The Sterilization of Education: How Schools Practice the Pedagogy of Umbridge

The Sterilization of Education: How Schools Practice the Pedagogy of Umbridge

Authored by Kevin Pugh, University of Northern Colorado.

Hogwarts – the school of witchcraft and wizardry in the Harry Potter books – has its share of pedagogical problems. Professor Binns could use a dose of Interest Theory, Hagrid should attend a school safety seminar, and Snape really needs to read The Challenge to Care in Schools. Then there’s Professor Umbridge. That pink assassin of education who neuters the transformative power of education by teaching theory. Yet, when you think about it, when it comes to neutering the transformative power of education, we’re all Professor Umbridge.

Some background for those who haven’t read the Harry Potter books or seen the movies (I’m giving you a pass for now). Dolores Umbridge makes her appearance in the fifth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Order the Phoenix. She is the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and focuses her instruction exclusively on the theory of magic. No relevance. No practical application. No skill development. Just abstractions and bookwork. By doing so, she effectively renders the course knowledge inert.

Now, it turns out (spoiler alert!) there is a nefarious purpose behind the pedagogy of Professor Umbridge. She is afraid Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts, is raising an army to rebel against the Ministry of Magic, of which she is a member. She also loves having power over others. Thus, she wants her students’ learning to be useless because she wants them to be helpless. She is deliberately neutering the curriculum in order to disempower her students. So evil!

By and large, teachers – real-world teachers, not those in the Harry Potter books – are not evil. In fact, I love teachers. I think they are the best people on the planet. And yet…and yet they often practice the pedagogy of Umbridge.

Teachers don’t intentionally make learning inert. Rather it is simply the norm that education is primarily a process of learning theoretical ideas along with all the accompanying terms and procedures. Real-world application is hoped for but not the primary focus. Unfortunately, this approach results in learning being non-transformative for most students because developing applied knowledge and making connections to everyday experience is really hard. In our own research in science classrooms (e.g., Pugh, Bergstrom, Krob, & Heddy, 2017Pugh, Linnenbrink-Garcia, Koskey, Stewart, & Manzey, 2010), we’ve found that, even with good teachers, only about 10-15% of the students deeply apply their in-school learning to their out-of-school experience. As I like to joke, the Las Vegas slogan applies all too well to classrooms: what happens here stays here.

The pedagogy of Umbridge is based on this simple principle: the transformative power of education can sterilized by teaching pure theory without thought for how such theory can be put into practice. I believe there is a lot of truth in this principle as evidenced by the outcomes of our current educational system. However, this does not mean that theory is useless content. I suspect Dumbledore is a powerful wizard because he deeply understands the theory of magic. Instead of just memorizing spells, he understands the theory and, thus, can adapt spells and create new ones. Likewise, the theories that comprise the curriculums of today are full of powerful ideas. They offer us new ways of perceiving, understanding, and being in the world. The problem is that 90% of us can’t actualize the transformative potential of these ideas on our own. We need help.

The great educator and philosopher John Dewey recognized this problem over a century ago and conceptualized in terms of a metaphor that I love and have written about before.

In this metaphor, Dewey compares the curriculum to a map. A map is empowering. It guides our experience and enables us to undergo more fruitful journeys. Likewise, the ideas that comprise the curriculum can guide our experience in the world and help us have unique journeys of meaning and discovery. For example, one of my colleagues taught his fourth-grade students geology. He taught them how the big ideas of geology could be used to see the world of rocks differently and to tell stories about the rocks they find in their everyday lives. One girl was captivated by this possibility and began her own rock collection. She commented, “Now when I don’t have anything to do, I look at a rock and try to tell its story. I think about where it came from, where it formed, where it’s been, what its name is…I used to skip rocks down at the lake but now I can’t bear to throw away all those stories!” (Girod & Wong, 2002, p. 211-212). That’s using the curriculum to have a journey.

However, Dewey cautioned, “The map is not the substitute for a personal experience. The map does not take the place of an actual journey” (Dewey, 1990/1902, p. 198). Maps are fun to look at, but if studying the map becomes a substitute for using the map to have an actual journey, then something has gone wrong. Indeed, this is what Dewey believed had gone wrong with education. Learning the curriculum became a goal unto itself. In fact, it became THE goal of education and a substitute for having an actual journey.

The pedagogy of Umbridge substitutes the map for the journey. Theory of magic is a substitute for real-world experiencing instead of being a guide for how to confront Dark magic in the real world. This is it what happens in many of our classrooms. Learning about science becomes a substitute for actually using science to see and experience the natural world in profound new ways. Learning about history becomes a substitute for actually using history to understand the events our days. And so on. The story of the girl and her rocks is the exception, not the rule. Learning for most students is not transformative.

Is there any hope? Can we cast off the pedagogy of Umbridge and make learning more transformative? I have spent my career asking these questions and trying to come up with solutions, primarily within the domain of science education. In so doing, my colleagues and I have developed transformative experience theory. The good news is that, yes, we can make learning transformative for far more students. My colleagues and I certainly don’t have all the answers, but we have developed an anti-Umbridge pedagogy which we refer to as the Teaching for Transformative Experiences in Science model. Further research is needed, but so far, this model has proven effective at fostering greater transformative learning in relation to a variety of science topics and contexts. I won’t provide a full explanation of this model here, but instead will provide an illustrative account from one of the recent research studies (Pugh et al., 2017).

Hayden (pseudonym) was a sixth-grade earth science teacher interested in breaking from the pedagogy of Umbridge. My research team and I regularly met with him, observed his classroom, and discussed ways of making learning more transformative. During the course of a unit on weather, Hayden had his students read a case study about the Santa Ana winds, research this issue, and write about it. Generally, having students research authentic case studies is a good way to connect abstract theory to real-world situations. However, the students treated this activity as just an academic assignment. The problem was that they lived in Colorado, not California. They had no interest in the Santa Ana winds. Despite Hayden’s intentions, the students perceived the activity as bookwork without relevance to their everyday lives. They were learning the content but not having the journey.

We discussed this situation with Hayden and collaboratively came up with a plan for the next time this unit was taught: have students research their own weather experiences. As part of our collaboration efforts, we already had the students write down their own wild weather experiences and share these with the class. As they shared these experiences, Hayden prompted them to “re-see” the experiences through the lens of the science ideas they were learning. However, the students were often caught up in the stories themselves and only marginally engaged in scientific re-seeing. So in the revised unit, we not only had students share wild weather experience, but we developed these experiences into case studies. Then we had the students research their own experiences just as the prior students had researched the Santa Anna winds. Researching their own experiences made all the difference. As one student said, “It did matter, ‘cause you could make connections, and you could go back, and yeah, it was cool. Like the blizzard one, I could make connections to my life” (Pugh et al., 2017).

Hayden integrated other strategies into his teaching as well, such as framing the content in terms of its value in everyday experience and re-seeing current events (e.g., weather reports) through the lens of the content. Surveys and interviews confirmed that revisions to his pedagogy resulted in more students connecting learning to their everyday experience and undergoing transformative learning experiences. As an example, one student explained,

My dad goes wind surfing and he is starting to teach me too and I used to think that the weather reports would say it’s going to be windy so we just go off of that. But now if they showed me a weather map where there is the high pressure and low pressure…you can actually see where the wind is gonna be blowing, you can tell that. (Pugh, Bergstrom, & Spencer, 2017, p. 386)

This student was actually applying his learning to a real-world activity of relevance. He was using content to guide and enrich his experience in the world. Umbridge would not be happy.


To learn more about Kevin Pugh and his The Learning and Experience Blog, click here.

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Dewey, J. (1990). The school and society and the child and the curriculum. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press (original work published 1902). 

Girod, M., & Wong, D. (2002). An aesthetic (Deweyan) perspective on science learning: Case studies of three fourth graders. Elementary School Journal, 102, 199-224. doi:10.1086/499700

Pugh, K. J., Bergstrom, C. R., Krob, K. E., & Heddy, B. C. (2017). Supporting deep engagement: The Teaching for Transformative Experience in Science (TTES) Model. Journal of Experimental Education, 85, 629-657. doi:10.1080/00220973.2016.1277333

Pugh, K. J., Bergstrom, C. M., & Spencer, B. (2017). Profiles of transformative engagement: Identification, description, and relation to learning and instruction. Science Education, 101, 369-398. doi:10.1002/sce.21270

Pugh, K. J., Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Koskey, K. L. K., Stewart, V. C., & Manzey, C. (2010). Motivation, learning, and transformative experience: A study of deep engagement in science. Science Education, 94, 1-28. doi:10.1002/sce20344

*Feature image used with permission