What is the Difference between Didactics and Pedagogy?

In simple terms, didactics is synonymous with teaching and instruction. And yet at the same time, a didactic approach involves a very structured and informed approach to teaching. But how does the term “didactics” differ from “pedagogy”?

What is the difference between didactics and pedagogy? While didactics is a discipline that is essentially concerned with the science of teaching and instruction for any given field of study, pedagogy is focused more specifically on the strategies, methods and various techniques associated with teaching and instruction. Pedagogy also refers to the ability of a teacher to match theoretical foundations or concepts with practical methods of knowledge transfer in education on language-related problems, while responding and adapting to the learning strategies of their students. Finally, didactics is teacher-centered and based on the sum of theoretical knowledge and practical experience. In comparison, pedagogy is learner-centred, since the teaching must be adapted to respond to the complexity of student needs.

Therefore, “didactics” is a more generalized term referring to the theory and practical applications behind the science of instruction. It can also be viewed as the foundation or principal steps and stages involved in the act of teaching, within a specific field. In the field of science, we speak of research, for instance, pertaining to the didactics of biology and medicine, for instance. In this context, the didactics of knowledge transfer often take place through teaching in a traditional setting (amphitheatre) at the onset, but most importantly through practical “hands on” sessions (practicum, laboratory or hospital settings) to prepare for professional insertion. 

And yet, you may still be wondering how this definition of “didactics” differs from the term “pedagogy”. As you will see, the term “didactics” differs greatly from “pedagogy” in many significant ways. Before we answer this question, we must first consider the philosophical underpinnings of the German didactic tradition to better understand the origin of the word.

Didactics from a German perspective

From a teacher-centred approach and based on a philosophical foundation, Meyer (2007) explains that “the German didactic tradition focuses on teaching aims, subject matter, methods and the organisational frame of teaching and learning” (Meyer, M.A., 2007. “Didactics, Sense Making, and Educational Experience” in European Educational Research Journal, 6:26, 161-173. doi: 10.2304/eerj.2007.6.2.161). He cites Hericks (Hericks, U. (2006) Professionalisierung als Entwicklungsaufgabe. Rekonstruktionen zur Berufseingangsphase von Lehrerinnen und Lehrern. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.) who proposes that didactics is a discipline meant to assist teachers in their “voyage” from pre-service teaching to professionalism. With seasoned professional experience, teachers can evolve into teaching and learning experts who recognize the “emancipation” of their students through the act of knowledge transfer. This view supports the notion that the ultimate objective of the teacher is not only to teach students in a given subject but also and most importantly, to equip them with the necessary learning strategies so that they continue to learn independently and in the wider sense.

The Meaning of Didactics

What is the meaning of didactics? As mentioned earlier, “didactics” refers to the science of teaching (in relation to aims, subject matter, methods, and frameworks) within a specific field. Didactics is based on multiple theories of teaching, and in a wider sense, theory and the practical application of teaching and learning methods.

Textbooks and “do it yourself” (DIY) tutorials on YouTube or “how-to” books are all examples of “didacticism” since their ultimate purpose is to instruct and educate. Some would argue that the word ‘didactic’ can have both a positive and negative connotation. For example, someone who possesses a “didactic” personality is an individual who is naturally inclined to teach and instruct.

The word didactic can be associated with a positive or negative connotation. For example, a proud grandmother who shares her cultural recipes with her curious, entrepreneurial, and adventurous grandchildren is an example of a positive context. However, the following illustration will show how the word “didactic” can be associated with a rather subtle and negative connotation.

The massive production of 17th-century French fairy and folk tales and the 18th-century English nursery rhymes, such as the famous tales of Mother Goose, was meant to teach society in more than one way. This type of literature was written specifically for children (and adults alike), with a clear didactic intent. However, it was often somewhat underhanded in that it was also created to teach children (and again, adults) a stern lesson about societal behaviour, norms and moral values.

Didactic Method or Approach

What is a didactic method or approach? A didactic method is a teaching method that adheres to a scientific approach or educational style. The approach or method is often researched or studied and adopted by the teacher in order to engage the student and ultimately stimulate a virtuous learning process and transfer of knowledge in any given field of study.

For example in language didactics, the Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) approach to language teaching is a very common approach used in European language classrooms (Léon-Henri Di Pardo, D. CLIL in the Business English Classroom: From Language Learning to the Development of Professional Communication and Metacognitive Skills, University of Paris IV – La Sorbonne (Paris, France), 2015. ELTWorldOnline.com. Special Issue on CLIL.).

A modern and innovative didactic approach to distance teaching and learning is the open learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Everyone has access to them and people can learn by themselves, in an unstructured manner. With unlimited access from across the globe, students are free to choose from various topics and domains of interest. And in addition, at some academic institutions, students can earn certificates and diplomas as they work through the online courses.

Didactic methods and their underlying principal theories focus on the baseline knowledge students possess, as well as their needs. These methods seek to improve upon this level and assist the teacher in conveying information, in the best possible way. A didactic method or approach is thus the very foundation or starting point in a lesson plan, where the overall goal is knowledge transfer, and as the Germans say, emancipation. The teacher, instructor or educator functions in this role as the authoritative figure, but also as both a guide and a resource for the students. Depending upon the chosen didactic approach, the teacher may adopt various roles in the classroom from the principal instructor, to mediator or observer (source).

Pedagogy and Pedagogues

Pedagogy is more related to the correlation between the teaching material (resources) or theoretical information (methods) and the intellectual capacity of students, as well as their individual needs. Think of pedagogy as being transversal in nature and pertaining to the method and practice of teaching and instruction, in particular in terms of the ability to match theoretical concepts (didactics of teaching and instruction) with practical methods (pedagogy) of knowledge transfer in education. This can be true for any given field of study. 

A teacher is considered a bona fide “pedagogue” when they are capable of making a perfect match and succeeding in the act of knowledge transfer inside or outside the classroom. In the best-case scenario, students who are actively partaking and advancing in the learning experience are the end result of a successful instructor’s pedagogy. And yet, if students are having trouble understanding the lesson, this does not automatically mean that the teacher is a terrible pedagogue. There may be other factors involved, such as a student who is ill or tired, or students who are distracted or not able to hear the teacher or see the blackboard, etc.

On the contrary, with experience and time, teachers often naturally develop many metacognitive skills (critical and analytical thinking) with regard to their ability to recognize student lapses in the transfer of knowledge. With reflective teaching practices, they learn to automatically troubleshoot their lessons and adapt their pedagogical approach before, during and after a lesson. Therefore, pedagogy deals with the teacher’s cognizant act of teaching in the classroom, while adopting the best-suited supports (whiteboards or slide presentations) and resources (video and books) to better serve their students.

Related Questions

What is a “pedagogue”?

A pedagogue refers to someone who is capable of making a perfect match and succeeding in the act of knowledge transfer. A natural pedagogue will use every opportunity to share their knowledge and education to aid, assist or enlighten others. They will do this by adapting their teaching methods to the intellectual capacity, the learning strategies and the individual needs of their students or learners.

What is the difference between “didactics” and “pedagogy”? 

Didactics refers to the science of teaching and instruction for any given field of study. Based on theoretical foundations, a didactic approach involves a very structured and informed approach to teaching and instruction. For more on the origin of the word “didactics”(see German reference above).

Pedagogy is transversal in nature and pertains to the correlation between methods and practices of teaching and instruction, in particular in terms of the ability to match theoretical concepts with practical methods of knowledge transfer in education.

What is “applied linguistics”?

Applied linguistics is a vast interdisciplinary field that identifies, investigates, and offers solutions to real-life problems related to language and communication (verbal or non-verbal). In terms of language studies, for example, linguists can be focused on the practical applications of teaching, translation, and speech therapy.

Dana Di Pardo Leon-Henri

Dana Di Pardo Léon-Henri is a senior researching lecturer with ELLIADD (EA 4661), currently teaching English for Special or Specific Purposes (ESP) at the University of Bourgogne Franche Comté at the UFR SLHS in Besançon, France. Her research is focused on ESP and LSP Language Teaching, foreign language learning and teaching, pedagogy, didactics, evaluation, artificial intelligence and language teaching, language policy and professional skills development at the higher education level.

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