What? Didactic teaching remains the pedagogical mainstay of many traditional classrooms and traditional teachers. It is the pedagogy of instruction and immutable facts, of authority and telling, and of right and wrong answers – it is teacher-centred and values learners who sit still and listen quietly and attentively, passively accepting the teacher as the knower and expert, both the source of knowledge and judge-jury of knowing. Students who succeed in this setting have learned to memorise and repeat the ‘important points’ of the lesson with little gloss or interpretation, mimicking the words of the teacher. Students unable to sit still or who interrupt the lesson are banished to a corner or from the room altogether – perhaps with chagrin or relief, or some complex combination of the two – these learners do not belong in the learning or to the didactic milieu. Such learners may be categorised as deficit or dull – unable to concentrate or more systematically diagnosed with a learning disorder or disability. The socio-spatial arrangement of the didactic classroom is a blackboard or whiteboard at the front of the room with children seated at desks in rows and facing the front. Kalantzis and Cope offer:
Being didactic means to spell things out explicitly but perhaps a little too laboriously, or to present a view of what’s true or right or moral but in a way that might at times seem dogmatic. So, the teacher tells and the learner listens. Didactic teaching turns on what the teacher says rather than what the learner does. The balance of agency weighs heavily towards the teacher. The teacher is in command of knowledge. His or her mission is to transmit this knowledge to learners, and learners, it is hoped, dutifully absorb the knowledge laid before them by the teacher.
The concept of the didactic teacher and the didactic ideal of passive and compliant students is exemplified in David Milgrim’s Cows Can’t Fly, an early-years picture book. The story is of a little boy whose hand drawn picture of two cows flying through the air inspires a herd of cows to take flight. Milgrim draws the teacher, Ms. Crumb standing beside her blackboard pointing with a stick at the lesson on the board. Chalked, double-spaced and underscored in upper case is the word G R A V I T Y with three large arrows, pointing down at a chalk drawn cow. The word G R A V I T Y dominates the blackboard.
Next to the chalk drawn cow is the label ‘massive object’ with an arrow pointing sideways at the cow. The combination of the elements in this graphic tableau leave the reader with no room for doubt as to the teacher’s view. A powerful sense of didactic authority is achieved by the way in which Ms. Crumb, her pointer and her blackboard dominate the composition, almost filling the double page spread.
The children are depicted as a row of partially seen heads at the bottom of the page looking up at the teacher, as small-seated-children everywhere must do with their adult teachers. Milgrim’s teacher is dismissive of the idea that cows can fly. She is shown examining her fingernails and grimacing, pointing at the blackboard with her stick. We are told in the text “Ms. Crumb said cows were far too fat; that facts were facts, and that was that.” However Milgrim completely undermines the teacher’s self assuredness and sense of didactic authority with a small flying cow seen through the window behind her. The image captures in an essential way the disdain with which figures of didactic authority treat ideas that are not consistent with the textbook or canon. The dominant figure of the teacher and her blackboard are beyond the challenge of the submissive seated child. This tableau captures in exaggerated caricature the didactic teacher.
Why? Didactic teaching is not really consistent with the pedagogy of Learning by Design. A range of pedagogies – knowledge processes – are proposed for learning facts, concepts and theories – pedagogies which promote more active learning and greater agency for the learner.