The Affordances & Limitations of Disciplinary Pedagogy

Instructional designers are trained in concepts, theories, models, frameworks, methods and principles that are supposed to help an ID work with someone to design a contextually appropriate and effective learning experience, regardless of the learning outcomes or field of study. This means that a single person with a degree in instructional design might help historians improve student learning in a historiography class, medical schools design learning experiences that result in more competent and confident professionals, and learning modules that promote engagement and mastery of learning among accountant students. In my first University ID position, it was common to work on learning designs for five or six different disciplines in a single day. But people were not always receptive to this. What could a non-historian possibly do to help improve student performance in history? Or what could a non-medical professional have to offer to nurse educators or those providing graduate training in occupational therapy? I faced these common doubts and questions. Behind the doubt is sometimes the assumption that what leads to effective teaching and learning is discipline-specific, which is where we get the idea of disciplinary pedagogy or a closely related conversation about signature pedagogies. I’ve come to believe that this is an important, even critical conversation, but as is common in my blog, I like to look at the affordances and limitations of this concept as it is often represented.


  1. There are universal principles of great teaching and learning. This includes things like having clear feedback loops that help teachers and learners monitor progress toward one or more goals. There are universal concepts like managing cognitive load, communicating with clarity, building on prior knowledge, designing learning based upon learner’s prior beliefs and knowledge, etc. While the details mail look different from one setting to another and one discipline to another; disciplinary pedagogy at its worst does not devote adequate attention to these more universal concepts. In other words, plenty of very important concepts transfer across teaching different disciplines. This is supported by the fact that a skilled instructional designer can improve outcomes in courses across disciplines, with consistency and predictability, even without background in the discipline.
  2. Disciplinary pedagogy is not always shaped by what is most effective, but rather what is most accepted. So, within a discipline (or even across disciplines within certain types of learning institutions) there become ingrained teaching traditions and practices on how to teach and how to learn. These often set the agenda for conversations about disciplinary pedagogy, and not questions about how to best ensure that students develop the knowledge, confidence and capacity for thought and action within a given discipline or domain.
  3. It is slow to innovate. This is an affordance from one perspective, but I’m speaking about when a disciplinary pedagogy is stuck in a rut, perhaps MBA programs convinced that case study learning is the pinnacle of the highest quality MBA learning experience. It is quite popular in some disciplines and certain programs (like MBA programs or some health fields), but it is not entirely driven by research showing that students in programs that are exclusive to this pedagogy are, in all ways, superior to those graduating from schools that have less consistent pedagogies.
  4. It risks blinding some to the broader conversation about teaching and learning. This is not a necessary limitation, but it can get in the way for some people.


  1. It highlights the importance of socialization within a discipline. Becoming a nurse, for example, is something modeled and mentored as much as didactically taught. The same is true for many disciplines that involve extensive residencies, clinical, and/or internships as part of the programming. Disciplinary pedagogy attends to this important part of the learning experience.
  2. It works…really well. Disciplinary pedagogy gets at some of the nuances distinct to the discipline and is having impressive results. It helps people within a discipline focus on that which will really help their students thrive in that discipline.
  3. It embraces the idea that theoretical, philosophical, ethical foundations of a discipline are infused not only in what is taught, by how it is taught. Disciplinary pedagogy often seeks to get at pedagogies by thinking about what interactions, practices, learning formats and and experience best embrace that discipline’s core assumptions right into the how of teaching and learning. This is why apprenticeship remains a powerful part of learning. If you want to be a field biologist, why not go to school where you can do field biology with real field biologists? The same goes for aspiring historians, computer programmers, entrepreneurs, educators, medical researchers, and politicians.
  4. There are certain foundational concepts and perspectives in most disciplines. Fail to get an “aha moment” in one or more of those and you will never really “get it” in that discipline. History is not just about learning history, but it is about learning to think historically, and disciplinary pedagogies often devote special attention to how to best cultivate student discovery of those essential entry points into the field. They are the key to turning from a hard-working but persistently struggling student to one who feels like they are surfing through through the field.
  5. Related to this, each discipline has dominant discourses and literacies. To read and talk neuroscience is qualitatively different from thinking and talking poetically or like a business analyst. Disciplinary pedagogy is often interested in helping students grow in disciplinary literacy, and in becoming conversant in the dominant discourses in the field. By the way, if you want to be a great conversationalist with people from mixed disciplines, this is a great starting point. Learn about the the literacies and discourses of different disciplines, and you often find yourself surprised at how effective you can be in cross-discipline exchanges.
  6. There is a strong and growing body of literature pointing to the power of content area literacy and disciplinary thinking. In other words, even if teachers are not getting into the literature about signature pedagogy, it is important for learners to figure out what is signature about each discipline. I had a great high school science teacher who opened my eyes to this. He was the first person to ever introduce me to the idea that physicists think about things differently from biologists, and historians differently from geologists. They each have their own mindsets, methods, and vocabularies; and sometimes they don’t translate easily or at all.

Related Readings

Going Deeper Ideas and Questions for Reflection

  • Interview colleagues or people from 3-5 disciplines. Ask each if they are aware of any discipline-specific approaches to teaching and learning in their discipline?
  • Also ask which central concepts or ways of thinking are most important to becoming a full-blown member of their discipline’s community.
  • Find a high school, community college or University teacher who has a graduate degree in their discipline compared to a graduate degree in education. Interview and/or observe. What differences do you notice? Find people who have dual degrees, one in their discipline and another in education. How does that seem to lead to distinct patterns of thinking and teaching?
  • Think about one or more domains where you become competent. See if you can create a mind map of the “aha” moments that gave you fuller access and understanding in that domain. When did they happen? Under what conditions did they happen?
  • Consider the implications of disciplinary pedagogy for education from elementary through graduate school. How might an elementary and high school school teacher with limited formal training in the different disciplines best help students cultivate disciplinary thinking and discovery of the signature concepts and ways of thinking in that discipline?
  • What does the concept of signature disciplines have to say about leveraging a pool of disciplinary experts as part of learning environments?
  • Regardless of whether there is disciplinary pedagogy in practice, it seems as if the most important focus is on helping students gain full access to the skills and understandings within different disciplines and domains. How might we help learners cultivate self-directed learning skills in cultivating disciplinary thinking?
  • This conversation highlights the difference between just having students learn disciplinary facts and actually learning disciplinary patters of thought, discourses, and ways of being. To what extend do you see this as an important shift in our educational institutions?
  • Where does interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary thinking fit into this conversation?  Howard Gardner, for example, has argued that interdisciplinary thinking requires a level of competence in two or more disciplines. Without those disciplinary foundations, it is not true interdisciplinarity, just a hodgepodge (my words, not his).
Posted in blog, education, education reform, educational design

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.