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What is pseudoteaching? This term was inspired by Dan Meyer’s pseudocontext, which sought to find examples of textbook problems that on the surface seemed to be about real world problems and situations, but actually were about make believe contexts that had little connection to the real world, other than the photographs that framed the problems. After reading many of Dan’s pseudocontext posts, John Burk and I had the idea of pseudoteaching [PT] which we have defined as:

Pseudoteaching is something you realize you’re doing after you’ve attempted a lesson which from the outset looks like it should result in student learning, but upon further reflection, you realize that the very lesson itself was flawed and involved minimal learning.

We hope that though discussion, we’ll be able to clarify and refine this definition even further. The key idea of pseudoteaching is that it looks like good teaching. In class, students feel like they are learning, and any observer who saw a teacher in the middle of pseudteaching would feel like he’s watching a great lesson. The only problem is, very little learning is taking place. We hope pseudoteaching will become a valuable lens for critically examining our own teaching, and that the idea will spread to other teachers as well. We’d love for you to contribute your own examples of pseudoteaching. Just email me a link to your pseudoteaching post and I’ll add it to the list here. Thanks!

55 responses to “Pseudoteaching

  1. Interesting analogy. In Dan M.’s original reference to Jo Boaler’s term “pseudocontext,” Boaler defines pseudocontext as one “that students were meant to believe but for which they should not use any of their real-world knowledge… [indeed, if they] use their real-world knowledge, they will fail.” So pseudoteaching would be teaching that intends to improve real skills, but if you try to use those real skills, you will fail? Dan goes on to say that pseudocontext causes “students and teachers [to become] alienated from mathematics.” Does pseudoteaching cause students and teachers to beomc alienated from learning? I would suggest that, because it deceptively hides its failure (unlike bad teaching, which doesn’t fool anyone), pseudoteaching’s danger is not that students fail to learn. It is that we distort our sense of whether we’ve learned (or taught) well.

    In the same vein, can I nominate “reading over your notes” for the label “pseudostudying”?

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  6. Mylene,
    These are some awesome insights. I think you are right. Pseudoteaching’s main problem is that it looks like good teaching. I think most observers, including department chairs and principals would come out of a PT class with nothing but praise (and the students in the class would often feel the same way). So this puts the impetus on the individual teacher to recognize moments of pseudoteaching, and make corrections. Hopefully, by sharing stories of our own pseudoteaching, we can make this process a bit easier.
    And I do think you are right, at least based on my own experience both as a teacher and a student, a major danger of pseudoteaching is that it makes you feel like you’ve learned some real skills, but, at the same time, sets you up to fail when you try to apply those skills.

    • *nod* I think it’s harder to try again when you fail at something you think you’re good at, than when you fail at something you know you don’t know. Sure, we should train ourselves to recognize pseudoteaching. What if the students could recognize it too? (Or can they already?)

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  8. Can students recognize pseudoteaching? That’s a great question. I think it depends. If they’re stuck in pseudolearning, my guess is probably not. Example: if they’re learning AP bio is nothing more than memorizing vocabulary and short answers, then they probably see PT has a great way to “learn.”

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  10. Students probably see psuedoteaching as a failure on their own part, which is really tragic.

    Imagine it from the students’ perspective: You feel like you’re learning, the teacher is showing examples and you’re answering questions correctly. Then you get to a point where you have to apply the new knowledge and it’s just not there in your mind for you to use.

    I’d say the typical reaction would be for the students to blame themselves. After all, the teacher ‘clearly’ walked them through all the steps, they were answering questions in class; they assume it must be some fault of their own brain.

  11. I’m ashamed to say that I think I was a pseudoteacher for years. Is there a pseudoteachers anonymous I can join? Hi, my name is Bryan and I am a pseudoteacher.

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  13. This happened to us the other day in my math club, I think. I was doing an activity about Hotel Infinity – the part about infinitely many guests moving in. Kids had GREAT ideas the previous time. I wanted to model them and used some 20 egg cartoons in a row, with counters in them. That was so cumbersome that keeping the pattern of moving the counters around occupied all of the kids’ attention and the beautiful discussions about infinity and multiplicative ideas they had the previous time were lost. I hope temporarily. But during the time it felt like we were doing something productive.

    • Great story. There’s been plenty of times in lab where the focus has been too much on the equipment in order for the lab to “work” that the whole point of the lab was lost on the kids.

  14. Great topic and great questions. I really like the thought of our students recognizing PT. Should part of education and teaching be to teach our students how to analyze and critique their superiors? This is a skill that is very important in life, but I do not think is taught in schools. Wouldn’t this help make education better? Wouldn’t this help make the work place better?

    I think that for most teachers, myself included, it is difficult to get away from PT. It feels (and looks?) like you are not teaching. That you are doing something wrong, because your students are working harder than you (isn’t that how it is supposed to be?).

    However, I strongly suggest that you check out Sean Layne’s work with Tableau
    Although his method does not lend itself easily to math, I have taken many of his ideas and applied them to conversation in math class. This would be a great step into getting away from PT.

    • Scroll down for the comment by PARR FOR THE COURSE. If only more students were able to recognize that! It’s a valuable skill that allows students to be more in charge of their own learning.

  15. Looks like good teaching, but isn’t because you haven’t learned anything; you can’t apply it. That sounds familiar. Read David Hestenes’ published paper on Malcolm Wells’ teaching of high school physics in the 1980’s; it includes much evidence, in the form of pre- and posttests of student achievement in understanding the force concept and in solving mechanics problems.

    Wells, M, Hestenes, D, and Swackhamer, G (1995). A Modeling Method for High School Physics Instruction, American Journal of Physics 63, p. 609-619. Download it in pdf at


    I must share a clarifying experience. A few years back, after presenting a demonstration lesson in an interview, in which I used my wonderfully creative discovery-based teaching style, the lead administrator told me that she was surprised that I didn’t actually teach the lesson, since I hadn’t told the students anything. After trying to explain my approach, she simply dismissed my explanation and said it would take far too long to teach that way every day and that I would never get through the material. As I was leaving, still in shock, one of the female students came up to me and said that after listening to instructors all day long present routine lessons over and over, I was the only one who actually taught her something she never knew about equations and graphs. She appreciated working with fellow students, making inferences about relationships, simply questioning and thinking. She actually thanked me. Of course, I didn’t get the job, but the memory of that student’s comments have always stayed with me and reinforced what I’ve always known to be true, TEACHING ISN’T SIMPLY TELLING. Those of us who know this, need to work with others who know it as well. Great things happen when like minds come together.
    By the way, students do know what real learning feels like, they just get tired of waiting around for it, so they tune out. Our educational system needs to stop focusing on memorization and parroting, and start demanding that we transform our classrooms into invigorating, investigative environments. Until we do this, teachers at all grade levels will continue to complain that their students come in without knowing what they were supposed to learn in the previous class. Real teaching is indeed a beautiful thing, inspiring and elevating both teacher and student to reach for more.

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  24. Just found this while looking for something else:
    Pseudo-teaching vs. Teaching Pupils To Learn, E. C. Cline, published in The School Review, Vol. 46, No. 4, April 1938.

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  39. I found myself going off on this in a rant: and then I remembered that you’re where I first learned what pseudoteaching is. I have a huge problem with this when it comes to all of those fun and amazing demos that we chemistry teachers do.

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