On the TLAD course we’re looking at signature pedagogies. It’s an idea proposed by Lee Shulman in the paper ‘Signature Pedagogies in the Professions‘. Coming from a science background, it’s a bit of a heavy, theoretical read for me: maybe signature pedagogies could be a threshold concept for me! I can pick apart some of the ideas, but it still leaves me with questions.

What is a Signature Pedagogy?

Briefly, it is a set of characteristics that defines particular courses. These characteristics are often the same across different teaching institutions, and so form a common ‘culture’ for the teaching styles of ‘science’ (for example, diaeletic lectures and labs) or ‘medicine’ (ward rounds) or ‘law’ (debate-based defense of legal arguments). The idea is that students absorb the ‘culture’ (or the professional signature) through which the learning is delivered , just as much as they absorb the information. (This was an idea I came across several years ago when I was part of a Steiner school community.)

One of the ideas presented in the paper is that teachers teach as they were taught, an idea that Friere also proposes. I agree with this idea, and it’s relation to ‘culture’. Schulman mentions that we adopt a culture because it’s an accepted way of thinking that is familiar and comfortable to us. Shulman uses the phrase “..the routine of pedagogical practice cushions the burden of higher learning”. This is something I’ve written about before.

Shulman proposes that signature pedagogies are a 3D framework. Firstly, a surface dimension: this is the physical setup, the practical stuff. Secondly, a deep dimension: this is the fundamental ways of teaching, the manner in which students are engaged and taught. Finally, the impact dimension: this forms the moral role of the profession. If I’m honest, I’m frustrated by two aspects of the these dimensions. Firstly, I can’t quite get my head around them: the example of the three dimensions given by Shulman relates to a law school, which is too far away from my own profession for me to make much of a connection. Secondly, I’m annoyed that they are termed ‘dimensions’ and not ‘aspects’, or ‘precepts’. To me, as a scientist, dimensions are like the axis on a graph: they are numerical and can be used to define the position of something in space. Maybe I’m just being grumpy!

So the questions…

Firstly, to be blunt: ‘So what?’ I think its useful to understand the ‘structures’ we use to teach, how they have arisen and whether those structures are the most efficient/effective. But, how does that understanding change the way we teach. I can’t see (although I admit I haven’t looked very hard) any papers that discuss how framing teaching activities, or a teaching program, through the lens of ‘signature pedagogy’ has resulted in measureable improvement in outcomes. (I know, it’s the scientist in me saying ‘where’s the data?’: I probably do this because that question is a consequence of the signature pedagogy of science.)

Second, Shulman’s paper is now 13 years old, and while I can find many references to the phrase ‘signature pedagogy’, there appears to be only two papers relating to signature pedagogy and science: Lim, and Crippen and Archambault [1]. Lim defines labs as the signature pedagogy of science because of the nature of experimental enquiry, and Crippen and Archambault relate Shulman’s ideas to inquiry-based learning. It’s not immediately clear how Shulman’s framework has transformed the ‘outcomes’ of either piece of work.

Sign off?

For me, as it stands, I’m not signing off on Signature Pedagogies 😦


1: Scaffolded Inquiry-Based Instruction with Technology: A Signature Pedagogy for STEM Education, Kent J. Crippen & Leanna Archambault, Journal Computers in the Schools Interdisciplinary Journal of Practice, Theory, and Applied Research, Volume 29, 2012 – Issue 1-2:pp157-173


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