Signature pedagogies in the professions

By Lee Shulman


(adapted by Julian Hermida)


How professionals are educated. In professional education, it is insufficient to learn for the sake of knowledge and understanding alone; one learns in order to engage in practice. Professional education involves teaching ideas, facts, and principles so that they can contribute to skilled professional practice. Professional pedagogies are continuously attempting to forge connections between key ideas and effective practice.

A combination of theory, practice, and ethics, together with conditions of inherent and unavoidable uncertainty, defines professional work.


Three dimensions


      Surface structure

o  Concrete acts of teaching and learning, of showing, and demonstrating, of questioning and answering, of interacting and withholding, of approaching and withdrawing.


      Deep structure

o  A set of assumptions about how best to impart a certain body of knowledge and know how.


      Implicit structure

o  A moral dimension that comprises a set of beliefs about professional attitudes, values, and dispositions.

o  What the pedagogy is not, what it does not impart or exemplify.


Example of signature pedagogy: The legal case dialogue method


o  Surface structure: a set of dialogues that are entirely under the control of an authoritative teacher, who controls the pace and usually drives the question back to the same student a number of times. The discussion centers on the law, as embodied in judicial opinions, and on the expectation that the student engage in intensive verbal duels with the teacher as they wrestle to discern the facts of the case and the legal principles.

o  Deep structure: what is really being taught is the theory of law, which is the confrontation of views and interpretations, and how to think like a lawyer.

o  Implicit structure: fairness, moral, social issues are excluded. The often brutal nature of exchanges between instructor and student reflects exchanges in the legal profession.


Three temporal patterns of signature pedagogies in the professions


      Pervasive, routine, and habitual

o  They are used in most courses in most schools

o  Routines permit students to spend far less time figuring out rules of engagement, which enables them to focus on increasingly complex subject matter.

      Deeply engaged students

o  Learning requires that students feel visible and accountable.

o  Signature pedagogies make it hard for students to disappear and become anonymous.

o  They are interactive.

o  Accountable talk: the student must build on what somebody said before, he or she must respond, must offer counterargument, new data, and forceful commentary.

o  Signature pedagogies breed accountability of performance and interaction, and they remove invisibility.

      Pedagogical inertia

o  Signature pedagogies are resistant to change.


The signature pedagogy of liberal education is the lecture, but students are disengaged, invisible, unaccountable, and emotionally disconnected most of the time.