Sunday, June 29, 2003

The Pedagogy of Harry Potter 5

This is an article from the old Information Literacy Weblog, (2002-2005) that disappeared because of technical reasons, and we never got round to putting the old content on this continuation of the blog. I posted this on June 29, 2003, which was shortly after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (HP5) had just been published. Yes, this dates back to the days when we didn't know what was going to happen at the end of the Harry Potter series. I'm posting it here in 2019, but thanks to the wonder of the Blogger "scheduling" option I am setting it to its original date.

Hello from Sheila.

I know that there have already been articles about educational themes in Harry Potter (e.g. Black and Eisenwine, 2001), but I thought I'd weigh in with my own pretentious ramblings while Harry Potter 5 (HP5) is still hot off the press. The following might contain spoilers for those who haven't read the book yet, but they are very minimal ones ...

... I was particularly struck in HP5 by the portrait of Professor Umbridge as someone who both adopted an old-fashioned transmission style of teaching, and pursued the most barren kind of quality assurance. (Dolores Umbridge, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, has a few other failings, like being a rampant sadist. However, it is on her pedagogic shortcomings that I will focus here.)

Umbridge starts her Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson by writing out the Learning Outcomes: ones to warm the cockles of any quality inspector's heart. The students copy them down obediently, but Hermione Granger (ever the "academic Susan" (Biggs, 1999) immediately identifies a flaw. Umbridge's outcomes talk about understanding and being aware, but not about actually doing defence against the dark arts. Umbridge has not achieved alignment of Teaching, Learning and Assessment (as advocated by the aforementioned Biggs).

Umbridge's lessons have no practical element and simply consist of reading through each chapter in the set text: a classic transmission approach. She makes her Transmission approach to pedagogy even clearer when she responds to Hermione's informed critique of the set text by saying that Hermione's opinions are irrelevant: only those of the authoritative author are valid.

However, the assessment is going to be a practical test of whether the students can actually use their wands to work spells. Thus Umbridge's lessons will not be a good preparation for the assessment, and contrast with the admirable constructivist approach taken by most of the other teachers at Hogwarts. For example, Professor Lupin (previous Dark Arts teacher) had enabled students to learn about defeating a Boggart by using the Ridikulus spell in a supportive environment. Even the despised Sybil Trelawney, Professor of Divination, gets her students to learn by applying theory to their own experiences: students keep a dream diary and relate the lore of divination to their own dreams. She also encourages comparison and discussion by putting students into pairs for their interpretive exercises. Whether it is foretelling, flying or making kittens disappear, Hogwarts students spend a lot of time learning by doing.

The only good thing to come out of Umbridge's regime is that the students themselves recognise both the misalignment of Teaching, Learning and Assessment (i.e. they might well fail the exams) and the relevance to lifelong learning (i.e. if they can't do Defence Against the Dark Arts something nasty will get them). The students therefore engage in peer learning, providing each other with practical experience and constructive feedback on performance. Harry Potter himself shows promise as a teacher. When Hermione suggests he facilitate these extra-curricular sessions, he starts thinking about lesson plans, reflects critically on his strengths and weaknesses, and adopts a student-centred method of teaching. My bet is that, if HP survives to the end of Book 7, he's odds on to be the Hogwarts Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher from then on.

But what (you may ask) of information literacy? There are the usual messages about expert use of references sources being very useful. The need to evaluate what you read in the media is a major theme, with stories in the newspaper contrasted with the situation that the readers know to be true. As usual, Hermione takes the lead here.

If anyone else has any thoughts on HP and pedagogy, please do share via the comments facility ....



Biggs, J. B. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education: Open University Press.

Black, M. S. and Eisenwine, M. J. (2001) "Education of the Young Harry Potter: Socialization and Schooling for Wizards." Educational Forum 66, (1), 32-37. (I must admit I haven't actually read this)