Pedagogical Knowledge Part 1: Teaching for the 21st-Century Learner

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

Pedagogical Knowledge

Pedagogy, in its simplest terms, is the science, art, and craft of teaching. It is a science because there is a body of research that supports teaching best practices based upon qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. Through advancements in understanding cognitive, motivational, and developmental psychology, organizational and group learning, and diversity studies, educators can maximize the learning process to elicit student academic achievement for all learners. It is an art because teachers must fully immerse themselves in what they do. There is no “one size fits all” magic bullet when it comes to teaching, and teachers must find the approaches and strategies that work best for them and their students, often through trial and error. In addition to research-based best practices, effective teachers make the human connections and relationships necessary for effective learning. Additionally, effective teachers are reflective. They must arrive at their teaching philosophy through their personal life’s journey and tap into their unique passions, talents, and skills. Teaching is a craft because it is based upon a set of abilities that are learned over time. Freshly minted teachers from educator preparation programs are beginning a very long journey of self-discovery and transformation. To become master teachers, they must engage in consistent reflection, continued study, and persistent practice. Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman (2010) surveyed the literature of teaching and learning over the last 50 years and have distilled effective pedagogy into seven interrelated principles. They are students’ prior knowledge, organization of knowledge, motivation, mastery, practice, and feedback, students’ level of development and course climate, and students as self-directed learners. In the following pages, I will explore each concept in greater detail.

Students' Prior Knowledge

The first principle of effective teaching is for the teacher to tap into students' prior knowledge. Student learning is built upon what they already know. This knowledge can be acquired both formally and informally. Often, educators emphasize things learned formally in school without fully appreciating the knowledge and dispositions that students bring with them from beyond the schoolhouse doors. can maximize learning by understanding and incorporating students' lived experiences to include attitudes and beliefs into their lessons. Understanding students' prior knowledge will help teachers recognize students' gaps in understanding and their misconceptions. Teachers must address students' prior knowledge early in their learning because their experience, or lack thereof, can either hinder or help in the learning process. There are several ways in which teachers can activate students’ prior knowledge. One of the most enduring is utilizing the KWL graphic organizer. In this exercise, students create a three-column graphic organizer (or use premade KWL graphic organizer). Students brainstorm everything they know or think they know about a given topic in the first column. I tell students to write down everything no matter how “off-topic.” Movies, T.V. shows, books, music, video games, trips to historical sites, or museums, everything is fair game. When students realize that their response does not have to be “academic,” they tend to open up. The second column is what students want to know about the topic. Again, I like to stress that there is no “correct” answer. Their curiosity and desire to know things is a deeply personal matter, and I like to point out that learning is a voyage of self-discovery. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you do not know. The third column is what students have learned after the lesson is completed. Using this approach is an excellent way for students to engage in “metacognition” or thinking about their learning.

Organization of Knowledge

How students organize their knowledge is also essential. Research suggests that students must link new learning to prior knowledge in long-term memory to learn new things. This process creates concepts developed from experience, reasoning, and imagination. Persons with expert knowledge of a subject have networks of concepts connected in various meaningful ways around their field's integral principles. New learners do not have these deep connections yet, as their prior learning may be fragmented and incomplete. However, due to neuroplasticity, our brains can form new neural connections over time. In other words, our brains are adaptive and can grow in response to new learning. Teachers can help students build concepts through a process called concept mapping. A concept map is a visual organization and representation of knowledge. Examples of concept maps include flow charts, spider maps, hierarchical maps, and systems maps. Concept maps can be used throughout a lesson to help students connect prior learning to new ideas and concepts. They are useful for educators to “see” their students’ thought processes and how they understand the content. Concept maps have several applications. They can be used to brainstorm at the beginning of a unit of study or as a form of preassessment to see what students already know about a topic. They can be used in small group activities by assigning a concept or idea to each group to analyze and synthesize information. They can be used in whole-class instruction to create a springboard from which to discuss relationships between various concepts in a unit of study. Concept maps are excellent ways for students to organize their research or ideas for writing projects or other types of investigative learning. Concept maps can also be used for reflection and metacognition at the end of a unit of study, helping students see connections between concepts and the unit’s “big picture.” Research indicates that using concept maps has several benefits, including assisting visual learners to see interrelated concepts and the “big picture,” memory recall, transferability of concepts and applications from one subject to another (Ellis, Rudnitsky, & Silverstein, 2004).


Motivation is an integral component of learning. Intrinsically motivated students, that is, students who have an internal desire to succeed, learn more because they are personally interested and invested in what they are learning. They derive a sense of personal accomplishment and satisfaction from their learning. Intrinsic motivation is the opposite of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when student performance is tied to an external reward or punishment such as good grades or fear of what will happen when students don’t get grades. A study performed at Princeton University indicated that intrinsic motivation is a much more powerful motivator of student performance and even goes so far as to point out that external motivation may even be damaging, "external incentives are weak reinforcers in the short run, and negative reinforcers in the long run" (Benabou & Tirole, 2003). Motivated learners demonstrate perseverance and grit and do not give up easily when faced with adversity and setbacks. Research suggests that teachers can motivate their students by cultivating meaningful and respectful relationships and developing a growth mindset based upon high expectations and clearly defined goals. Many studies have been conducted demonstrating the positive effects of teachers' high expectations on student achievement. One of the most influential, however, is the Pygmalion in the Classroom (1968) study. In this investigation, a Harvard professor and an elementary school principal told elementary school teachers that a recent standardized test revealed that some of their students were academic "late bloomers" who would be experiencing extraordinary academic growth in the coming school year. Several students were selected at random to be the high growth students when in actuality, the standardized test was never given. The study found that because teachers believed that certain students would be high achievers, their expectations for those students changed, resulting in student achievement. In other words, when teachers expected their students to perform well, they usually did.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Carol Dweck, in her influential book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, postulated that students could develop a growth mindset. That is the belief that learning and intelligence can grow with hard work and determination. Dweck points out, "In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment." Students with a growth mindset embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find inspiration in others' success. Unfortunately, many students and teachers stubbornly cling to the notion of a fixed mindset in which intelligence, talent, and creativity are static and immutable. As a result, these students seldom stray outside of their comfort zones and push themselves to be the best they can be. When teachers fail to cultivate a growth mindset in their students, they rob them of their unrealized potential to do great things.

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