IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Pedagogy in plain terms

The 12 principles of teaching and learning for parents and guardians.

Child on a rainbow painted road. Image: Cory Woodward via Unsplash

Pedagogy is not a common word, but it is a useful idea because it helps us understand how children learn. Brian Simon, historian of education, described pedagogy as ‘the act and discourse of teaching’. In plain terms, this means 'teaching and learning'.* However, there are different views about how much of the context for any teaching and learning should be included in our understanding of pedagogy. 

This Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (HHCP) written guide outlines the 12 principles of good pedagogy for parents and guardians, and may also be of interest to other educators.

The principles are informed by our interpretation of a range of research, theory and practice. These principles are also based on our view that parents instinctively know many things about how to help their children learn.

*Reference: Simon, B. (1981). Why no pedagogy in England? in: B. Simon & W. Taylor (Eds) Education in the eighties: the central issues (London, Batsford), 124–145.

Our 12 principles of good pedagogy

1. Learning happens mainly as a result of particular ways of interacting and talking with your children.

The act of teaching is everything that you do to help your children learn, including planning fun activities or buying resources that help learning, for example books, pens and paper. But the most important way to help your children learn is the way that you talk and interact with them.

It is not just the topic of conversations which are important but also the style of conversations. For example, it is important to listen carefully to understand children’s ideas, then to respond with interest. Good conversations are not just the adult talking, there needs to be a natural balance between who is leading the conversation at any one time.

Conversations that particularly help learning are differently focussed than everyday conversations (which of course are also important for learning). This is because the ‘teacher’ is thinking more clearly about what they are trying to help the children learn than they would ordinarily need to do. This is the discourse of teaching and learning. 

2. Parents instinctively know how to help their children learn.

Parents instinctively know how to help their children learn – it is part of humans’ genetic make-up. Think about how children learn to talk, nearly all children learn to talk (in all cultures) by the time they are about three-years-old. This is partly human genetics but also the interaction with families. When children are babies parents engage with their children straight away, talking to their children expecting them to respond.

Parents have fun with language, through nursery rhymes and songs, and by enjoying talking about language. They take their children out so they experience a range of places and people (who often talk to children). Parents provide gentle guidance on how children can learn standard ways of using language (what some people call ‘correct’ language), such as providing a model of how language is used.

In time, parents help their children with written language through reading and writing. Parents recognise children’s creative use of language as logical but non-standard (e.g. ‘I goed to the park’), then they model alternatives (‘I went to the park’). Many of the things that parents do to help children learn to talk are a good model for helping other kinds of learning because they reflect a constructive and effective way to teach.

3. A balance between the child’s interests and what adults would like them to learn needs to be maintained.

When children show interest in learning something, it is good to engage with this and help them learn about it. You can also ask children what they would like to learn. We ask children about what they want to learn because children learn many things independently which we don’t always appreciate, and because this is a respectful way to teach.

At the same time, adults have learned many things as a result of their experience and knowledge. Much of this will be of interest and great value to their children. Parents should feel confident to share their interests and knowledge with their children at the level appropriate for the child. The best way to support learning then is to strike a balance between what children already know and are interested in, and what adults would like them to learn. 

4. New knowledge to be learned should be related to real life so that it makes sense.

When children are learning about something new it can help if they understand how the new things relate to real life. Mathematical learning is a good example of how things that are quite abstract can be related to real life.

Imagine you asked your child how to divide nine by three. On it's own that's rather abstract. Now imagine that you said: ‘I’ve got nine sweets to share between you and your sister and brother – how many do you think you will each have? Here are the sweets - why don’t you go and find out?’

Of course, some things cannot be experienced in real life, such as space travel - but this is where imagination comes in. And it is always helpful to make the learning as close to real things as possible, for example by choosing memorable and real life videos online.  

5. Learning new things requires people to know about, and build on, what children already know.

Children are born with a curiosity for learning and an ability to learn some things very quickly. The human brain grows by forming connections as a result of the stimuli of children’s experiences. That is why the range of experiences that parents provide for their children both at home and outside of the home are so important.

Children’s curiosity for learning means that they acquire all kinds of knowledge, skills, and ways of thinking. Learning works best if what is planned builds on the learning that has gone before. You try to make the level of learning just slightly beyond the level that the child has already reached.  

To do this requires remembering what was learned before, and paying close attention to what children say and do as a visible example of their learning. Some kind of brief notes, a diary of learning, can help with this. Crucially, you step-back from time to time to let your child work independently on a problem or topic because sometimes they need to learn without help.

6. Many daily activities can provide great opportunities for learning.

Daily life at home can provide many opportunities for learning. For example, many people have started making their own bread. Probably the most enjoyable learning comes from eating just cooled freshly baked bread. However, the whole process of bread-making has multiple areas where you can learn. Historically, bread-making is one of humans’ earliest food sources.

The science of bread-making includes the magic of yeasts, the effect of kneading on gluten that is in the flour and the rising or proving effect. Measurements for bread making have to be precise involving mathematics of measurement, proportions and percentages.

Ovens have to be used which are one of the most fundamental tools for cooking, and which require safe use. The flour used for bread is not the same as the flour used for making cakes – another very enjoyable experience particularly when connected to birthdays and parties. And so the learning goes on.

7. Planning for learning is beneficial, including being clear about what you hope will be learned.

Children’s innate curiosity results in their learning incidentally as a result of the range of activities and interactions in the home. But learning can be expanded by being planned for. This planning enables parents to introduce children to things that they were not aware of, and to extend knowledge about things children are naturally interested in.

At its most basic level, planning for learning is simply thinking in advance about an experience or activity that, knowing the child, will help their learning. This planning doesn’t have to be written down but written planning can help parents to think more carefully about what they hope their child will learn. Rough notes in a note book for example, perhaps as part of a diary of learning.  

8. Flexibility to adjust plans, such as following children’s interests or making productive use of unexpected events, helps learning.

Although planning is beneficial, it is also good to deviate from plans when something happens that could be even more beneficial. Imagine you had planned to do some painting, and a collection of objects that the child was interested in were the focus. But then a dramatic rain storm starts and the child is transfixed by the bouncing rain drops. The painting could change to focus on the storm, or perhaps some experimentation to estimate how long it might take for different vessels to fill with water.

Sometimes children’s interests take planned activities in directions not anticipated and it can be beneficial to abandon the plans and enjoy the new directions. At other times, children’s learning is best served by refocusing them on the activity at hand. Children learn both through independent learning, such as through playing, and through learning that is planned and organised for them. 

9. Learning is not just about knowledge, it is also about new skills, different ways of thinking, and enjoyment.

We all know people who know a lot of facts, for example people who are good at quizzes. This is only one kind of learning. Another kind of learning is skills.

For example, your child will know what a bike is, and they will probably be able to list some of its features (two wheels, breaks, a chain and reflectors) but that does not mean that they are able to ride a bike. Riding a bike is a skill that takes guidance (most parents fondly remember their child’s first bike ride); and it requires balance, confidence, practice and safety.

Learning to ride a bike can be very satisfying and great fun. For people interested in bikes the learning might lead to competitions, mechanics, and engineering. Good learning has a balance between the development of different kinds of knowledge, skills and other understandings.

A really important aspect of factual knowledge is that it depends on the point of view of the person who believes something is true. For example, some people don’t believe that climate change is caused by human activity yet most of the world’s leading climate scientists do believe this. This raises questions about who to believe and why should we believe them? Truth, beliefs and evidence is another fruitful topic that stretches across all learning. 

10. Sufficient breadth and balance of topics for learning is needed.

Children need to be introduced to a good range of topics. Known in schools as 'subjects', these topics have traditionally been organised into groups. The arts such as music, drama, and visual arts encourage playing and performing, composing and viewing or listening. The humanities include attention to ways of thinking (including philosophy), time and place (history and geography), to religions, and to literature and poetry (which of course are also forms of art). 

Mathematics and sciences encourage hypotheses, experimentation and the search for explanations of natural things. In addition to these and other topics, there are things that cross the boundaries of subjects, such as creativity, collaboration, and language itself (another reason why our first principle is so important). 

11. Learning is helped by hands-on experiences.

It is often good to experience learning in a hands-on way and not just by talking and thinking about it. Take music as an example, listening to different kinds of pop songs is enjoyable and can be part of learning about lyrics, bands and elements of music such as the different instruments. However, listening to music is passive compared to ‘doing’ music. Why not learn a song together, record it, listen to the recording and talk about all of this.

If you have musical instruments in the house learn to play simple things on them. If not, then how about simple sounds with the voice, or clapping, or using different implements like jars, pans and wind chimes to make sounds. When your child starts to organise these sounds into sequences they are beginning to compose music. Why not try and write these sequences down in your own form of musical writing. 

12. Resources such as computers are only good if teaching and learning is informed by the other pedagogical principles.

Learning requires things to learn with and about. Learning about literature requires books. Learning about dinosaurs requires information, pictures and text about dinosaurs. Learning to write requires paper and pens. 

All of these things can be helped or hindered by digital devices such as computers. But it is not just the resources that are important, it is the pedagogy – the interaction between learner and educator – that is vital. It is only through good pedagogy that any resource fulfils its potential to help learning.