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The link between pedagogy and human development

Posted on: August 16, 2021
Female teacher working with young children around a table

Tapping into what engages people – and understanding how to engage them — can mean the difference between a successful venture that supports people, and one that will fail to meet its objectives.

In education, this could mean teaching in a way that sparks imagination, or supporting learners to achieve to the best of their ability. In business, this could mean identifying barriers to stakeholder engagement, or championing a company-wide culture shift. Whether in education or business, laying the foundations for an inclusive, nurturing environment is key to maximising outcomes for all involved.

In January 2021, the World Economic Forum’s International Business Council announced new standards relating to wellbeing, skills development, diversity, equity, justice, social contribution and purpose. While their focus was businesses and how they operate, it’s clear there’s a strong correlation between the opportunities that children and young people receive and their welfare and life chances later down the line.

There are multiple, complex barriers that prevent people from learning and developing to the best of their ability. Gaining an understanding of pedagogy, human development and behaviour can help address these issues – and is an ongoing task for educational leaders and managers who desire improvement in their organisations.

What is pedagogy and why is it important?

Pedagogy is defined as the theory and practice of teaching. Encompassing teaching theory, teaching styles, feedback and assessment, it explores the relationship between learning techniques and culture. Its ultimate focus is how learning takes place and how it can be more effective.

In everyday life, all of us, often unconsciously, use pedagogical techniques to share knowledge and upskill others – both within and outside the workplace. For example, we may train a new starter at work, give a presentation at a conference, help a friend to complete a job application, or show a child how to tie their shoelaces. Each instance requires us to use different skills to successfully achieve the intended outcome. Having an understanding of the various skills required, who would benefit from them, and in which situations, is a useful starting point.

In education, evidence suggests that there is a critical link between student engagement, behaviour and academic achievement. Therefore, tailoring a pedagogical approach to the needs of the learner is fundamental in order for them to succeed.

There are many case studies espousing the success of various educational practices to engage disadvantaged and disengaged students – from blended learning and computational thinking, to experiential and embodied learning. One such case involved instructors at the University of Minnesota, USA, conducting empirical research by incorporating more active, student-centred teaching techniques in a new technology-enhanced learning space with added functionality. Their findings showed that not only did students outperform final grade expectations, but student and faculty perceptions of the learning itself improved.

Such innovative approaches are not limited to education, but can apply more broadly when training and upskilling others. For educators and business leaders alike, having an understanding of psychological theory and developmental psychology – as well as pedagogy – can help to identify which approach may best work in any given situation.

What is the role of psychological theory?

Vygotsky’s psychological theory centres on the belief that social and cultural interaction play a critical role in a child’s learning.

He identified the ‘zone of proximal development’ – the difference between what a child can and cannot do by themselves – and believed that not respecting this zone could impede cognitive development. In practice, this could mean either supporting children too much on tasks they are able to complete independently, or not supporting them enough with more difficult tasks. There is recent research in the field which still supports Vygotsky’s seminal ideas.

Ideally, people interacting with children should initially guide the problem-solving process, before eventually transferring this responsibility to the child. Similarly, in the workplace, it is often ineffective to set a member of staff a task without first providing adequate demonstration, training, support and feedback.

How can developmental psychology support learners?

Developmental psychology is the multidisciplinary, scientific exploration of how and why humans change over the lifespan. As well as infants and children, this field encompasses adolescence, adults and ageing.

The ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument is no doubt a familiar one; this branch of psychology delves deeply into the genetic and environmental explanations behind development. While some of the environmental factors affecting cognition may be beyond our control, there are some aspects of an individual’s development over which we can exercise influence in order to achieve the best outcomes.

Professor Michalis Kontopodis’ work is focused on the progression of inclusion, diversity and education. In his book, Neoliberalism, Pedagogy and Human Development: Exploring Time, Mediation and Collectivity in Contemporary Schools (Routledge), Kontopodis argues that the overarching issue facing pedagogy today is not gaining access to knowledge, but organising this knowledge into something meaningful.

Combining appropriate learning processes with meaningful aims and objectives is therefore fundamental to a learner’s ability to access education and improve their life chances.

What does this mean for leaders in educational organisations and business?

The UN states that young people can be a force for development if provided with the opportunities they need to thrive.

In order to create a prosperous society, where the needs of every individual are met, human beings and human welfare must become the focus. Empowering children and adults to take charge of their own lives does not happen overnight; it requires a multi-faceted, holistic approach.

For example, a leader must seek to understand the socio-political barriers that many children face accessing education and job-seekers face accessing stable employment. They must have an understanding of social security and support. Recently, footballer Marcus Rashford successfully campaigned for the UK government to reverse its decision to stop providing free school meals to financially struggling families, raising over £20 million to help combat child food poverty. If a child enters a classroom hungry and worried about where their next meal is coming from, how can they be expected to concentrate and engage alongside peers for whom this isn’t an issue?

A leader should advocate for social justice and the reform of social practices that are not beneficial. As well as adopting inclusive, educational practices so children and adults with different abilities and learning and development needs are catered for, leading a change in the wider culture and ethos of an organisation may be necessary. This list is not exhaustive, and these are not small topics – yet they are some of the most critical, meaningful matters we must engage with, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. While generalisations can be useful, considering the individuals, their needs and the context will help to determine the approach.

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Keen to acquire the critical and intellectual rigour that can place you at the forefront of key educational leadership and management careers? Want to develop the skills to reflect on your own leadership practice and shape educational developments?

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