alongside pedagogical ones because ultimately the learner experience cannot extricate one from another,” but then I’ve never found myself accused of constructing my own thought-terminating clichés.