Article Index

Art, science or applied science?

In order to trace the history of pedagogy, it’s important to first define the concept of “pedagogy” itself, whose meaning has undergone numerous iterations over the centuries. The concept has always been associated with the history of the development of thought, instructional institutions and the advancement of knowledge, on which thinkers – educators – have always relied.

Photograph: © Institut Florimont

 LN 1662Pedagogy is an art

Right from the beginning, education was assigned the status of an art – the art of teaching, of leading children to knowledge. This concept reminds us that the profession of educator first emerged in Ancient Greece. Back then, the role of educator was performed by slaves, who were given the noble task of walking the master’s children to school, taking care of their physical appearance, and accompanying them during their chores and play. The founding father of education is widely considered to be Socrates (5th century BC).

Pedagogy is a science

At the end of the 19th century, the development of such scientific fields as sociology and psychology is accompanied by the emergence of pedagogy as an applied science,” that is, it starts to be viewed as a true science. Pedagogy is now treated as a science with the understanding that its ultimate objective, as in the other cases, is not so much to describe or explain but instead to guide the process of teaching and learning. That is, it’s a field of science that just might to teach us how to teach. It’s no coincidence that we’ve used the subjunctive mood here, since pedagogy – as the science of teaching and learning – is not a fully-formed discipline, thereby leaving room for other educational sciences, a plural science. It became clear over time that the exotic science known as “Pedagogy” could not be soluble there.

Pedagogy is an applied science

Today, we no longer debate whether pedagogy is an art or a science. We live at a time when pedagogy – just as medicine or politics – is viewed as an “applied science,” that is, as a discipline geared towards the practical application of acquired knowledge.

Thus, the history of pedagogy is the history of pedagogues or, as Jean Houssaye put it, of the practitioners and theorists of the instructional process. At issue are the men and women “engaged in the actual educational process, using both theoretical concepts and practical skills combined in such a way as to obscure the extent to which the practical skills employed in the educational process are more important than theoretical concepts, and vice versa.”

“And, as the pedagogy specialist points out, this particular side of the issue has frequently remained hidden and unknown. Has this been intentional? No, but for some reason, preference has often been given to the loftier element of the equation – that is, to the theoretical.” For this reason, many pedagogues were relegated to the ranks of philosophers, educational theorists and thinkers – that is to say, it was commonplace not to refer to them as pedagogues at all. Nevertheless, in other instances, people entirely ignored the other aspect of pedagogy – its theoretical side, thereby assigning pedagogues a purely practical role. In such cases, pedagogues were viewed as teachers and instructors. Such a classification only took the practical aspect of their occupation into consideration, ignoring the theory behind teaching and instruction.

Today, it’s extremely important to provide a precise definition of “pedagogy.” It’s essential to avoid the overlapping of ideas, imprecision, and demonstrate that education has its own raison d’etre, since lurking behind its status the battle rages on. Finally, it’s vital to establish the rightful place education should occupy in today’s structure of modern science. Defining pedagogy as an “applied science” should help calm the polemic by demonstrating that the specific knowledge acquired through educational practice is actually fundamental knowledge. This knowledge, however, cannot replace theoretical, scientific knowledge in the given discipline, but may only serve as a complement thereto. Both the theoretical fundamentals and the practical skills are essential.


Fabre, M. (2003). La pédagogie. Une théorie orientée vers la transformation de la pratique. Educateur, 3, 17-20.

Fabre, M. (2002). Existe-t-il des savoirs pédagogiques ?. In J. H. Houssaye, M. Soëtard, D. Hameline, M. Fabre, Manifeste pour les pédagogues (pp 99-124). Paris : ESF.

Hameline, D. (199). Pédagogie. In R. Hofstetter et B. Schneuwly. Le pari des sciences de l’éducation. Paris-Bruxelles : De Boeck. Collection Raisons éducatives.

Hameline, D. (1998). Pédagogie. Le statut. CD-ROM. Encyclopédie Universalis.

Hofstetter R., Schneuwly B., Lussi Valérie & Haenggeli-Jenni Béatrice (2006). L'engagement scientifique et réformiste en faveur de la «nouvelle pédagogie». Genève dans le contexte international - premières décades du 20e siècle. In R. Hofstetter & B. Schneuwly (Ed.)

Passion, Fusion, Tension. New Education and Educational sciences – Education nouvelle et sciences de l’éducation (end 19th - middle 20th century – fin 19e - milieu 20e siècle) (pp. 107-142). Berne : Lang.

Houssaye, J., Soëtard, M., Hameline, D. et Fabre, M. (2002). Manifeste pour les pédagogues. Paris : ESF.

Houssaye, Jean (2002). Premiers pédagogues: de l’Antiquité à la Renaissance. Éd. ESF

Houssaye, Jean (2007). Nouveaux pédagogues (T1). Pédagogues de la modernité. Éd. Fabert.

Houssaye, Jean (2007). Nouveaux pédagogues (T2). Pédagogues contemporains. Éd. Fabert.

Houssaye, Jean (2010). Nouveaux pédagogues (T2). Pédagogues de demain. Éd. Fabert.

Meirieu, Philippe : Site Histoire et actualité de la pédagogie

Minois, G. (2006). Les grands pédagogues. De Socrate aux cyberprofs. Paris : Éd. Audibert.

Pastiaux Georgette et Jean (1997-2014). La pédagogie. Retenir l’essentiel. Éd. Nathan.