Vernacular Pedagogy: Learning from Julia.


How To Cook An Egg.

Vernacular pedagogy is enjoyable popular teaching that takes place outside the classroom. It's part of everyday life, notably in the media, commonly in books, on TV, even on records.

This is not the kind of "training" we do at work or even in college to prepare formally for work.

Vernacular pedagogy is largely for pleasure, although we also know when we're doing it that we're growing, too. But the Big Trick of vernacular pedagogy is: it doesn't seem like work; it's not drudgery; it's actually fun.

Writing about this topic before, I mentioned (among others):

  • Julia Child
  • Ken Burns
  • Carl Sagan

These folks made learning exciting. They drove eyeballs to TV shows and to books. And they brought people to other places--restaurants, faraway countries, planetaria, museums, historic battlegrounds.

Wouldn't You Like To Know How Vernacular Pedagogy Works?

How do the pieces fit together in a terrific bit of teaching that large numbers of people enjoy without any special incentive or incitement--apart from the pleasure in learning and the promise of many kinds of benefit?

For one thing, vernacular pedagogy is often very practical and social. There's something you can do afterwards, and the learning connects you to others who care about the same stuff.

Learning to cook or sew may have a practical benefit. But when we learn to cook or sew, we usually get additional benefits and pleasures.

  • We take pride in our achievement.
  • We share our work with friends, neighbors, guests, colleagues, even strangers.
  • We take pleasure in reaching new heights, however humble.

And the same can be said when we visit a planetarium or a museum or historical battleground. We feel connected to others, to history, and we're out physically doing something we care about.

Teaching and training which promise only utility or earning a grade and not inherent pleasure will never beat the activity and community vernacular pedagogy bring to the table. More reasons for learning, more kinds of pleasure, more benefits, as well as social connections and reasons to leave the house: these will always be better than "so you can pass the course, so you can operate a drill-press, so you're qualified for job x."

Luckily, we can 'reverse-engineer' what popular teachers like Julia Child do. That's what I'll do here.

And I'll tell you right up front that two secrets of vernacular pedagogy are: let folks know what they will learn and smoothly combine different sorts of learning.

The first is technically called a learning objective. The second is a bit more involved.


In the theories of learning and designing learning, professionals separate out three kinds of things you can learn. Technically, they're often called "learning domains." But practically they're just different kinds of stuff you can learn. I like to call them "learnables"--kind of like "Lunchables."

In 1956, Benjamin Bloom suggested three such domains: cognitive, affective and psychomotor. We can be less fancy and call them:

  • knowing, valuing and doing; or
  • thinking, feeling and doing; or
  • what's, why's, and how's.

Combining, you could say there's:

  • what you might know,
  • why you might care, and
  • how you might do something.

In short, if you're gonna learn something, you can learn to:

  • talk about it, define it, recognize it, and the like;
  • care about it, value it, feel motivated by it; or
  • do it, practice it, apply it.

If you want to be philosophical, you could call these buckets:

  • cognitive,
  • practical and
  • moral.

The first bucket--cognitive stuff, stuff you can know or think about--has in it things like:

  • facts,
  • definitions,
  • principles, concepts and rules,
  • ways of solving problems,
  • strategies for figuring things out, etc.

The Big Thing you notice pretty quickly about vernacular pedagogy is: great popular 'teachers' mix the three kinds of learning very thoroughly and consistently.

  • It's not all the facts, definitions and rules--and no "how-to."
  • It's not strictly "do this first and this second and that third"--without understanding the underlying logic.
  • And it's not a sales pitch: it's not "this is great!" with no facts or how-to.

Already, you can see where higher education often fails its learners.

College courses usually focus mostly the first and the third: it's often All The Stuff You Need To Memorize, or All the Reasons You Should Care. The procedural aspect of "What do I do first, second and third?" is kind of left off. It's not "intellectual" enough.

Of course, colleges have lots of information to impart. But if you make knowledge purely abstract, it's harder to internalize: there's nothing I can do that cements what I think or how I care.

Watch Any of Julia Child's Old TV Shows.

Take the one on omelettes.

1. The very first shot of the show is Julia pouring the eggs into the pan. And after about 15 seconds of dexterous hand movements, she plops an omelette onto a plate. It's practically like a magic trick.

What a great, economical visual way to speak to the audience: 'this is what you'll be able to do after watching this show.'

It's a learning objective! But it's concrete, vivid and mouth-watering. (Did you ever have a college course where an image brought home to you so clearly what you would learn?)

2. Julia goes on to talk all about omelettes "the French way." She talks about how delicious they are, about how easy they are, about all the things you can do with them--build a light lunch around them, etc.

This is the "why" part: it's about valuing, caring, attitude. She is motivating you. Do you want to be able to make an omelette? Does it matter to you? Do you recognize the benefits?

Just about every show Julia seems to say "your friends will be so impressed," "it's very lovely," "people will ooh and ah," "it tastes delicious" and other similar things. She really wants you to care.

3. The rest of the show is the "how": here's how to do it. This goes step-by-step. It's a demonstration.

But if you watch closely, Julia does something cool.

She compresses a long process into a 30-minute show. She's pre-made the end result, or various steps along the way. She may have pre-cut or pre-measured some of the ingredients.

All of these tricks are familiar now: Julia pioneered these techniques which allow a live, continuous 'performance' to be more like a movie: a long period of time is compressed into a shorter 'running time.'

What's surprising is that many teachers don't do this. They start every demonstration from the very beginning and go through to the very end. They don't focus on the hard part first, nor start with the simplest example.

Going by Julia's example, you might show people how to do one part of a long procedure--but only the most interesting part, the part that bears demonstrating. Language instructors do this cleverly: when they offer a sentence with a blank, and the learner needs only to add that one word--conjugate the verb or whatever.

How-to is very easy to watch. It's actions.

She does this, she does that. It's sequential. It's a little story. And you can see the progress: it's very visual. She also assumes you're taking notes, but she also seems to assume that visual repetition will help you impress the actions on your memory.

There's likely a part of our brains that's activitated by hearing about or watching physical actions--probably because some part of our brain needs to 'give directions' to our bodies as we do things. You can feel this process very dramatically when learning a new physical skill--such as a new posture in yoga class. It can take time to figure out "wait, my hand goes where?" You have to watch the instructor, put a hand here, look at how others are doing it, look in the mirror, etc. It's challenging but involving.

4. Inside the step-by-step instructions, Julia adds in facts, principles and definitions--the cognitive "what's" (and also "why's").

  • She shows you which eggs to pick.
  • She might show how to check for freshness.
  • She shows you different pans you can use.
  • She explains why these pans will work and others won't.
  • She shows you how to season the pan with oil and salt, and she warns you not to wash or soak it.

All these involve principles.

  • Why is a fresher egg better?
  • What does "freshness" mean vis-a-vis eggs?
  • What's the chemical structure of an egg that makes a fresh one different from a stale one?
  • Etc.

5. And so problem-solving is woven in between the lines.

The famous part of this episode is where the omelette doesn't flip back into the pan and instead lands--plop!--on the stovetop. Julia bravely puts it more or less together, and then she shows you how to top it with tomato sauce and sour cream and cheese and put it under the broiler.

What's implicit is: different things can happen here; there are eventualities, and you need to be prepared for them.

She does something similar when she's teaching how to make mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce. Those sauces can curdle or fall apart, and there are tricks for getting them back together into a smooth sauce. So she tells how--and also explains the underlying principles (of emulsifiers, for instance).

Vernacular Pedagogy Is Not a Lecture.

Here's what Julia Child does not do.

  • She doesn't start with the history and defintions.
  • She doesn't explain all the theories and principles.
  • She doesn't short-change the benefits of what she's doing.

In short, Julia avoids entirely what a very good college lecturer would do routinely.

  • She does not make all the content cognitive--facts, principles, definitions, etc.
  • She does not explain her subject historically.
  • She does not start from theories and first principles.

While it is popular now to imagine that a video lecture on the internet would make learning better or easier, it really depends what's in that lecture. If it's just the history of the topic from Day One and every fact and principle and no reason for caring and no steps you can take, no social or physical activity or reward, then there is little reason to imagine learning will follow.

What Julia does do is a model for popular pedagogy. She blends why you should care, how to do something and what is really happening beneath the surface.

So if you really want people to get involved and excited by learning, steal a page from Julia Child's playbook. Give a clear target, and mix the three kinds of 'learnables.'

--Edward R. O'Neill


  1. Ed - Thank you for sharing this insightful article. I've never even heard the phrase "vernacular pedagogy" before, and I'm adding it to my working vocabulary.
    As I begin designing an online course for writing students, I will make sure to offer little stories and plenty of action. Building in problem-solving also opens up greater awareness of writing for audiences, and many internet sites offer authentic opportunities. For instance, students often appreciate being able to post movie, book, and product reviews on Amazon. This popular online website allows students to naturally share their writing - and often receive positive feedback from friends, relatives, and strangers. Keeping both Julia Childs and Ken Burns in mind, I'll try to follow your savvy suggestions and add more such practical sharing opportunities in and outside the English classroom.
    Thank you for systematically

  2. Eric--that's a great way to do this kind of pedagogy.

    I coined the term "vernacular pedagogy" in this specific sense, in part because "popular pedagogy" was too alliterative (and also vague).

    In the past, the term has been used to mean: teaching techniques native to a specific place, such as a community. The older use was more tradition-bound and semi-ethnographic.

    My whole methodological approach is inductive and iterative: find what works and repeat it.

    Your own emphasis on authentic learning, real-world tasks, keeping the student active, using real artifacts--these are very much in line with what people like Julia Child and Ken Burns do.

    Now we just have to figure out how to make you a TV star for ESL!

  3. I came here via your Tumblr blog (which is well done) and I love what you have to write about vernacular pedagogy!

    I'm going to be reading this over a few times.

    Take care,



Post a Comment

Popular Posts