July 16, 2012

Programmable Pedagogy: Reconfiguring the Future of Learning

Categories: Edtech, Educational Practice
group of students studying working together in library

What is “pedagogy” and what does it do? In the digital age, the future of education is being redefined in relation to new technologies and digital media, and we are having to rethink what we understand by pedagogy and its possible effects on learners. What kinds of pedagogies, then, are being configured in discussions about the future of education, and how might they configure the future learner?

Programmable Pedagogy

Pedagogy is often taken to be a technical term for teaching. But it is important to define it a little more expansively. In its wider definition, pedagogy is a process through which you acquire or develop forms of conduct, knowledge and practice from someone or something considered an appropriate provider. It can take place institutionally, in official sites, with formally accredited providers, or experientially, through everyday relations, interactions and environments. This definition allows us to understand the formal education provided by schools and informal learning alike as forms of pedagogy. We can talk of classroom practices and school curricula in terms of pedagogy, but also explore the informal “cyber-pedagogies” associated with networked social media, videogames and online worlds.

However, even these seemingly informal sites of pedagogy have their own in-built rules, or “built pedagogies.” Built pedagogies are the lessons taught by technological systems, the forms of action, experience, conduct, or practice that they generate or shut down. This is a convincing argument, although in the networked era the metaphor of pedagogy being “built” seems overly structural and immobile. The metaphor of “programmable pedagogy” captures the relationship between technologies and pedagogy. Programmable pedagogy denotes the forms of conduct, knowledge and practice which are written down as code within technological devices and systems. Programmable pedagogies are more contingent and malleable than built forms.

Sociologists of software have described new technologies as “pocket dictators” that distribute mass-produced series of instructions in how to act and think in everyday life. Software consists of lines of code designating rules of conduct which operate at a distance as the taken-for-granted background hum to contemporary existence. Programmable pedagogies are the instructions given by these little pocket dictators, the lessons in everyday conduct and mundane social practice written into them as lines of code. To be a learner in today’s digital environment is at least partly about being a recipient and user of code, solicited, instructed and configured by it to do certain kinds of things, or constrained by it for future action.

The take-home point here is that technologies teach things; they run pedagogical programs which, coded in particular ways, can act to instruct you in how to act, how to conduct yourself, and how to know. Code constitutes the “hidden curriculum of electronically mediated learning.” Many of the ways we think about our modern existence altogether are embedded in technological metaphors, and these influence educational thought and planning for the future too. So what new kinds of programmable pedagogies are emerging in contemporary thinking and discussions about the future of education, and what kinds of instructions are encoded in them? Three particular kinds seem to be becoming prevalent: psycho-pedagogy, bio-pedagogy, and neuro-pedagogy.


Psycho-pedagogy refers to attempts to intervene in the psychological make-up of the learner, and with maximizing the mind. We can think of initiatives which draw on popular theories from psychology to promote meta-cognition, multiple intelligences, learning styles, emotional intelligence, and thinking skills, amongst others, as various forms of psycho-pedagogy. Many such ideas derived from the “psy” disciplines have been deployed in the development of educational technologies and other theories of digitally mediated learning.

However, a more important way in which psycho-pedagogy is worked out in relation to digital media and technology can be traced to the idea of behavioral competencies and the matching of tasks to individual psychological profiles in high-tech modularized organizations such as HP and IBM. In such organizations, most functions have been broken down into digitalized components, and jobs have been modularized, simplified and codified to enable new employees to “plug-and-play.” The digital documentation of business functions and job descriptions are then linked to electronic databases of individual behavioral competence profiles which have been captured as metrics using software programs that assess individual, team and organizational performance.

The result of this complex of digital documentation, behavioral competence databases, and performance capture software has been an emphasis on pedagogies to promote learners’ soft skills. The high-tech economy not only requires technical skills from the computer science disciplines, but the behavioral skills of empathy, teamwork, resilience, creativity, self-management, and fulfilment—the “psy” competences as well as the “CompSci” skills. Schools today are awash with behavioral profiling technologies and instruments, competences frameworks, and psycho-pedagogical software programs and initiatives which promise to enhance their soft competences and “wider skills” for learning.

These arguments are important because the kind of behavioral competences allegedly required for innovation in the knowledge economy have now been translated into pedagogic prescriptions for enhancing “21st century skills” and digital competences. The psycho-pedagogies of digital competence therefore seek to maximize the mind of the learner in order to optimize the psychological fulfilment and behavioral competence of the future digital worker, and to channel the psyche of the prospective employee into organizational success. Here, then, the behavioral competence database appears to be running in the background of 21st century schooling as a new code of conduct to be organized and embodied in classroom pedagogy.


Bio-pedagogy refers to pedagogies in which the actual physical body of the learner is made into the object of intervention. It is concerned with enhancing the body. “Body pedagogies” generate and convey knowledge, competencies, skills and moral codes which define what the body is and ought to be, whose and what bodies have status and value. There is now evidence, for example, that employers are increasingly looking for “aesthetic skills” such as body size, shape and presentation. Consequently, the body of the learner has been made into a seemingly legitimate pedagogical site for presentational enhancement. The point is that the body can be taught and that the bio-pedagogies of “body work” are encoding the body in terms of its exchange value in the labor market.

How does this concern with body-enhancing bio-pedagogy fit into the notion of programmable pedagogies? One dimension of programmable pedagogy is the “biopower play” of videogames. The macho, militarized hyper-masculinity and the sexualized female figure that continue to animate debates are evidence of how videogames have long been concerned with the presentational enhancement and optimization of the human body. Yet such debates about bodily optimization are increasingly moving from virtuality to reality.

The role of biotechnology and bioscience has been especially important. Studies of biopolitics show that in parallel with the development of biotechnologies such as brain imaging, DNA analysis, transplant medicines and reproductive technologies, the body has been redefined as a technical artefact and as molecular software that can be read and rewritten. As a result of the body’s new capacity for being dismantled, recombined and reanimated, individuals are increasingly able to view their own bodies as malleable, correctable and improvable, and to experiment upon themselves to make themselves better than they are. The inner nature of life processes, it appears, may now be transformed and “reprogrammed.”

Seeing biotech in terms of the “enhancement” and “optimization” of life itself changes the ways in which people think about themselves. In that sense it is generating a new form of bio-pedagogy, based on new technologies of bodily optimization, whereby you can acquire new forms of conduct, knowledge and practice. The body itself may well already have the capacity for being taught, then, but it is increasingly also amenable to being recoded and reprogrammed, manipulated, enhanced and optimized according to new socially desirable norms. In this sense, biotech has generated a new everyday body pedagogy of self-enhancement and bodily improvement. Your own embodied life itself could soon be learning the same lessons in self-optimization as the manipulable virtual bodies of your programmable “second life.” The next frontier in bio-pedagogy, though, is the brain itself.


Neuro-pedagogy is concerned with optimizing brainpower. It is based on the belief that we now possess adequate neuroscientific understandings of the human brain to  design more effective “brain-based” pedagogies. This knowledge is based on evidence generated by the arsenal of brain scanning and imaging technologies now available to neuroscientists, which have made the brain seem intelligible and presentable as never before, and thus increasingly amenable to intervention.

Technologies such as brain imaging have generated the belief that it is now possible to visualize the activities of the living brain as it thinks, feels and learns at the level of patterns of brain activity. Armed with this technical knowledge of the brain and the recoding of everyday life and conduct in terms established by neuroscience, an emerging “brain science” community has made the optimization of brainpower the subject of numerous popular publications, pedagogic theories and interventions. Much has been made, for example, of the brain’s alleged “plasticity” and its ability to change or “re-wire itself” with learning. The consequence of the popularization of neuroscientific understandings is that we have become “neurochemical selves” who understand our minds and selves in terms of our brains and bodies rather than, say, our personal psyche or our social circumstances. Such claims have generated pedagogic implications for schools.

A fascinating example of neuro-pedagogy in practice is that of “spaced learning.” The pedagogy of spaced learning is based on neuroscientific theories concerning the repeated stimulation of neural pathways connected to recalcitrant memory. According to the theory of “making memories stick” on which it is based, the formation of memory does not just depend on the stimulation of neural pathways, but on the gaps or spaces between stimulations. In spaced pedagogy, lessons are organized as fast “inputs” separated by pedagogic spaces for “distractor” activities. The first input focuses on presenting information, the second focuses on recalling information, and the third focuses on understanding information. The distractor breaks inserted between the inputs must not stimulate the same neural pathways as those of the inputs but allow those parts of the brain to “rest.”

As an emerging form of neuro-pedagogy, spaced learning anticipates a possible future in which learners’ brains may be increasingly subject to repeated interventions with the aim of neural enhancement and optimization. Of course, all learning is essentially a brain thing; but what differentiates spaced learning is its use of neuroscientific knowledge, based on brain imaging techniques and technologies, in order to inform the design of optimal forms of pedagogy. It treats learners in terms of neuroscientific theories supported by a complex of technologies, as brains amenable to technological inspection and neural optimization.

Reprogramming pedagogy?

The examples of psycho-pedagogy, bio-pedagogy, and neuro-pedagogy show how technologies and media can impact pedagogy in a number of different , complex and indirect ways. In all the examples, technology works at a distance, in the background of contemporary existence, to reprogram, re-wire or recode personal conduct, whether in terms of the psyche, the body or the brain. The belief in these technologies to help us understand ourselves is now informing new ways of conceiving pedagogy. Increasingly, our society’s most successful teachers are the technological programs that make it seemingly possible to recode and reconfigure learners’ psychologies and behavioral competences, reprogram and manipulate their bodily presentational skills, and rewire and optimize their neural networks. These technologies, and the modes of thinking that go with them, are recoding our ways of conceiving and thinking about teaching and learning. Increasingly, today, we are coming to base our pedagogies on psychological, biotechnological and neuroscientific ideals of the reprogramming, reconfiguration and optimization of the psyche, the body, and the brain of the learner.

Banner image credit: Ohio University Libraries http://www.flickr.com/photos/ohiouniversitylibraries/3507674990/