Interpretive pedagogy, coffee and the battle of thought vs content

In this post, I’m trying to address the item by Terry Heick  about teaching content versus teaching thought.

The struggle for many is real; so much content, so little time.   I know for me, staring down the tunnel of a 14 week semester with content loaded into each module the thought of getting into anything too deeply has the potential to interrupt the space/time continuum.

the crack in space and time image courtesy of Doctor Who Club of Australia

the crack in space and time

Where are the moments to interpret, create and critically assess?

I’ve struggled with posting to the discussion board on teaching thought versus teaching content.  I read the item three times through and after realising it still hadn’t sunk in, decided to give it a few hours to percolate.  I also hit up the double shot espresso machine, made a quesadilla with tomato chutney and scoured the journal database for some deeper learnin’.

As a teacher, I feel tethered to a system demanding the coverage of content, but then I see some innovative ways different lecturers go about covering content so students can actually think and apply it to their understanding and framework….at least I *think* that’s what’s going on!  I don’t think all is lost but the wheels are a bit wobbly.

In a journal item looking at how nurses are taught, the authors mirror the argument in Heick’s piece pitching what should be taught (content) in a battle over how it is taught.  This, they say, “results in courses that are boring and alienating for students and that reinforce rote learning, thereby preventing students from developing higher-order thinking capacities.” (Ironside, 2004, p. 6) 

Too bloody right it does.  In 2015 I taught a unit (the content of which I couldn’t tinker with) assessing the cultures and industries of the media in Australia and the world.  It was awful to teach – so much content, so much reading, so little time to tease out and assess context.  It was a shitty student experience….not their words because they are too polite!  But feedback suggested much of the content was poorly contextualised and didn’t invite or allow students to think about why it was important to study it.  There’s a lot of power in, “why?”. 

That said though, there were pockets of time in that unit where the pedagogy got it right. For instance, it covers various areas including topics as diverse as gaming, and ethnic diversity in the media.  This translates in curriculum, to the downloading and interaction with an app called Everyday Racism.  Students are challenged to interact with a serious game, talk and reflect on the interactions over the course of a week, leading into more discussion and study of ethnic diversity on Australian tv.  This part of the curriculum can be covered in a range of innovative ways.  An eg –  assign a tv show to each group:  an episode of Neighbours/the nightly news/Redfern Now/etc  Students watch their show and reflect on diversity/lack thereof and how this reflects values in society etc

I’m pleased to have a vocabulary for this, “interpretive pedagogy”.  According to Ironside, interpretive pedagogies, “help teachers and students critique and deconstruct dualistic thinking” or that everything is not black or white; right or wrong. It allows a little light and shade into content areas that have no right or wrong way.   

The article I’ve quoted from here is about nursing but entirely relevant to the discussion we’re having here.  Might be helpful for you too.  One example they use is teaching students about diabetes.   A lecture might include how to care for a patient with the disease and then a case study.  Students in this case demonstrate “thinking” by recalling and applying knowledge to the specific situation.  The authors say this kind of pedagogy can actually be dangerous because it assumes, “students learn content and then apply it” and that “students abilities to apply content provides evidence of their thinking abilities”.  They say this is dangerous in the context of caring for acute illness.

This really has me thinking.  I’m not caring for the sick or performing brain surgery, but there are ramifications for getting it wrong.

Ironside, P. M. (2004). “Covering Content” and Teaching Thinking: Deconstructing the Additive Curriculum. Journal of Nursing Education, 43(1), 5-12. doi:10.3928/01484834-20040101-02

and Terry Heick’s Are you teaching content or teaching thought? post retrieved from

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