An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2005

Signature pedagogies in the professions

Lee S. Shulman
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Lee S. Shulman, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2002, is president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University. His latest books are “Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education” (2004) and “The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach” (2004).

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson once observed that if you wish to understand a culture, study its nurseries. There is a similar principle for the understanding of professions: if you wish to understand why professions develop as they do, study their nurseries, in this case, their forms of professional preparation. When you do, you will generally detect the characteristic forms of teaching and learning that I have come to call signature pedagogies. These are types of teaching that organize the fundamental ways in which future practitioners are educated for their new professions. In these signature pedagogies, the novices are instructed in critical aspects of the three fundamental dimensions of professional work –to think, to perform, and to act with integrity. But these three dimensions do not receive equal attention across the professions. Thus, in medicine many years are spent learning to perform like a physician; medical schools typically put less emphasis on learning how to act with professional integrity and caring. In contrast, most legal education involves learning to think like a lawyer; law schools show little concern for learning to perform like one.

We all intuitively know what signature pedagogies are. These are the forms of instruction that leap to mind when we first think about the preparation of members of particular professions–for example, in the law, the quasi-Socratic interactions so vividly portrayed in The Paper Chase. The first year of law school is dominated by the case dialogue method of teaching, in which an authoritative and often authoritarian instructor engages individual students in a large class of many dozens in dialogue about an appellate court case of some complexity. In medicine, we immediately think of the phenomenon of bedside teaching, in which a senior physician or a resident leads a group of novices through the daily clinical rounds, engaging them in discussions about the diagnosis and management of patients’ diseases.

I would argue that such pedagogical signatures can teach us a lot about the personalities, dispositions, and cultures of their fields. And though signature pedagogies operate at all levels of education, I find that professions are more likely than the other academic disciplines to develop distinctively interesting ones. That is because professional schools face a singular challenge: their pedagogies must measure up to the standards not just of the academy, but also of the particular professions. Professional education is not education for understanding alone; it is preparation for accomplished and responsible practice in the service of others. It is preparation for ‘good work.’ Professionals must learn abundant amounts of theory and vast bodies of knowledge. They must come to understand in order to act, and they must act in order to serve.

In the Carnegie Foundation’s studies of preparation for the professions, we have gone into considerable depth to understand the critical role of signature pedagogies in shaping the character of future practice and in symbolizing the values and hopes of the professions. We have become increasingly cognizant of the many tensions that surround professional preparation, from the competing demands of academy and profession to the essential contradictions inherent in the multiple roles and expectations for professional practitioners themselves. The importance of the particular forms of teaching that characterize each profession has become ever more salient in the course of our inquiry. Above all, we have found it fruitful to observe closely the pedagogy of the professions in action.

Behold a first-year class on contracts at a typical law school. Immediately one notices that the rectangular room is not designed like most lecture halls: the 120 seats are arranged in a semicircle so that most students can see many of the other students. The instructor, clearly visible behind the lectern, is at the center of the long side of the rectangle. Rather than lecturing, he tends to ask questions of one student at a time, chasing the initial question with a string of follow-ups. At certain points, he will turn his attention to another student, and stick with her for a while. Again and again he asks a student to read aloud the precise wording of a contract or legal ruling; when confusion arises, he repeatedly asks the student to look carefully at the language. The instructor may use the board or the overhead projector to record specific phrases, to list legal principles, or to note the names of court cases or precedents. Throughout the hour, the law professor faces the students, interacting with them individually through exchanges of questions and answers, and only occasionally writing anything on the board. The students can see each other as they participate, and can respond easily if the professor solicits additional responses. But it’s relatively rare for students to address one another directly.

Now consider a lecture course in fluid dynamics as taught at a typical engineering school. The seats all face the front of the room; discussion among students is apparently not a high priority here. Although the teacher faces his class when he introduces the day’s topic at the beginning of the session, soon he has turned to the blackboard, his back to the students. The focal point of the pedagogy is clearly mathematical representations of physical processes. He is furiously writing equations on the board, looking back over his shoulder in the direction of the students as he asks, of no one in particular, “Are you with me?” A couple of affirmative grunts are sufficient to encourage him to continue. Meanwhile, the students are either writing as furiously as their instructor, or they are sitting quietly planning to review the material later in study groups. There is very little exchange between teacher and students, or between students. There is almost no reference to the challenges of practice in this teaching–little sense of the tension between knowing and doing. This is a form of teaching that engineering shares with many of the other mathematically intensive disciplines and professions; it is not the ‘signature’ of engineering.

Quite a different classroom style is evident when one visits a design studio that meets in the same building of the same engineering school. Here students assemble around work areas with physical models or virtual designs on computer screens; there is no obvious ‘front’ of the room. Students are experimenting and collaborating, building things and commenting on each other’s work without the mediation of an instructor. The focal point of instruction is clearly the designed artifact. The instructor, whom an observer identifies only with some difficulty, circulates among the work areas and comments, critiques, challenges, or just observes. Instruction and critique are ubiquitous in this setting, and the formal instructor is not the only source for that pedagogy.

Consider, finally, the varieties of bedside teaching and clinical rounds used in medical schools. Here the classroom is the hospital, where a clinical triad–the patient, the senior attending physician, and the student physicians–facilitates the teaching and learning. Since much of medical pedagogy is peer-driven, only one year of training or experience may differentiate the student from her instructor. The ritual of case presentation, pointed questions, exploration of alternative interpretations, working diagnosis, and treatment plan is routine. The patient may be physically present or represented by a case record or, these days, by a video. There is no question that the instruction centers on the patient, and not on medicine in some more abstract sense. The dance changes as we move from the patient’s first visit to the follow-up, but the basic moves remain the same.

In the Carnegie Foundation’s studies, we have spent a lot of time observing, analyzing, and documenting how teaching and learning occur in many kinds of settings. We not only watch and record, but also meet with faculty members and students individually and in focus groups. We review teaching materials and the examinations used to evaluate the progress of students. To the extent that we identify signature pedagogies, we find modes of teaching and learning that are not unique to individual teachers, programs, or institutions. Indeed, if there is a signature pedagogy for law, engineering, or medicine, we should be able to find it replicated in nearly all the institutions that educate in those domains.

Signature pedagogies are important precisely because they are pervasive. They implicitly define what counts as knowledge in a field and how things become known. They define how knowledge is analyzed, criticized, accepted, or discarded. They define the functions of expertise in a field, the locus of authority, and the privileges of rank and standing. As we have seen, these pedagogies even determine the architectural design of educational institutions, which in turn serves to perpetuate these approaches.

A signature pedagogy has three dimensions. First, it has a surface structure, which consists of concrete, operational acts of teaching and learning, of showing and demonstrating, of questioning and answering, of interacting and withholding, of approaching and withdrawing. Any signature pedagogy also has a deep structure, a set of assumptions about how best to impart a certain body of knowledge and know-how. And it has an implicit structure, a moral dimension that comprises a set of beliefs about professional attitudes, values, and dispositions. Finally, each signature pedagogy can also be characterized by what it is not–by the way it is shaped by what it does not impart or exemplify. A signature pedagogy invariably involves a choice, a selection among alternative approaches to training aspiring professionals. That choice necessarily highlights and supports certain outcomes while, usually unintentionally, failing to address other important characteristics of professional performance.

We can see the relevance of all these features if we examine, for example, the signature pedagogy of legal case methods. This signature pedagogy’s surface structure entails a set of dialogues that are entirely under the control of an authoritative teacher; nearly all exchanges go through the teacher, who controls the pace and usually drives the questions back to the same student a number of times. The discussion centers on the law, as embodied in a set of texts ranging from judicial opinions that serve as precedents, to contracts, testimonies, settlements, and regulations; in the legal principles that organize and are exemplified by the texts; and in the expectation that students know the law and are capable of engaging in intensive verbal duels with the teacher as they wrestle to discern the facts of the case and the principles of its interpretation.

The deep structure of the pedagogy rests on the assertion that what is really being taught is the theory of the law and how to think like a lawyer. The subject matter is not black-letter law, as, for example, in British law schools, but the processes of analytic reasoning characteristic of legal thinking. Legal theory is about the confrontation of views and interpretations –hence the inherently competitive and confrontational character of case dialogue as pedagogy.

The implicit structure of case dialogue pedagogy has several features. We observed several interactions in which students questioned whether a particular legal judgment was fair to the parties, in addition to being legally correct. The instructor generally responded that they were there to learn the law, not to learn what was fair–which was another matter entirely. This distinction between legal reasoning and moral judgment emerged from the pedagogy as a tacit principle. Similarly, the often brutal nature of the exchanges between instructor and student imparted in rather stark terms a sense of what legal encounters entail. These lessons might also be called the hidden curriculum of case dialogue pedagogy.

Finally, we can examine what is missing in this signature pedagogy. The missing signature here is clinical legal education–the pedagogies of practice and performance. While these pedagogies can be found in all law schools, they are typically on the margins of the enterprise, are rarely required, and are often ungraded.

I would also call our attention to three typical temporal patterns of signature pedagogies in the professions: the pervasive initial pedagogy that frames and prefigures professional preparation, as in the law; the pervasive capstone apprenticeships, as in the clinical bedside teaching of medicine or in the comparatively brief period of student teaching in teacher education; and the sequenced and balanced portfolio, as in the medley of analysis courses, laboratories, and design studios in engineering, or in the interaction of hermeneutic, liturgical, homiletic, and pastoral pedagogies in the education of clergy.

Consider the case of just one class of modern professionals: those who teach undergraduates. Undergraduate teaching is a profession that influences all others. Medical schools shape future doctors; law schools shape tomorrow’s attorneys. Those responsible for undergraduate education touch the lives of students who go on to enter all the professions. As a result, undergraduate teachers potentially have a much wider impact on the future well-being of the professions and, through them, society as a whole. The point is not that undergraduate education lays the groundwork for absorbing a body of professional knowledge, or that it initiates students into a field’s distinctive code of ethics. Rather, at its best, undergraduate education plays a special role in encouraging each student’s engagement with a discipline and, in this respect, in preparing all students to do work that is ‘good.’ For while finding enjoyment and meaning in one’s undertakings may be the most durable basis for good work, how to find them is not taught in graduate and professional schools.

We recently interviewed about a hundred leading teachers and administrators at ten highly regarded schools, including liberal arts and community colleges, research universities, and a major for-profit institution.1 The picture of the profession that emerges from these interviews is an ideal that hardly represents what the job of teaching is like at most of the nation’s colleges. But unless we occasionally examine what ideal professional conditions entail, it is unlikely that we will be able to improve the condition of the professions more generally.

Unrepresentative though they may be, these engaged teachers and administrators illustrate how it is possible to derive satisfaction from a profession today. One professor told us, “If I won the lottery, I would still be coming back here to do my job. There is nothing else I can imagine I would rather be doing.” Such deep absorption is most likely to occur when the work holds clear challenges that fully utilize capacities without overwhelming them, when the rules of engagement are unambiguous, when actions receive timely feedback, and when it is possible to shape the process as it unfolds. A teacher who can still vividly recall her own teachers’ infectious enthusiasm explained, “They put things in manageable pieces for you so you could understand it. And then as you gained some skill with it, you started to become passionate about it, to get excited about it, and it became fun.” When the work’s challenges are not only well defined and demanding but also aligned with what the individual values, the profession becomes a source of meaning as well as enjoyment.

Like any profession, undergraduate teaching offers several ways to become engaged in the job. For undergraduate teachers, four areas of possible engagement are key: educating students; preserving and advancing a specific domain of knowledge; serving the needs of the institution; and responding to the needs of the broader society. Teachers become engaged in their work to the extent that they find enjoyable challenges in one or more of these areas, and to the extent that they find that those challenges are in line with their values. In what follows, we will explore the experience of teachers at outstanding colleges in each of these areas.

There is no question that educating students is the core challenge of the teaching profession. An engaged teacher enjoys and finds meaning in this central task, mediating between the students whose learning is the goal and the set of questions that animate the domain of knowledge.

Effective teachers choose pedagogies that allow them to enjoy the process and get their students involved. A teacher at a research university explained, “It’s fun. In all my courses I try to do these sort of hands-on, more inquiry-based things. It keeps [the students] engaged.”

A profession becomes a vocation when those doing it believe that its challenges matter, and when the work connects them to what they value most. As a teacher at a community college told us, “Education is supposed to be inspiring. It’s supposed to be exciting. It’s supposed to change your life. If education can’t enrich, why bother?” The challenges of teaching are infused with meaning when the teacher cares about the students and about helping them meet their educational goals. “I don’t know of anything that really gets my engine going more than watching the light come on for a student,” one professor told us. Another said, “To see a student suddenly begin to question his own assumptions–not desperately, but excitedly–and with tools to understand. To see that same student come back the next year and seem to have grown five years older in terms of who that student is as a human being–that does it for me. It’s exciting, it’s unendingly exciting.” Many teachers–particularly those working with disadvantaged students–are profoundly moved to see their students receive their diplomas, and speak with pride about students who return years after graduation to share their accomplishments and express their gratitude.

While such rewarding experiences should be sufficient to keep professionals focused on their primary task, many obstacles may interfere. When a teacher is expected to face five hundred young people in an introductory class, for example, it is almost impossible to see an individual student question his own assumptions, or to see the light of understanding dawn in his eyes. Also, while some teachers love engaging underprepared students who are eager to learn, others feel frustrated about not being able to overcome the chasm separating too many students from the expectations of higher education. As in other professions, numerous obstacles make it difficult for teachers to be continuously engaged, even with the core aspects of their task.

The challenge of preserving and advancing knowledge provides a second form of engagement for college teachers. In this case, they are rewarded by knowing that through them something of value survives as a living part of the culture. “I just always loved learning. I loved school,” a professor told us. “It was the place in my life where I always felt most at home. [The university] just seemed to me a wonderful place to be and a wonderful way to live, constantly reading and asking complicated, deep, unanswerable questions.” Especially at research institutions, faculty may find excitement in researching and writing in their disciplines, or in the life of the mind more generally.

True, the two most basic roles of college professors–teaching and research– often conflict. One professor at a liberal arts college recalled that during graduate school at a leading public university, “I had to sort of hide under a rug, in a way, my desire to teach. I got a terrific graduate education there, but the down side was it was clear they didn’t care one bit about teaching.” A study conducted in the 1990s showed that in all types of four-year institutions, the proportion of time dedicated to research rose and the time dedicated to teaching declined. Yet over two-thirds of the faculty outside research universities claim they are more interested in teaching than research. It is obviously not the case that devotion to one’s discipline has to conflict with doing good work as a teacher. Indeed, a teacher indifferent to his area of study is unlikely to engage students.

Serving the needs of the institution is an important element in any profession: doctors may become devoted to their hospitals, lawyers to their firms, journalists to their newspapers, professors to their colleges or universities. A distinguished scientist assumed the presidency of her research university to a large extent because of “a deep love of this institution.” She explained that “it would not have occurred to me to think about this job at any other institution. You have to fundamentally care about a university that you lead because it’s too much work if there isn’t a real passion.” She traced her own passion to “the respect with which [the institution] treats ideas, treats excellence, treats people . . . I deeply admired the way in which [my predecessor] ran the university based on a core set of values and principles that we were going to try and live up to. I think it made me always proud to be a member of the community.” When professionals find a place in an organization that shares their values, a sense of vocation is more likely to flourish. A clearly defined institutional mission provides a compelling compass for action and a basis for judging if one is doing good work. The presence of such a mission is a sign that an ethos genuinely exists within the institution– an ethic that expresses the defining spirit and values of the community.

Although such commitment is common at outstanding colleges, the wider field is virtually silent about the rewards of engaging challenges of an institutional nature. In the Carnegie Foundation’s widely cited 1989 survey, faculty members were asked, “Do your interests lie primarily in research or in teaching?”– the survey did not measure administrative or institutional interests at all. The same survey revealed that “faculty identify strongly with their academic discipline, less so with their department, and still less with their institution.” Shaping a collective enterprise and participating in a community is perhaps the least recognized source of joy in academic life. Even to use a term such as ‘joy’ seems a stretch for a set of challenges that most teachers view at best as duties and at worst as outright burdens.

Enhancing the well-being of an institution one loves can of course become an end in itself; and efforts to burnish its reputation, build its coffers, or otherwise enhance it can come to be an enjoyable way of using one’s skills as a leader, fundraiser, or strategist. Service to the institution acquires meaning because of the values the institution represents. Good work gets done when serving the institution advances the profession’s core purpose of educating students.

The fourth area of engagement for teachers involves serving the needs of the broader society. Many teachers hold values that shape their educational goals. When, for example, a faculty member describes the challenges and rewards of fostering diversity and openness to the perspectives of others, he or she is seeing beyond the classroom or institution to the society as a whole. An environmental studies professor we interviewed counts preserving the natural environment among her overarching goals. As she put it, “I realized that if I was worried about the trends in the environment . . . [and] if I was going to make a difference, it would be that I need to be back in the classroom and talk to people about what was happening with the environment.” Many teachers engaged by social and cultural issues such as war and peace, globalization, and poverty share this belief that the classroom constitutes one front in a larger battle.

This kind of engagement can be consistent with one’s professional commitments but lie outside one’s daily job–as when doctors volunteer in such organizations as Doctors Without Borders, or when lawyers do pro bono work. For some professionals, such outside engagement may become the most meaningful part of working life. Of course, an activist approach to the profession can also be a detriment, as when a teacher uses his bully pulpit to indoctrinate students in partisan causes.

Most undergraduate teachers participate in the four key areas of possible engagement–educating students; preserving and advancing knowledge; serving the needs of the institution; and responding to the needs of the broader society–without necessarily deriving the same amount of enjoyment and meaning from each of them. Indeed, the very effort required to negotiate multiple sets of challenges can diminish one’s ability to engage any of them fully. Nevertheless, some rare individuals find all four sets of challenges to be a source of significant meaning and enjoyment.

One such individual is John T. Scott, who has taught at his alma mater, Xavier University in Louisiana, for thirty-five years. A historically black, Catholic college renowned for its success in training future doctors and scientists, the school has struggled with limited resources to serve underprepared students. As an art teacher, Scott has also had to struggle to interest Xavier students in his field of expertise. Yet he describes undiminished absorption in the challenges of pursuing his craft as sculptor and printmaker (“I am still discovering things and expanding the language of my craft”); helping students learn (“I developed this love for sharing information . . . teaching is as much a creative challenge as being in my studio”); sustaining the culture of his institutional home (“‘Pass it on’– that is the philosophy here. And I think I’m one of the ones who continues that tradition”); and serving the broader community (“As a visual artist, part of my job is to be a spokesman for the community that I’m part of”). During his years of teaching, he built a foundry from scratch, constructed the critically acclaimed African American pavilion for the 1984 World’s Fair, and garnered such honors as the 1992 MacArthur “genius” award.

How has he remained engaged despite the obstacles? His approach on all fronts creates the conditions for intense involvement, or ‘flow.’ His goals have a fine clarity. His nonnegotiable standard is excellence (“‘Good enough’ is never good enough. If it’s not the best you’re capable of, you’re being dishonest”). He regards hurdles as challenges (“An obstacle should not be something that slows you down, but [that] teaches you how to jump high”). Scott’s work is also meaningful: each set of challenges matters to him; each endeavor connects him to something beyond himself. Making art, teaching students, meeting institutional challenges–each is at the same time a way of taking on challenges facing the human community in general and the African American community in particular. Through his teaching he aims to prepare students for life (“They [should] leave here with a sense of purpose–what they want to do with their lives–[and a recognition that] life is not separate from the community of humanity that you’re a part of”). By serving Xavier University, he supports an institution he loves (“This place has been more like a family than like a school”) with a mission in which he believes (“The success of Xavier has been that the student has been the focus for so many years”).

Scott’s case illustrates one way of being fully engaged by all four sets of challenges without feeling pulled in four different directions. For some, taking all four sets of challenges seriously could amount to a draining exercise in juggling, multitasking, and negotiating trade-offs and compromises. The resulting risk: all of the challenges may be met less well and provide less fulfillment than when a single one is engaged alone. For those like Scott, by contrast, it can mean that the effort invested in any of the four challenges also serves to meet the requirements of the other three.

A sense of vocation is critical to teachers’ own well-being and to the continued vitality of higher education. When college teachers are uninspired, they may dishearten future professionals of all kinds. Conversely, when undergraduate teachers experience their work as a vocation, they may have a positive impact on the next generation of workers in all the professions. To inspire passion, one must feel it oneself. An outstanding teacher in our study remembers college “classes that I absolutely loved that had nothing to do with what I was studying. But I loved the class because the teacher was so excited about it . . . . If you don’t live it, it’s hard to teach it.” Engaged teachers are likely to find ways to draw students into the excitement of learning.

More broadly, they provide a model of engaged adulthood for their students. They show that it is possible to experience work as a calling rather than merely as a job. One of the teachers in our study suggested that ultimately students have only one question of their teachers: are you happy enough that I can stand to be like you? Through their conduct, engaged teachers answer the question affirmatively. Young people often see status and wealth as keys to adult happiness. Engaged teachers present a vision that grounds happiness in the pursuit of broader goals. For thirty-five years, John Scott’s students have watched him engage his profession as a way of life, approach it with intensity, rise to its challenges, and, through it, serve the communities to which he belongs. Undeterred by lack of resources and repeatedly achieving extraordinary results despite steep odds, Scott and his colleagues –like his own teachers at Xavier–present students with a model of work that contrasts sharply with the prevailing one of “getting a job and making a whole lot of money.”

Students respond to teachers’ genuine interest in the subject they are teaching, and to teachers’ interest in the students themselves. Most students quickly catch on if a teacher is bored by what he is saying, or if he has little respect for the class. As one teacher notes, “They will put up with all sorts of stuff if they believe that you have their best interests at heart–[and] they are very good at detecting whether you do.”

At the same time, teachers need to introduce students to the broader institutional framework that may nurture a lifetime passion for learning. To succeed, learning must be embedded in a network of stable and significant relationships. Teachers bring students into the learning community through various routes, establishing communities in their own classrooms and taking the most engaged students to professional meetings. More broadly, they may help create a sense of intellectual community in the institution as a whole by establishing common curricula, setting aside time for the exchange of ideas outside of class, designing spaces that encourage interaction, and supporting the negotiation of differences through dialogue. At many universities, of course, the great majority of students display with pride the bumper stickers and other paraphernalia of the school’s football team, but are effectively strangers to the world of knowledge the school is supposed to represent. One of the main tasks confronting higher education is to engage young people not just with ideas, but also with a fellowship of knowledge seekers.

Teachers heighten student engagement when they can show their students that what they are learning might make a difference outside the domain of knowledge and the field of scholarship. Good schools set ambitious goals for their students: to become community leaders, champions of the oppressed, protectors of the environment. When teachers care deeply about such goals and can provide credible solutions, the aim of serving social ends through knowledge becomes compelling to students. For example, one professor told us her work is “not a job at all; it’s a call to contribute to the world.” She framed the challenge for her students in the same terms: “We want [the students] to go out there and participate and be leaders in the community, to excite them, to engage them! We want to engage them so that they become engaged with the community . . . . professional life is to be viewed as a life of service . . . . I think all of us try to share that, and instill it in our students.”

Undergraduate teaching in the United States today may be extreme if not unique among the professions in the divergent visions of service it encompasses. However, it is not unique in the varied forms of engagement it affords, nor in privileging one set of challenges–the form of service to others that defines the profession–over the other challenges that members of the profession may find engaging. Good work can be threatened if secondary tasks actively compete or conflict with the profession’s raison d’être–for teachers, the education of students. However, good work may be more likely if engaging the challenges of domain, institution, or broader society serves or complements that central purpose.

In addition to being typical of professions in this general sense, undergraduate teaching has a special, underappreciated relationship to all the professions: if work is enhanced or compromised there, it will cause ripples throughout the professions for which an undergraduate education is a prerequisite, and affect all the knowledge workers on whom the future of society depends. If good work is threatened in the colleges, we suggest, it is at risk everywhere.


  • 1These interviews were conducted as part of the Study of Good Work in Higher Education supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Atlantic Philanthropies.