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Culture and the Sciences of Pedagogy

by Edmund W. Gordon - 1995

Three points are made with regard to culture and the sciences of pedagogy. The first has to do with the changing knowledge base for pedagogy, which is likened to where medical education was about a century ago. The second point has to do with the domain of the pedagogical sciences, which should be the knowledge base for education. The third discusses the intersection between these pedagogical sciences and culture. I draw heavily on current interests in a subdiscipline some are calling cultural psychology. Basically, it has to do with how the cultural contexts in which knowledge exists, and from which it is produced and interpreted, shape the knowledge itself, and its application.

Three points are made with regard to culture and the sciences of pedagogy. The first has to do with the changing knowledge base for pedagogy, which is likened to where medical education was about a century ago. The second point has to do with the domain of the pedagogical sciences, which should be the knowledge base for education. The third discusses the intersection between these pedagogical sciences and culture. I draw heavily on current interests in a sub-discipline some are calling cultural psychology. Basically it has to do with how the cultural contexts in which knowledge exists, and from which it is produced and interpreted, shape the knowledge itself, and its application.


The knowledge on which educational practice is based is about where the field of medicine was at the turn of the twentieth century. The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth was a period marked by an explosion in the growth of the knowledge of anatomy, biology, biochemistry, physiology, and other sciences foundational to medicine. The report of Abraham Flexner to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1910 is generally credited with being the catalyst for radical changes in the nature of medical education. That report focused attention on many inadequacies in the preparation for professional practice of medicine in that period. However, there was a growing awareness that the training schools for the preparation of physicians were out of touch with the changing base of knowledge necessary for medical education and the practice of medicine.

Scholars of the sciences foundational to medicine were not to be found in these medical training centers. In these schools, laboratories for the study of the relevant sciences were reported by Flexner (1910) to be primitive and underequipped. The conceptual and exponential bridges between theoretical knowledge and clinical practice were not a part of the curricula of these medical training centers. By 1925, most of the 155 training schools had been closed or brought into university settings where scholars of the emerging knowledge base were present. What resulted was the elevation of the medical sciences and medical education in the United States to world-class status.

Today, the end of the twentieth century, we see a similar explosion of knowledge concerning the pedagogical sciences. We have seen radical changes in the behavioral sciences, the cognitive sciences, the computer sciences, the social sciences, and even in the way some of us think about the humanities. We are beginning to recognize how much these sources of knowledge are shaped by context and perspective, on the one hand, and how deeply they are embedded in particularistic cultures on the other. The tradition of respect for the authority of knowledge in these disciplines stands side-by-side with skepticism concerning its completeness as well as the extent of its applicability. Some of our schools of education have scholars who are masters of these changing disciplines, or at least familiar with some of the implications of such changing knowledge and technology for the practice of teaching and learning. However, my own sense of the conditions, resources, and practices of schools of education in this country leads me to conclude that the preparation for the professional practice of pedagogy is about where the preparation for the professional practice of medicine was 100 years ago: out of touch with the knowledge base essential to it.

Pre–twentieth century medical education had been deeply rooted in the preparation for the practice of medicine as an art. The prevailing model was the old Viennese physician, wise and artfully skillful. My father was one of those physicians. With his sensitive hands, ears, and eyes, and the gifted intuition born of years of practice as a country doctor, he gained a reputation in rural, segregated southern North Carolina for being “black as hell but a damn good doctor.” That was an expression we heard from a couple of Caucasian men one night as they talked about him. He did almost no laboratory work; he could not read X-rays. He carried most of the portable medical equipment he owned in a small black bag. He read one medical journal and four or five ragged medical books. Were he alive today, he would be lost in the modern medical setting. Yet he helped a lot of people and he was considered a damn good doctor. Medical education had to be revolutionized in order to break out of the model of which my dad was an exemplar. It also had to be revolutionized to accommodate a changing knowledge base. Education or pedagogy may find itself today in the same position.


Now what is this relevant knowledge base of which I speak? What is this body of knowledge we assume that teachers must have or must have? Pedagogy has to do with the design and management of the teaching and learning transactions involving subject matter (i.e., content knowledge) and a variety of academic appreciation, skills, and understanding. I will have little to say about content knowledge, not because it is unimportant but because my concern is with the identification of that procedural knowledge essential to the design and management of teaching and learning transactions. I think it is what Lee Schulman (1987) calls “pedagogical knowledge.” I refer to its core as the pedagogical sciences. It encompasses both the behavioral and the social sciences, as amplified by the arts and humanities. Those behavioral sciences are anthropology, biology, and psychology. I consider the social sciences to be economics, history, political science, and sociology. But this classification is almost arbitrary in that many of these disciplines overlap and some could be called behavioral or social or both. (Sociology, for example, is more correctly both a behavioral and a social science.) What is important is that in their totality they represent the knowledge, methodologies, and perspectives essential to pedagogical understanding and practice.

Yet when one examines the literature of these disciplines, the seminal work is rarely conducted by educational research scientists, and the cutting edges of knowledge production and application are underrepresented in the curricula of our schools of education. To make matters worse, postmodern thought and the politics of changing demography have resulted in changed perspectives on the knowledge represented in these disciplines. Concepts once thought to be invariant and universal are now much more susceptible to contextual and situational phenomena. Realities once taken for granted are increasingly recognized to be mediated by particularistic attributions, by existential states, by perspectives born of differential experiences. Cultural diversity once entertained for its exotic appeal is beginning to be recognized as essential to the integrity of most epistemological endeavors. Thus the knowledge referenced by these disciplines is in a state of flux.


Let us examine the intercept between culture, on the one hand, and the behavioral and social sciences on the other. In doing so I turn first to two of our most seminal pedagogical scientists, Piaget and Vygotsky—radically different in their perspectives, almost contradictory, but complementary in the processual implications of their thinking. Piaget (1973) posits the genesis of cognitive function as occurring largely within the developing person. Proponents of the heritability of intellect can cite his formulations to support the idea that cognitive capacities are more or less pre-programmed in the individual’s genetic material.

Operating from a cognitive-structural perspective on intellectual development, Piagetians emphasize the structural nature of human cognition: sophisticated logical mental structures genetically programmed to unfold in response to experience. Piaget (1973) maintained that there are four major stages of cognitive development, each characterized by unique structural features enabling qualitatively different modes of cognitive function. He posited four constructs as the mechanisms through which cognitive development proceeds: assimilation, accommodation, equilibration, and schema. Assimilation, accommodation, and the movement from concrete to formal operations are represented as the unfolding of natural processes in consequence of maturation.

Vygotsky (1978), by contrast, asserts that cognitive abilities emerge, develop, and are displayed within a sociocultural milieu. Similarly Geertz (1973) assumes an interdependence of contexts and cognition when he argues that the human brain is thoroughly dependent on cultural resources for its very operation. Those resources are, consequently, not adjuncts to but constituents of mental activity. Followers of Vygotsky posit the genesis of intellectual function outside the developing person in the interactions between the person and the social environments to which he or she is exposed. It is through these interactions that knowledge and cognitive skills are transmitted, nascent cognitive abilities are cultivated, and cognitive behavior is modeled, encouraged, and rewarded.

But when we ignore their positions on the genesis of cognitive abilities, and focus on the processual features of intellect implied by these theories, the two pedagogical scientists appear to be elaborating different features of the same process. Assimilation and accommodation are what the developing person does with the content and meanings of environmental encounters. These encounters are the vehicles by which knowledge and skills are transmitted. It is through these encounters that cognitive behavior is encouraged, is cultivated, and is rewarded. Embedded in these encounters is Vygotsky’s (1978) social scaffolding, which enables movement from concrete to formal or abstract operations. The mental processes facilitating this cognitive growth have been called generalized event representations or scripts used in social interaction, which are similar to the Piagetian notion of schemata.

It is to Vygotsky (1978) that we generally turn for the functional bridge between culture and pedagogy. But the processual conceptions of both theories highlight the critical role of culture in our understanding of what it is to know and to understand, as well as to enable knowing and understanding in others. Thus, teaching and learning are explained partially by the cultural mediation of the opportunities for both.

It takes longer to say “behavioral and social sciences,” or “sciences of pedagogy,” so I use the term psychology to refer to these sciences. However, when I use psychology here, I mean it to include all of the sciences of pedagogy, of which the field of psychology is only one. My central message has to do with the interpenetration of two areas of study, that is, the intersection of culture and the sciences of pedagogy.

There are many seeds from which this interpenetration notion grows. The pedagogical sciences can be conceptualized along a continuum from experimental, through correlational, to interpretational science. Those in psychological circles remember that in 1957, the Cronbach presidential address to the American Psychological Association (1957) spoke of the two disciplines of psychology, the experimental and the correlational. If Cronbach were writing that paper today, I think he would also talk about interpretational science. I think he would argue that we have three divisions of, or approaches to, psychology. One is based on experimental work. One is based on the analysis of correlations between natural or contrived phenomena. And, borrowing from the critical theorists, critical psychologists, and cultural psychologists, I think we would have to recognize that knowing and understanding require some of us to worry about the interpretational analysis of phenomena.

Interpretational analysis really goes back to the work of Kurt Lewin in the 1930s and 1940s. He held that behavior can best be understood as a function of dynamic interaction between individual and environment. His colleague Murray (1938) amplified the idea, specifying alpha and beta presses of environment. The alpha presses come largely from the physical environment. The beta presses emanate internally, from what their external phenomena and events mean to us individually. Both, Murray insisted, are important to understanding human events.

Dollard (1935) contributed to interpretational analysis by insisting that phenomena can be understood only in context. In so doing, he laid the groundwork for using the case study as a method for investigating social as well as individual clinical phenomena. Some years later, Tom Pettigrew (1968) helped by making an eloquent case for the importance of supplementing quantitative work with qualitative, and vice versa. The power of social predictions is greatly increased, he showed, when the quantitative data undergirding them are amplified with qualitative data.

Others, too, have done interpretational analysis in the Lewinian tradition. Barker (1968) and Barker and Wright (1949) and the ecological psychologists have insisted that behavior can be understood only in terms of the context in which it takes place. All of this work has led me to an affinity with contextualism and perspectivism.


Four basic themes are involved in contextualism. The first concerns the nature of human activity itself. Contextualists assume that human acts are dynamic, transactive, and dialectical. Reality is not assumed to be stable or necessarily ordered. Contextualists argue that humans impose order on the world’s phenomena and that those phenomena are not necessarily intrinsically ordered. They are constantly changing: that is, the imposed order is continuously changing, as it is constructed and reconstructed by those of us who experience it—each of us influenced by the context in which phenomena are encountered.

All of these claims are intended to argue the importance of the cultural contexts in which people live. It is our cultural experiences that shape our intentions, and that mold the ways in which we shape our environments. Such a view rejects the idea of individuals as simply passive or reactive. Rather, humans are seen as self-conscious, reflective, and transformative, as well as reactive, beings. We are not only reacting to environments but we are also intentionally creating those environments. We know that one of the characteristics of culture is its capacity to shape behavior. Yet another of its characteristics is its capacity to be shaped and created by human behavior. Cultures have this double-edged, bifocal characteristic. We are born into cultures and they shape us, but we as human beings create cultures. Cultures are constantly in the process of being changed. So context is by no means a fixed or stable phenomenon. Examining human behavior from photographs, as it were—from still pictures captured at one point in time—without sensitivity to the fact that a photograph pictures an isolated incident that may have changed since we snapped, it is a mistake.

Human activity interacts with changing sociocultural contexts that can either facilitate and allow, or constrain and frustrate, behavior and development. This is terribly important. We must remember that there are social structures out there that facilitate development for some people. There are also social structures—sometimes the very same structures—that facilitate development for some people but inhibit it for other people. Any careful analysis of behavior must look at those reciprocal, dialectical, sometimes contradictory relationships that link context and developing behaviors.

To further complicate the situation, those structures that facilitate or frustrate have to be understood from the perspective in which they are seen by various people. When I seek to reward a youngster, if my reward—my reinforcer—is not perceived by that youngster as a reinforcer, then it may be a frustration and an interference rather than a facilitator of the desired behavior. Yet in so much of our work, using relatively narrow lenses we reward rather mechanically, and remain insensitive to the fact that for different people, coming out of different backgrounds and cultures, things we think of as rewards may actually be interferences/penalties.

Banks, with his colleagues (Banks, McQuarter, Hubbard [1979]), has done some very interesting related work. He worried about the phenomenon of delayed gratification and the way in which it is treated in the literature. It is traditionally thought that low-status people—black people, for example—are less able to delay gratification than are white people. Banks was troubled by this notion and began to research it. He finally concluded from experiments he conducted that when the interest power of the reward is held constant, the differential in delay of gratification in the diverse status groups disappeared. What traditional approaches had done in running experiments on the question was to hold the reward constant. But it is the interest power of the reward that is the trigger, not the reward itself.

A second assumption underlying contextualism pertains to the nature of communicative acts. Since human communication occurs within and relates to its surroundings, context must be examined in order to understand communication. We recognize that intentions underlie most communicative acts. We also understand that intention is often influenced by context, by the situation in which it occurs. Thus, even interactions that have the same reference points may rise from the different situations of participants. The judicial sciences are far ahead of the social sciences in recognizing this. We penalize people differently if they harm someone by accident rather than by intention. We are beginning to recognize that in the analysis and understanding of behavior, and the understanding of communications as behavioral acts, the intention behind the communication certainly has to be taken into consideration if the message is to be understood. Furthermore, human acts involve relational processes where the act incorporates—that is, reflects and affects—the sociocultural context.

Let me elaborate. To understand the act, you have to understand its sociocultural elements. Each act reflects such elements as well as impacts on them. Things never remain constant; they are constantly changing. Human actions are dynamically and dialectically related to their context. One act influences subsequent acts. So goes the process, much in the same way as proprioceptive processes in which a response in one part of the organism stimulates a different response in another part of the organism, and produces feedback to change the original response.

One of my former students, Dominque Esposito, used to refer to these “dynamic and interacting” processes as dynamic blending. In his elaboration of the notion, he argued that one of the reasons we do so little research in this tradition is that we simply do not know how to deal with that ever-changing dynamic situation where the dependent variable at one moment is independent and at another moment is dependent. However, if we are to understand the dynamics of human behavior, somehow we have to come to grips with that fact of dialectical interaction and find ways to deal with it.

The third basic theme of contextualism involves epistemological questions having to do with the nature, origin, and boundaries of our knowledge. The contextualist position holds that more than one explanation can be applied to the same behavior because of differences in context, circumstances, and temporal factors. If we follow Keil (1990), different explanatory positions can also flow from differences in existing constraints. Keil is a cognitive psychologist who examines how prior knowledge constrains the development of subsequent thought—how the constraining circumstances surrounding the behavior shape the behavior itself. He is arguing that the constraints have to be understood to allow us to understand the behavior.

Such a concern with context suggests that indifference to prior history, indifference to the current situation, or ignorance of attitude and perceptions leaves us with incomplete pictures. Recall my earlier reference to the importance of attributional phenomena, such that insufficient attention to the idiosyncratic meanings of an experience can result in misunderstanding the behavior. No matter how accurately I describe the situation that I am observing, unless I understand it in the same way as do those who are involved in it, I am likely to misunderstand their response.

I was first alerted to this concern by Don Medley of the University of Virginia. In my Head Start research days, we were trying to understand what goes on in Head Start classrooms. We developed rather sophisticated devices for observing and documenting teacher and student behaviors and environments. Don looked at our instruments and was troubled. He argued that if you really want to know what is happening with these students, you need to know what they think is happening. While professional conceptions of what is going on may be important, what students are responding to is what they perceive as going on—and what the investigator needs to know, then, is what those perceptions are.

Principles and theories cannot be universally valid, then, because the contexts to which they refer are constantly changing, and they involve vastly different historical and sociocultural meanings across persons and situations. There are always cognitive limitations, because any representation of reality will always be biased by historical dynamics, and in relating to some aspects of “reality,” other aspects are necessarily omitted. In a paper that I wrote with David Rollock and Fayneese Miller (1990), we used Kenneth Burke’s observation that “a way of seeing is also always a way of not seeing.” It is terribly important to remember that when I fix my vision and turn my lenses to reveal one aspect of a thing, there are just loads of other things that I do not and cannot see.

Cognitive developmentalist Elsa Haussermann (1957) acknowledged this in her psychological assessments of work with youngsters who had suffered neurological insult. She asserted that the task of the psychological examination was to determine under what conditions a youngster can accomplish particular tasks, and under what conditions is it difficult or impossible for him or her to do the tasks—rather than to simply determine whether he or she can accomplish tasks in the standard condition. She is suggesting that maybe we have to worry about the validity of our hypotheses under a variety of conditions, in a variety of contexts, and from different perspectives.

The fourth basic theme central to contextualism is a belief in cultural imbeddedness of the scientific enterprise itself. Scientists play an active and dialectical role in the process of knowledge production, not an objective, passive, or removed one. Since the world consists of highly complex interactions of multiple and dynamic factors, there can be no single complete representation of reality or of specific human behaviors. What the scientist does is (1) to try to deconstruct specific phenomena within particular socio-historical contexts, and (2) to play an active role in the process of conceptual reconstruction to generate social science knowledge. In a sense this is an extractive process in which the scientist extracts meaning about complex phenomena from neat little experiments. What this process provides is a single view of the world. This view in a different context, or these events as seen from a different perspective, may give us very different results.

I am reminded of a talk that Donald Hebb (1975) gave to the American Psychological Association. He was talking about the elegance of some of our research strategies, and the brilliance of some of the designs and analyses we bring to bear in our work. He suggested that there is a problem in bringing such elegance to bear on questions that should not have been asked in the first place. He was complaining about the absence of good theory in a lot of our research, and about our tendency to substitute very elegant designs and analyses for this lack of good conceptual work. There is a real potential for loss as we so reify the phenomena we are studying that we in effect destroy their meaning.


I turn now to some of the work of critical psychology and critical interpretation. An early entry was Edmund Sullivan’s brilliant little book, A Critical Psychology (1984), in which he attempts to apply critical theory to psychology. From this perspective, critical interpretation is a central purpose of psychology as a discipline. He offers critical interpretation not so much as a substitute for empirical work, but as an essential addition to more traditional approaches to knowledge production. Critical interpretation is analytic in that it deconstructs not only the problem, method, and findings of inquiry, but also the purpose, the intent, the underlying values, and the knowledge interests served by the object of investigation. What critical theorists are suggesting is that on reading or designing a piece of research, it may not be enough to look at the relationship between problem, method, and findings. The intentions and the knowledge interests of those who do the work are also important.

I like to remind people who cannot recognize it that I am an African-American male, born in the United States in the twentieth century, and that these things influence me and what I do. They influence the way I think about things. When I identify a problem to investigate, I bring my African-American, twentieth-century, male person to bear on it. That person is likely to be somewhat different from some of my colleagues who do not share my particular background and identity. Looking at the work of others and at my work, the critical theorists would argue that it is important that you know that this work is done by Ed Gordon and that other work is done by, say, Mary Anne Raywid, and that the perspectives that each of us bring to our work may be different. Most important is that those perspectives may influence our respective findings as well as our interpretations—even though we may like to think of findings as being objective.

In Gordon et al. (1990) we argue that the perspective an investigator brings to his or her work can influence how the question is posed and how the investigation is designed. These factors can also influence findings, rendering them less objective than we are inclined to think. So as a responsible scientist I owe it to you to remind you—and maybe even more important, I need to remind myself—that the conclusions I come to are the products of a specific perspective I have brought to the problem. Thus, the problem, the method, the findings, can never be separated from context. The three are synthetic or constructed. Consequently, special attention must be given to the intentions that drive the behaviors of those who study as well as those who are being studied. Since intent must always be inferred, and we do not yet have good ways of measuring it, concern with intent involves interpretation. We argue for critical interpretation.

In looking for intent, the critical interpretationists are critical of the mechanical and biological metaphors they find have guided most behavioral science theory. They are arguing that we may have looked too narrowly for our explanations for behavior. We may have used the mechanical metaphor excessively in looking for one thing causing the other, or the biological metaphor with its implied unidirectional linear relationships. Both are primarily concerned with explaining how things work. Instead, the critical interpretationists propose that we also have to be concerned about the why questions, about why things work. Here we have to focus on meanings. I often cite the difference between efforts at identifying the mechanisms by which aging can be explained and a search for understanding of the meanings of growing old. When the question is “What are the factors associated with growing old?,” social scientists can identify these. But if you want to know the meanings of growing old, I would go to a good novel, a good piece of poetry; or I would talk to a person like me, who was seventy-four on June 13, 1995. The meanings of growing old are quite different from the mechanisms, even though both are important to understanding aging or critically interpreting the behavior of aging persons.

Critical interpretationists turn often to the personal metaphor. They ask, “Who and what is this person?,” a question that they claim requires the “I Thou” dyad. They argue that too much of our work has focused on the hypothetical and counterfactual autonomous person. When we stop to think about it, none of us can exist as individuals outside of relationships to other people. Human beings are essentially social beings. We derive our existence and are able to maintain it—we achieve our survival—out of our interactions with other people. It is “I-Thou” rather than just “me” or “I” or “you.” It is the social force that drives the interactions within and between these dyads that ought to be the subject of our investigations.


It is from such ideas as contextualism and interpretivism that a new subspecialty in the sciences of behavior may be emerging. Some refer to this work as cultural psychology. Stigler, Shweder, and Herdt (1990), in their anthology titled Cultural Psychology, present a collection of essays by fourteen different writers. This is a school of thought that is being born rather than one that already exists. It asserts that cultural psychology is the psychology of intentional worlds—the intentional worlds of the I-Thou dyads that drive behavior. A cultural psychology aims to develop the principle of intentionality “by which culturally constituted realities (intentional worlds) and reality-constituting psyches (intentional persons) continually and continuously make each other up, perturbing and disturbing each other, interpenetrating each other’s identity, reciprocally conditioning each other’s existence” (Shweder, 1990).

Thus I am constantly in the process of creating you as I try to understand you, because what I have to do in order to understand you is to create an image of you, a vision or image of you in my mind. You may share my image or parts of it. You may deny it, but my mental images contribute to my identification of you and vice versa. In addition, we may be reciprocally conditioning each other’s existence as well as each other’s images. Now these are very mushy realities with which to deal. It is easy to understand why the related conception of knowledge is disconcerting and why educators have not rushed to embrace it.

Cultural psychology suggests that the narrowness with which the social sciences have approached human behavior is dysfunctional. That is not to say there are no common or universal characteristics of human beings that such paradigms might help us to understand. But the richness of the diversity may escape us because of the narrowness with which we study human beings.

Mental representation and intention are crucial to a psychology of culture or the interpenetration of culture and the sciences of behavior. A prominent characteristic of the human mind is its capacity to create its own realities. We do not know if other forms of animal life are capable of it, but certainly one of the many features of human beings is this capacity to transform things conceptually. If B. F. Skinner had been able to incorporate this notion into his conception of behavior, he would clearly have earned the title of our greatest psychologist. It is his blindness on this point that limits my own regard for his position.

Human behavior is not simply a function of that which is observed and reinforced. Rather, behavior is a function of what the mind does with stimulation and what the stimulus does to the mind. Even the nature of the reinforcement can be transformed by this human mind, so that what I offer as a punishment can be transformed into a reward or a neutral contingency. In one context, a condition may be perceived as positive, in another it may be negative. What one group of people perceive as an opportunity, some others perceive as a challenge or an obstacle. Thus this concern with intention and mental representation is a crucial one. Minds that create realities function in intentional persons. Organized human behavior is explicitly or at least implicitly purposeful; actions are intended to achieve certain ends.

What we produce, and how, and often why we produce it, as well as the meanings we collectively assign to it—all of these are culturally constituted realities reflecting intentional worlds. The question is just how these intentional worlds, and the individual human intentions that appear so important, relate to socialization contexts such as ethnic, gender, language, and class groupings. Human survival and human behavioral development involve intentional acts, which are facilitated or frustrated by context. Context includes social structures. Social structures affect things like opportunity, resources, discrimination, rewards, arbitrary constraints, political power, health care, education. To understand behavior one has to understand it in relation to those social structures that are part of the context in which behavior develops and exists, especially as that behavior is influenced and represented by identification with one of these ethnic, gender, language, or class divisions.

Consequently, it is necessary to study human intention and human agency—that is, the actions of humans—as they are mediated by these social structures. To do this requires that we heed context, perspective, and the dialectical interactions specific to the behaviors under study. The intersection between culture and the sciences of behavior requires that we conduct these kinds of investigations.


Let us turn to a few practical suggestions or examples of how such a focus might be played out. I would argue that the very first thing we have to do is to find ways to incorporate the serious study of the pedagogical sciences described here into the preparation of professional educators. I am not advocating that we necessarily have our students study more anthropology or psychology or economics. Rather, what I am arguing is that we must find ways to approach their knowledge in transdisciplinary fashion. By transdisciplinary I mean the sort of merger accomplished in political economy where what one deals with is the interaction between political and economic forces in accounting for events. The economic analysis and the political analysis combined will not suffice, but with the interpenetration of these ways of knowing, the explanatory power of the two disciplines becomes greater than the additive power of the two. The emerging field of cultural psychology does the same with anthropology and psychology.

We have to find ways to bring the several disciplines of pedagogy together in more creative ways than simply the additive examination of each. The phenomena of the world do not separate themselves out for psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists. These disciplines are just lenses through which phenomena can be viewed. What we need to find now is ways to put those lenses one on top of the other to better understand the phenomena we would know.

A second task is the incorporation of the sciences of pedagogy into the preparation of education professionals as culturally relevant and situated knowledge rather than as decontextualized disciplines separated from the cultures in which they are embedded. I do not want to suggest that psychology or sociology or anthropology for black folks is different from the psychology or sociology of white folks. But somehow the study of these disciplines must be approached with sensitivity to diverse cultural contexts.

A third concern is to lure into the education professions people who can learn, manage, and live with dynamic, contextual, and yes even relative knowledge. Some of us need knowledge that is much more fixed or absolute. They have little tolerance for ambiguity. But the real world is not so absolute. Rather than black and white, what I see are many shades of gray. The older I get the more ambiguous I think things are. It becomes clearer to me that unless I can deal with ambiguity, I cannot deal with the realities of the world. I hope we can help the people that we bring into this profession to learn these things, to manage them, and to mediate such learning in others. This may mean that the quality of minds that we invite into pedagogy will have to be elevated, which in turn introduces a lot of political economic implications. To draw more able minds to the practice of pedagogy we may have to radically change the rewards.

A fourth implication of cultural psychology is enabling educationists to recognize and treat knowledge and technique from multiple perspectives and in diverse contexts. We can no longer look at a piece of knowledge or a particular technique (way of doing things) and assume that it is universally applicable. Nor can we assume the objectivity of either the producer or the situation out of which it was produced. When I formulate a problem, or a practice and application, what I do in the process is to bring all the stuff that is Ed Gordon to it, and Ed Gordon has some biases. He sees things in particular ways. Others may see them quite differently. Their use of the same material, the same technique, the same idea, may be different from mine, and what is important is that the professional educator will have to recognize and live with that fact. Edmund Gordon’s competence then may have to be judged by his capacity to transcend the context and perspective that are his own. He must be able to put himself in the places where others are sitting, as he tries to understand phenomena—and most particularly in the places where the people he teaches are sitting.

A fifth concern is to develop and nurture wise professionals who are scholars of the sciences of pedagogy that inform pedagogical practice, as well as scholars of pedagogical praxis that should inform the continuing production of knowledge. When I first joined the faculty at Teachers College some years ago, Robert Shaefer was dean. Shaefer used to talk about education as inquiry and about the developing scholars of the practice of education. He was one of the people who rejected the separation of basic from applied research. He thought they should be equally privileged and of equally good quality. He urged those of us who worry about practice to be scholars of practice. I would hope we can produce educators who are scholars of the sciences and practice of pedagogy. But teaching and learning are very personal and relational enterprises. As such the profession requires a command of knowledge and technique that enables both personalization and relational adjudication (Gergen 1990). Pedagogical science and praxis, mediated by cultural perspectives, can move our profession in that direction—enabling understanding of the interpenetration of culture and the sciences of pedagogy.

A version of this article was presented as the DeGarmo Lecture for the Society of Professors of Education at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in New Orleans, 1994.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 1, 1995, p. 32-46
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1405, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 9:02:41 AM

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