“Pedagogy”: What’s in a word?

[Click here for pronunciation of “pedagogy”]

In preparation for launching Inviting Abundance, we asked friends to test our website and offer feedback on the language we used to present our services. Two of these friends commented that they had to look up the word “pedagogy,” and, because of that feedback, we decided to swap out that word for “education” or “teaching” wherever it appeared on the site.

This got me (Will) thinking. The word “pedagogy,” which refers today to both the study of teaching and methods for teaching well, is not one that students regularly learn. Does this mean that teachers hide something crucial from their students, namely the very methods they use to impart information? Is there anything special about this word, or is it beneficial to swap it out for something more common? What’s in a word, after all? My answer is that “pedagogy” is an important word, and that knowing what it means opens the door to more exciting and student-driven learning.

The famous Ancient Greek Motto, which translates to "Know Thyself," here pictured on mosaic found during excavations in the convent of San Gregorio in Rome.


Before I open up the history of this word and paint a picture of the active learning made possible by deploying words like “pedagogy” in constructive ways, I want to draw your attention to your body. What do you feel in your body when you see this: παιδαγωγικός? When you encounter a foreign word, do you have a bodily reaction? How about when you encounter a word you don’t know in English? What if you are reading out loud in a group and stumble over a new word? How does that make you feel? Do you feel any shame when it is discovered that you don’t know how to pronounce a word or what a word means?

After a decade teaching in the university system, I have witnessed students turn red with fear and anxiety when asked to read aloud because they dread stumbling upon a word they don’t know, either in English or in a foreign language. This fear translates into the common rejection of “big words” in the media and probably has a lot to do with various strains of anti-intellectualism in this country. At the root of these fears is a shame in ignorance (which literally means “not knowing”), a shame that has been aggravated by standardized testing and the privileging of quantity of knowledge over quality of knowledge. To help students overcome their fears, I have started placing emphasis on the process of learning, the benefit of collective knowledge production, and the transparent production of ideas. We don’t consume knowledge. We constantly make it, take it apart, and remake it.

Let’s do that with the word “pedagogy.” The word has Greek origins and breaks down into two parts: pais (litearlly, “of a child”) and agogos (“leader”). Thus the word “pedagogy” refers to the act of leading a child. This, at least, is the definition people like to repeat.

It’s true – the word refers historically to a person who leads a child, but this leader was not the “teacher,” at least not at first. The παιδὸς ἀγωγός (roughly “pedagogue”) was a slave who led a male child to school in the morning and then back home again in the afternoon. The related practice παιδαγωγικός (which would sound like “pedagogikos”) meant “suitable to a teacher or trainer,” but it also leant itself to the field of medicine where it referred to a system of medicine that “waited upon [or treated] a disease.” Same story with the related noun παιδαγωγία (pedagogia), which hinted at “attendance on the sick.”

Socrates, c.470 BCE - c.399 BCE (Spoiler: he probably didn't look like this...)

Socrates, c.470 BCE - c.399 BCE (Spoiler: he probably didn't look like this...)

What can we do with this information? First of all, as with the Ancient Greek origin of “democracy,” we learn with “pedagogy” that education was the privilege of the few. The entire act of going to school was supported by the slave economy on which Ancient Athens and the surrounding city-states relied. We shouldn’t forget this today as access to high quality education is contingent on being able to pay for good schools. Likewise, there’s a fascinating metaphor brewing here: is it not the case that many students feel like a slave to the education system today? If students feel like they have to get a degree to get a job, and if the pressure to get into college starts in elementary school, then what kind of disposition do we imagine students will acquire as they pass through the halls of academia? Will they see school as a place to think, or will they see it as the site of their indentured servitude?

Second, the link between learning and illness points to historical connection between philosophy and health. Geometry and Philosophy (with its closely-related cousin Rhetoric) were the foundations of education in Ancient Greek, and indeed throughout much of Western society since the time of the Renaissance. What we forget today, however, was that Philosophy was the means for accessing a healthy and complete life. To be a philosopher was to understand the art of living. When “pedagogy” pops up in classical texts as a medicinal practice linked to the curing of illness, we can understand how the Ancient Greeks thought of knowledge generally: to maintain health of mind, one must ward off the illness of ignorance with good teaching.

Samuel Pepys, 1633 - 1703.

Samuel Pepys, 1633 - 1703.

In the 1650s, a fellow by the name of Samuel Pepys revitalized the tradition of using the words “pedagogy” and “pedagogue” in negative ways. For him, to “lead a child” usually meant to lead a child astray since teachers by that time had become the prideful owners of knowledge and thus too frequently concerned with the formal appearance of sophistication. But this negative take on pedagogy was at least as old as Socrates who was eventually put to death for “leading children astray.”

In the present, the connection between education and health, on the one hand, and Pepys’s critique of pedagogy, on the other hand, are both important to remember. In terms of pedagogy and health, we need only imagine what school might look like if teachers offered courses in ethics and public speaking and poetry to even the youngest of children? Might we be able to overcome the rampant incivility we now face in this country if we learned how to argue with one another so as to forward the good health of our nation? And what if teachers today stopped thinking of “pedagogy” as series of strategies for passing knowledge and, instead, developed an art of guiding students through fields of critical inquiry where questions were more important than answers? Would we be able to escape the rote memorization of facts that still plagues peoples’ experience of middle school, high school, and college?

As I have written about elsewhere, I think we learn much more from teachers who say, “do with me” instead of “do as I do.” The distinction lies in the approach to pedagogy. Teachers for whom that word extends an invitation to explore, experiment, and encounter complexity are usually the ones who make good guides. Good pedagogical guides don’t lead students to specific answers that have been validated ahead of time; rather, they lead them into a given situation and then help each student hack his or her own way out. By the time the student reaches the other side, s/he will hopefully have discovered something through the act of grappling with big questions.

If you’re looking for an exciting pedagogical relationship, please consider hiring Inviting Abundance.

Related Blog Posts: Written by Will: Race & Philosophy Reflections and Full STEAM Ahead; Written by Joanne: Abundance Thinking & Permaculture Design and Learning Gardens