Signature pedagogies: how do they emerge?

by Paul Maharg on 25/02/2008

Shulman’s ideas about signature pedagogy, which oddly enough didn’t have a high profile in the Future of Legal Education conference, still have me hooked.  They raise a central issue, namely the extent to which we are ruled by a learning outcomes model of education, and the whole technocracy and superstructure (in a Marxist sense) of a modern mass educational system.  Technology and superstructure, as Benjamin knew so well, are intimately linked.  Nor is it a matter of technology transforming superstructure.  Far from disrupting, revolutionizing, transforming the system, technology is all too often actively co-opted to support the pre-existing educational system and its manifestation as signature pedagogy.  More and more information, media, channel-switchings are available to us now via hardware / platforms such as photocopiers, the web, scanners, portable cassette players, mp3 players, smartpens, laptops, and the like.  Looking back on my own experience as a learner, not one of these technologies was available to me when I was an undergraduate student at Glasgow in 1974-78.  And yet how little has really changed in the superstructure.  Massification, yes.  Transformation, no.

That things can be fundamentally different, we need only look at a few accounts from the past of being a student under quite different conditions. In Transforming Legal Education, chapter five, I cite the remarkable account of the fifteenth century jurist and teacher Zabarello, who analysed how glosses might be used as a technology in the classroom with students.  I remembered another in the summer, when I was on holiday in Austria – Ernst Gombrich’s narrative of his undergraduate studies in Vienna. At the Future of Legal Education conference in Atlanta, by coincidence, Maksymilian Del Mar, from Edinburgh, cited Gombrich in his interesting paper on ethics and art in legal education. It’s worthwhile considering this in a little more detail, for it gives us legal educators a glimpse of what teaching and learning another discipline in another place and time was like, and how it might be of use to us today.  It also gives us a glimpse into the development of a signature pedagogy. 

Gombrich studied fine art at the Theresianum and then at the Second Institute of Art History at the University of Vienna, under Julius von Schlosser (1928-33). His curriculum of study there was much more flexible than the equivalent would be in British universities today – in The Gombrich Archive, introducing the Gombrich/Gibson debate, Woodfield describes it as Lehr-und Lern-Freiheit.   At first glance it was so – as Gombrich relates:

                                In the Continental universities it was a matter of course that you didn’t attend lectures only in your own subjects, but went to any lecture that interested you.  If you wanted to hear about late Latin, you went to a lecture on late Latin.  And if you wanted to hear about history, you went to the history lecture, or whatever it was.  You went and sampled lectures and subjects, and I did so quite frequently, as did all my colleagues.  It was, therefore, much less of a prescribed syllabus, except that you were expected at the end to select a subject for a thesis to submit to your teacher  in my case Schlosser.  Because there was no division between undergraduate and graduate, the course ended when you had written your PhD thesis.  Usually you were expected to do this at the end of the fifth year of study.  It was considered very important, yet it didn’t take more than a little over a year to write. (‘An Autobiographical Sketch, The Essential Gombrich, London, 1996, p.27)

But it was more structured and certainly more subtle than mere freedom to study what you wanted.  Just what was involved repays a closer look.  The points of contrast with contemporary UK HE system are many and interesting.  Gombrich’s system is flexible: the contrast with a strict modular system could not be more marked.  Instead of examinations, there is a thesis which is a summary of a personal exploration of interdisciplinary work.  There is no break between under- and postgraduate education. 

Gombrich also describes a seminar system that is quite different to our own.  He describes three types of seminar held by his professor, Julius von Schlosser.  One was on Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, where his students ‘took one of the lives and analysed it according to the sources and all related aspects.  It was taken for granted that everybody knew Italian.’  From Gombrich’s description, it is clear that this was for him a fairly standard type of learning occasion, a typical undergraduate seminar.  However there were two more interesting types of seminar.  The first grew out of Schlosser’s role as Keeper in the Department of Applied Arts:

                                He selected for his students objects which he had found puzzling while he was still in charge – an ivory here, a little bronze there – and he asked the student ‘What can you make of it?  What do you think it is?  One had ample time to prepare these reports, because they were given out at the beginning of the year and they usually dragged on much longer than he intended.  One had time therefore to find one’s way into the problem that had interested him.  For example, I had to talk about an ivory book-cover of the Carolingian period, representing St Gregory writing, and try to fit it into the period. (p.25)

What sort of learning is going on here?  How might we categorise this in a modern educational sense?  What is interesting is that (and this seems to have been of a piece with the lack of a barrier between undergraduate and postgraduate learning) there is a modelling process going on between under/ postgraduate and professor:

                                In those days, there was no real distinction between undergraduate and graduate.  One was treated as an adult.  As soon as you entered the seminar you were a colleague, as it were, and you were taken seriously.  I think that was a great education.

This led to Gombrich’s first publication, on one of the objects given to him by Schlosser, in the course year book – a form of apprenticeship in research culture and writing that we still struggle to attain.

The third form of seminar was on contemporary problems in the theory of art, and students were asked to comment on texts (eg Alois Riegl’s Stilfragen).  Clearly this was important to Gombrich:

                                Standards were high.  The number of students in Schlosser’s seminar was no large: we were a very close-knit community.  One talked about one’s subjects all day, with one’s colleagues.  They gave one tips.  One gave them tips.  And we also learned a great deal about each other’s subjects.  It was in this form that we studied art history.  Lectures were not as important.  Seminars much more so. […]  The formation of a student was much less rigorous then.  We were not expected to cover a particular ground.  […]  But we were introduced into dealing with problems and methods and such matters. (pp.26-7)

In many ways, Gombrich’s education is inconceivable now.  A university offering a course like this would almost certainly fail a QAA visit.  What are the underlying concepts that are useful to us?  There are a number:

Commitment and engagement
Students are committed to the course, and absorbed in the course. 

Objects from the past are to be understood in a context that is self-consciously created by the students.  This PBL approach is essential to learning, for in order to teach, Schlosser shows students how to structure their approach to learning. 

Collaboration and community
There is a strong sense from Gombrich of students working with each other, and this being valuable to them.

If we are to compare this to Shulman’s concept of a signature pedagogy, it’s probably the case that the four characteristics of the sig. ped.  are not present – or at least, not present in a mature form.  Stephen Bann makes a similar point with regard to the move from connoisseurship to art history as a formal discipline:

art history, in defining itself as a discipline over against connoisseurship, understandably took over the positivist paradigm of nineteenth century archival research. But in doing so it also inevitably (though no doubt unconsciously) took over the prejudice which was so ingrained among archive-based historians against the serious historical value of artistic representations of history.

(Bann, S. (1989) The sense of the past: image, text, and object in the formation of historical consciousness in nineteenth-century Britain, in: H. Aram Veeser (ed.) The New Historicism (London and New York, Routledge), p. 104)

As Bann points out here, interdisciplinarity is inextricable from historical process: as disciplines mutate, they are constantly shape-shifting, particularly at the edges where they lie against other historically-adjacent disciplines.

It’s probably the case that in Gombrich’s education, we can see the process of an emergent signature pedagogy.  I don’t know enough about the history of fine art education to say definitively whether or not this is the case.  But I think that Bann’s elegant definition of this moment can help us with regard to technology in legal education.  For the educational process that Gombrich describes is a significant move away from connoisseurship, but one which is sophisticated enough to retain what was useful in that tradition.  In legal education education at present, ICT still needs to build its own modes of engagement that will separate it from previous traditions of learning and teaching, while retaining what is of value.  It needs to state its differences,  be more radical about its presence in world, and construct the history of its coming-into-being.

At a deeper level, and to come back to Shulman’s idea finally, what we need to describe the emergent moves in ICT in legal education is a model of how a signature pedagogy is formed: how does it emerge, how can it do so while itself creating anew and preserving what’s important from its past?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Law Student April 2, 2008 at 16:44

I just wanted to comment that as a current law student, currently undergoing legal education, comments and work in the field, such as this, is disengaging and on the whole, obstructive in the actual improvement of legal education.
Word inflation does not help engage readers and the various stakeholders in legal education, students, prospective students, academics, solicitors, solicitor firms, advocates, the faculty, the judiciary etc etc.
I would advise to stray from such rhetoric. Engage more with various stakeholders. And essentially, try to remember what the majority of those in education require from legal education – the ability to embark on a legal career.


2 Paul Maharg April 2, 2008 at 18:01

Thanks for your comment, Law Student — always good to be reminded of practicals. And word inflation is probably a good description of someone who takes 5,000 words to draw breath. Three comments…
First, you’ll have seen the practical proposals on the Law Society of Scotland’s site regarding alterations to the LLB (Foundation), Diploma (PEAT 1), traineeship (PEAT 2) etc., part of which were drafted by me, upon engagement with stakeholders, and which (I hope!) embody at least some of the theory discussed above and in other postings — see
Second, one can’t talk about education at all without having a theory — even an implicit one. For you, legal education is about helping students to develop the ability to embark on a legal career. For others, though, it’s about learning about the hugely complex relation between law and society. Others are more interested in understanding the ground between law and business, or law and economics, or law and literature.
Third, one of the things I’m interested in is how other disciplines can help us prepare for practice. I think we have a lot to learn from doctors, architects, educationalists, even (as above) education in fine art and aesthetics. It’s something that legal education hasn’t been particularly good at, in the past. Medical education, eg, draws a lot from other scientific disciplines, and from educational psychology; and I think we could do well to be a little more open to other disciplines, so that we can actually help students prepare for practice — whatever practice they want to engage in. If you haven’t come across it yet, our work with standardized clients at the GGSL (see is an example of that, since we derived the initial theory and approach from medical education.
If you’d like to discuss further offline, drop me an email.


3 thesis paper August 15, 2009 at 06:58

Wonderful article, thanks for putting this together! “This is obviously one great post. Thanks for the valuable information and insights you have so provided here. Keep it up!”


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Follow me on