Blurring the Lines between Content and Pedagogy

By Segall, Avner | Social Education, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Blurring the Lines between Content and Pedagogy


Segall, Avner, Social Education


ONE RARELY ENGAGES IN a conversation about education without the terms "content" and "pedagogy" finding their way into it. Indeed, the two are inherent to almost everything we do in education. While we know what content and pedagogy mean, questions remain regarding their properties as well as the relationship between them: Are content and pedagogy separate and separable entities or are they always already implicated in each other? Where does one begin and the other end? Who is responsible for each? And what might answers to these questions mean for how we think about education and engage students in classrooms?

We know that pedagogy is what teachers do to engage students with subject matter. But are classroom teachers the only ones engaged in pedagogy? Consider, for example, the following: Todd and Curti's The American Nation, a commonly-used social studies textbook, provides this boxed-in paragraph titled "Multicultural Perspectives" on the left margin of its chapter, "American Expansionism."

   Native American women who
   worked in the fur trade often married
   non-Indian fur traders and played
   important roles in their societies as a
   result. For example, Huntkah-itawin,
   a Sioux woman, married trader James
   Bordeaux. She helped Bordeaux
   cement his trading ties with the Sioux,
   and her access to trade goods helped
   her brother rise to the position of
   chief. (1)

Or another box in the same chapter, this time from a section about the California Gold Rush:

   For African Americans the lure of the
   gold rush and the opportunity for jobs
   overshadowed the prejudice against
   them. One African American working
   in the mines in California wrote
   home to his wife in Missouri: "This
   is the best place for black folks on the
   globe. All a man has to do is to work,
   and he will make money." (2)

Both excerpts provide students with information about their particular topics. But is this all they do? Or are there also inherent, in the information provided (and that withheld), in its language, images, format, and location, various pedagogical invitations that require--indeed position--students to know some things and know them in specific ways? As they inform students about a Native American woman or an African American miner, these excerpts also, both explicitly and implicitly, convey knowledge about broader societal issues--e.g., race, gender, and class--as well as prompt students to assume particular cultural, social, economic, and gendered positions with which to engage the information. How, for example, if not through the lens of capitalism is one invited to view the world when it is reported not only that earnings by a member of an oppressed minority are associated with freedom but that enduring manual labor in an economy driven by profit can overcome, if not eradicate, discrimination? And how are students positioned to engage gender when, in the first excerpt, the contributions of Native American women, intended to be celebrated in this excerpt, are not significant in and of themselves but are significant only through marriage, in this case to a white man, and where that "contribution," as wives and sisters, is only counted when it contributes to the success of men?

What these two texts do, then, is provide students with more than subject area content; they teach students not only something but also ways through which to consider that something. In other words, these texts act pedagogically by offering students specific locations from which to know and be in the world as they engage information about it.

What might it mean to think about texts as having pedagogical aspects? And how might it trouble existing divisions between content and pedagogy whereby teachers do pedagogy and subject area specialists, like the author of the above-mentioned textbook, provide mere content? While this division pervades most current educational thought, I suggest that texts brought into the classroom are not finished works of content by scholars, now awaiting pedagogical transformation by teachers. …

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