Book Review: Pace, David. The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm: Seven Steps to Increased Student Learning

Reviewed by Carol Ann Sharicz, University of Massachusetts–Boston

The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm is an engaging book that challenges traditional understandings of student learning, proposing a model driven by an interest in “determining what students need to succeed in a particular discipline” (3). This text has already inspired reflection on the paths for learning in my own courses, particularly in its promotion of an educational paradigm that is fundamentally nonlinear.

We have all had the experience of a student in one of our classes not being able to grasp a concept, theory, or application. Sometimes, a faculty member will attribute that roadblock in learning to the student, declaring it her fault that she cannot learn the course material.

In The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm, David Pace seeks to resist such declarations by asking instructors to undertake reflections on their own practices, reflections that will help determine what students need to succeed in a given discipline. He asserts that “in part, … problem[s arise] because instructors tend to concentrate on transmitting the content of their disciplines and skip over the actual procedures used to create knowledge in the field” (34). In order to circumvent such problems, Pace proposes a method that begins when instructors identify bottlenecks in learning a discipline, those areas where the typical student might get stuck. He asks the instructor to reflect on a straightforward but sometimes challenging question: What should a student be able to do with a given task, insight, or application? As the instructor poses such a question to herself, she keeps the burden of responsibility for student learning in the hands of the expert faculty member, rather than pushing it onto the novice learner. The questioning thus prompts the instructor to uncover those mental operations that have become familiar to her but likely remain obscure to a struggling student. Uncovering these operations that have become invisible in their familiarity is helpful in making tacit knowledge and processes more explicit.

Every discipline, of course, will have its own unique bottlenecks, but the self-interviewing process articulated in this book will help decode those points of difficulty regardless of the discipline in hand.  One worthy note of caution Pace shares regarding what is necessary for students to get past a bottleneck is that it may take a team of interviewers to elicit the knowledge of the expert. In such a case, a team would comprise not only experts in a challenging discipline, but also experts in other fields. Pace provides examples of questions useful in the sort of decoding interviews that such teams can conduct, as well as transcripts of full decoding interviews. These examples, he argues, will help readers understand how to help students in any field (23).

Among the book’s charms is that Pace shares his own journey to the sort of decoding he advocates. Given that university educators face increasing calls for measurable results and accountability with regard to what and how we teach, this book is a must-read. It will be of interest to anyone helping students overcome obstacles to learning and interested in cultivating a deep learning environment.

Works Cited

Pace, David. The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm: Seven Steps to Increased Student Learning. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.