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Practice, pedagogy and education as a discipline: Getting beyond close-to-practice research

Zongyi Deng, Professor of Curriculum and Pedagogy at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society

The British Educational Research Association has promulgated ‘close-to-practice research’ that ‘focuses on issues defined by practitioners as relevant to their practice, and involves collaboration between people whose main expertise is research, practice, or both’, alongside quality criteria such as ‘the robust use of research design’ and ‘clearly defined research questions’ (Wyse et al., 2021, p. 34). The concept is seen as vital to defending and promoting education as an academic discipline underpinned by ‘its close connection with and understanding of education practice’ (Wyse, 2020, p. 22).

However, what tends to be overlooked in the discussion are the questions of what education is for and what educational practice is. The neglect reflects the absence of pedagogy in the study of education – a conundrum that was first deplored by Brian Simon (1981) and has continued to be lamented by Brian Davies (1994), David Hamilton (1999) and Robin Alexander (2004). Yet in Germany pedagogy has long been established as a distinctive discipline, under the names of Pädagogik and Didaktik (Westbury et al., 2000).

Building on Alexander’s (2004) conception of pedagogy and informed by Pädagogik and Didaktik as presented in my latest article (Deng, 2023), I advance an alternative, different way of thinking about close-to-practice research and education as a discipline. I make a case for education as a ‘practical’ discipline that is centrally concerned with the understanding and development of practice as embedded within the socio-cultural, institutional and instructional contexts of schooling. This perspective necessitates three bodies of theory and research that contribute to our understanding of teaching as a social practice, as an institutionalised practice, and as a practical and deliberative practice. It ‘marries’ the study of practice with the foundational disciplines (the psychology, sociology, history and philosophy of education) and other sources.

Furthermore, this discipline necessitates an educational and Didaktik way of thinking and theorising that centres on the questions of what education is for, what educational practice is, and how practice is supported and developed. It calls for three interrelated lines of research that matter to practice. A first line of research tackles the question of educational purposes within the social and cultural milieus and in the light of the challenges facing schools and classrooms. A second line concerns the development of national curriculum frameworks and guidelines that can guide and support practice towards educational goals. A third line of research aims at the understanding of teaching as curriculum practice and the development of tools and resources that support practice.

The conclusion challenges the concept of close-to-practice research by emphasising the importance of engaging with questions regarding the purposes of education and educational practice, and by placing practice within the socio-cultural and institutional context of schools and classrooms. Additionally, it promotes a ‘practical’ approach to research and theorising that is relevant to practice and aimed at the advancement of education. Such an approach entails bringing to bear on the study of practice the wealth of insights from the foundational disciplines and other sources, in an eclectic and critical manner (Schwab, 1970/2013).

‘To establish pedagogy as a discipline is to reclaim the vital role of universities in initial teacher education and continuing professional development.’

To establish pedagogy as a discipline is to reclaim the vital role of universities in initial teacher education and continuing professional development. As a discipline of practice and for practice, pedagogy can be the ‘crowning discipline’ that organises the foundation disciplines and other sources towards the understanding and development of practice – and therefore towards the professional education of teachers. Teachers are provided with opportunities to engage with fundamental questions concerning the purposes of education and to develop a well-informed understanding about teaching as a social, institutionalised, and practical and deliberative practice. Moreover, they are provided with opportunities to connect practice with broad educational purposes and with an institutional curriculum, and to develop educational and Didaktik thinking. Further investigation is required regarding these suggestions.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Practice, pedagogy and education as a discipline: Getting beyond closetopractice research’ by Zongyi Deng, published in the British Educational Research Journal.


Alexander, R. J. (2004). Still no pedagogy? Principle, pragmatism and compliance in primary education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 34(1), 7–33.

Biesta, G. (2011). Disciplines and theory in the academic study of education: A comparative analysis of the Anglo-American and continental construction of the field. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 19(2), 175–192.

Deng, Z. (2023). Practice, pedagogy and education as a discipline: Getting beyond close‐to‐practice research. British Educational Research Journal, 50(2), 772–793.

Schwab, J. J. (2013). The practical: A language for curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45(5), 591–621.

Westbury, I., Hopmann, S., & Riquarts, K. (2000). (Eds.). Teaching as a reflective practice: The German Didaktik tradition. Erlbaum.

Wyse, D. (2020). Presidential address: The academic discipline of education. Reciprocal relationships between practical knowledge and academic knowledge. British Educational Research Journal, 46(1), 6–25.

Wyse, D., Brown, C., Oliver, S., & Poblete, X. (2021). Education research and educational practice: The qualities of a close relationship. British Educational Research Journal, 47(6), 1466–1489.