Tomatoe, tomatoe – Didactics, … ?

I’m currently writing about the conventions that I’ve chosen to use in my PhD-project. Essentially, my study investigates the development of a design for teaching and learning remediated in the 3D virtual world, SL. In a Scandinavian or German academic tradition, such a study would be situated within the field of Didactics. However, according to Hamilton (1999) and Schnack (2000), in the Anglo-American mind, the term “didactic” has very negative connotations implying a moralizing and heavily teacher driven approach to teaching and learning. At the Master Programme on ICT and Learning (MIL), where I have conducted my research, we often use a didactic-based terminology (e.g. we often speak about didactic elements, didactic analyses, and didactic design), at least when we communicate in Danish. Despite our terminology, we do not adhere to the Anglo-American perception. Nonetheless, Professor emeritus, Karsten Schnack from the Danish School of Education (Aarhus University) actually recommends Danish scholars to avoid using the term when communicating in English:

In English the term “didactics” is rarely used. The reason probably is that the word has strong associations with the adjective form “didactic”, which is more often used. And for some reason “didactic” has a very negative ring to it. When something is done in a “didactic” way or didactically it is considered to be moralizing and/or heavily teacher driven in a negative way.

Since didactic considerations e.g. in Denmark almost always deals with the contrary, a good advice is to avoid using the words “didactic” and “didactics” in English communication. The risk of misunderstandings is very high.”(Schnack. 2000:2 – my translation)

Because of this language barrier it has become customary for many continental European researchers within the field of teaching and learning to either use the German word “Didaktik” or simply use Anglo/American terms e.g. “instructional design” when describing their activities. Accordingly, and mainly to avoid misunderstandings because I write my dissertation in English, I have decided to use the more neutral concepts of “pedagogy”, and “design for teaching and learning” when speaking about matters concerning the field and the process of designing. While this is not something I deal with in greater details in my PhD, I actually don’t think this is “just a matter of semantics” – there is a distinction that makes a difference. The way we construct, interpret, clarify, and negotiate meaning – even based on similar words – changes over time, but also within and cross cultures.

Turning to the term Didactic, there is absolutely no consensus in the literature regarding the meaning  – not even when looking at the origin – the Greek “didaskein”. Even 2.500 years ago, according to Jank & Meyer (2006), the term didaskein could have several meanings; “to teach”, “to be instructed” and “to learn” and the term didaxis refered to both curriculum (primarily as content) and what was learned (outcome). Even though there has been a tendency towards focusing on the teaching aspect of the term Didactic, many Scandinavian researchers refer to the so-called “Didactic Triangle” when trying to explain the basic components of Didactics.


When dealing with teaching and learning, and at the core of any Didactic Design, there’s always a minimum of three basic components to consider: the teacher, the student and the content/subject matter. However, depending on your focus, the triangle can also be used to point to different, more specialized design approaches:

  • Pedagogical Design – with particular focus on the pedagogical practice typically emphasizing the responsibility/role of the teacher
  • Instructional Design – with particular focus on development and implementation of tools and content (materials)
  • Curriculum Design – with particular focus on content based on curriculum as organizational framework for practice
  • Learning Design – with particular focus on the learning practice typically emphasizing the responsibility/role of the learner

Since I use the term Didactic in a very broad sense, I would consider any of the above mentioned approaches didactic designs as long as they were dealing with teaching and learning in formal, educational contexts. During my PhD research, I have often presented and discussed my work with Anglo-American educators/researchers, and while most seem to understand what I’ve been working on as long as I remember to say “instructional design”, the irony is that to many Scandinavian researchers this label implies “a moralizing and heavily teacher driven approach to teaching and learning.” So I guess in order to understand each other, we need to dig deeper and discuss the finer details of our practices and understandings ;-)

One matter of detail that I’ve often discussed, both with Danish and International colleagues, is the locus of control in the teaching and learning situation. I was recently reminded of a very interesting pedagogical framework developed by Niels Jakob Pasgaard, who blogs at eDidaktik. Pasgaard’s framework is based on a distinction between a monological, a dialogical, and a polyphonic way of teaching. It is derived from the work of M.M. Bakhtin, and Pasgaard uses the Didactic Triangle to illustrate his points:


Read a more detailed description here

What’s really interesting about this framework is the way it highlights the different approaches to the selection of the content/the subject matter, and the way knowledge is created based on different forms of teaching and learning. Furthermore, the framework can be used to analyse and thus select appropriate tools for teaching and learning – and Pasgaard offers examples of all three types here.

To me, Pasgaard’s framework is an excellent example of how the work of someone coming from a Scandinavian Didactic tradition doesn’t necessarily equal a negative approach to teaching and learning, rather – and as a core principle in Didactics – Pasgaard critically reflects upon our practices and understandings. Just as I have witnessed several Anglo-American “instructional designers” do.



Hamilton, D. (1999) The pedagogic paradox (or why no didactics in England?), Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 7:1, 135-152

Schnack, K. (2000) Er didaktik og curriculum det same? Danmarks Lærerhøjskole.

Jank, W & Meyer, H. (2006) Didaktiske modeller. Grundbog i didaktik. Gyldendals Lærerbibliotek.

8 thoughts on “Tomatoe, tomatoe – Didactics, … ?

  1. markchilds April 2, 2013 / 9:42 pm

    I’ll admit, I was pretty shocked when I heard someone in a European project talk about a didactic approach, my first thought was to be surprised that people were still teaching like that, let alone own up to it. It was only after I’d heard colleagues whom I knew weren’t didactic at all use the word, and realised that they were using it with a different meaning that I realised they meant it in a different way. I’m aware of the difference in usage, but there’s still a brief double-take while I switch to the fact that people use the word in different ways. Looking at the etymology, it’s difficult to work out how it gained the Anglo-American meaning though. And I’d agree with you, that instructional design sounds pretty didactic too. I can see how your definitions of pedagogy differ from didactics, but I’d use the word pedagogy to be the more inclusive term, basically switching your definitions. Aaaghh … you’ll know from my blog how frustrated I get by the proliferation of definitions and lack of agreement on how to describe concepts. I started in the natural sciences (astrophysics) and it doesn’t happen there. Everyone agrees on what we mean by mass, or gravity, or weight, even if we disagree on what gives rise to them and I just wish that was the case in other domains. So … no answers, but commiserate with the problem :-)

  2. markchilds April 2, 2013 / 9:43 pm

    Oh and PS, also got into a similar argument with my co-author of my current book with the use of the word “remediation”. We can’t get away from it.

  3. Mariis April 3, 2013 / 6:35 am

    Hiya Mark, I think the problem also relates to the way we have conceived (at least for many, many years) “teaching” – again with reference to the locus of control. When looking up “didactic” in e.g. Merriam Webster it means “intended to teach”, but what’s interesting is the list of synonyms and related words – hardly any of these have positive connotations … Since the late 90’s the discourse here in DK changed, and “learning” has been on the agenda. This was much needed, but my personal sentiment is that somewhere along the road much research ended up ignoring the Elephant in the room: the teacher – and teaching ;-) If we recognize the premise of the Didactic triangle, we need to consider both parties. I understand perfectly why you would switch my definitions and consider pedagogy more inclusive, and I know several of my Danish colleagues (especially those who don’t originate from the field of teaching) would agree. My “problem” with pedagogy is that it often is used in relation to children and youth, which again has to do with its etymology (cf. the rise of alternatives such as andragogy and heutagogy – and even avagogy!) .. Oh, the joy of Humanities … phew, I get your frustration!

    Btw, I highly recommend the following title for those interested in such discussions:
    Westbury, I.; Hopmann, S. & Riquarts, K. (2000) “Teaching as Reflective Practice. The German Didaktik Tradition”. Routledge.

  4. Mariis April 3, 2013 / 6:41 am

    Uh, that’s a discussion I’m looking forward to learning more about. I’ve got problems with that concept as well. I’ve tried to stay faithful to the way Bolter & Grusin (1999) use the concept. The problem being that they don’t even have a clear definition. Oftentimes, when I have presented my research, I’ve been asked if by remediation I simply mean representation – and I do – and don’t! Bolter & Grusin use a number of synonyms incl. representation to explain the concept – making it quite confusing and unclear. In the glossary of their book, they define it as the logic by which new media refashion prior media. I guess, they could have used representation instead of refashion, but to me representation is less dynamic – this could, however, be attributed to the fact that I’m not a native English speaker .. making it all the more difficult, sigh .. An important point, is also that Bolter and Grusin use the term in close relation to media and medium theory in general.

    If you, alternatively, look to Vygotsky and his focus on how we interact with the world from a more cognitive perspective, the discussion of mediation/remediation becomes even more complex. I’ve also been asked why I don’t just stick with “mediation”, but I do believe that “remediation” is a concept in its own right. I tend to use it as a kind of second order mediation – as a mediation of mediation. The emphasis here being on the prefix – something, which was already mediated gets mediated anew – don’t know if that makes sense?? The problem here is that Bolter and Grusin actually end up calling all mediation re-mediation, and I wonder what the purpose of introducing a new term then is, if it’s just a synonym!? Nonetheless, what I do appreciate about Bolter & Grusin is the way they’ve explored the different forms of remediation (e.g. respectful vs. radical remediation – , but the fact that “remediation” is sparsely used in research, does point to a problem with the concept :-(

    Do let me know what you come up with :-)

  5. Liz Dorland April 4, 2013 / 8:41 pm

    I think this blog post will make a great section in your thesis, for all concerned. Ditto with a lot of your previous posts.

    Pedagogy and remediation are also words fraught with difficulties in English-speaking parts of the world. Both can have negative connotations in some sectors. By clearly explaining the differences in meaning (vs Danish) I think you do a great service.

    Many years ago I sat by a UCLA Education prof (whose work I had read with interest) on a flight from DC to Phoenix. He researched kids and technology, with the kid’s movement acting as if they were the computer mouse, with their movement generating the pointer movement on screen. Or some such. His thinking was very much in the cultural mode.

    When I mentioned Andragogy, he admitted to never having heard the term. This even when there were experts on the subject in his own (admittedly large) department. He said they rarely communicated.

    So the misunderstandings can be intra- as well as inter-cultural. ;-)

  6. Mariis April 5, 2013 / 8:04 am

    Your’re right, Liz – I’ll focus on the differences in meaning. The thing is; I’m running out of space, and while the different cultural perceptions of teaching, learning, pedagogy etc. clearly are interesting, they actually deserve a more comprehensive study. I have to make choices, and since I’ve been investigating “remediation” and not explicitly cultural differences, I think I have to “save” space for the former. Btw, good point on the intra-cultural differences :-)

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