Appliable pedagogy

I have always been suspicious of the idea of ‘appliable theory’ (but cf Halliday’s clarification re difference between ‘appliable’ and ‘application’/‘applicable’ (in The Influence of Marxism’).

To me, each new pedagogic site or context is wholly new. Rather than simply transferring pre-existing frameworks or practices or curricula, I prefer to try to begin with a blank slate and let the affordances and exigences of the place emerge in their own way. Thus, I do not like to begin a new pedagogic task with a preconceived palate or framing. Whereas Descartes insisted on beginning theory and thinking with a tabula rasa, I insist that that is how we should approach practice and action. We should begin with nothing formulated, but trust the interchange between our theoretically informed imagination, habitus and attunement to respond to the affordances, powers, capacities, blockages, possible openings of the pedagogic scene.

This contrasts with those who enter a new pedagogic situation with the mantle of ‘expert’ or ‘primary knower’. A stance like this cannot learn or listen: it is only by acknowledging that we don’t know and don’t even know what we don’t know, that it is possible to open up to learning from the new context. As Gadamer insists: Experience is learning that you what you currently think and habitually think is untrue.

My assumption is that any attempt to simply transfer a pedagogy from one context to another will fail. Stoically, one could gloss this by saying that you were using the new context as a test case, Popper style. However, in my experience those using this approach usually blame the context for not living up to their pedagogic scheme rather than acknowledging that it has revealed a deep flaw in their conceptual scheme. Those following this subsumptive style of acting invariably work a few small tweeks and then proceed to the next context and again try to impose their regime … again with little success. That is, they might justify their approach by arguing that it is an inductive methodology and that over time it will accumulate the features of a pedagogy that is generally applicable.

However, fundamentally this style of acting is subsumptive. It is based on a strong belief in the universality of concepts and their appliability-capacity to form, shape, dominate, and productively harness the messy conjunctures of social life to conform to the demands of the concept.

By contrast, my practice is (or was) governed by two principles: every context or instance is unique; practical success can only come from emptying your mind of preconceptions and attuning your sensibility to the meanings circulating and shaping a context or instance. This means that you are forced to reinvent your pedagogic practice from scratch: sometimes you find that you have created a wholly new pedagogy, sometimes you find that you have recreated a variation on an existing pedagogy. in either case, the emergence of the pedagogy is in response to a phenomenological encounter and entanglement with the realities of the situation within which you are hoping to form, or better, which you are hoping to shape into a form that constitutes a productive pedagogy.


About Rob McCormack
I am a retired second chance educator living in Melbourne, Australia. Theory I am interested in includes: Rhetoric, both ancient and contemporary; Post-structural discourse theory, Laclau; Halliday's systemic functional linguistic theory; Hermeneutics (esp. Gadamer); philosophy, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida; 'practice theory' in social theory such as Schatzki, Bourdieu; political theory, such as Arendt, Laclau, Tully ; pedagogic theory and philosophy such as Biesta, didaktik. Praxis I am interested in include: Adult education and adult literacy; second chance education; academic discourse and writing; langauge and learning; Indigenous education.

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