Teaching: an art or science?

If there is one thing you’re sure of, it’s that teaching is an art. Engaging young minds, finding ways to inspire them: these are tasks for an artist. What works for one student doesn’t work for another, and so you must have an artist’s eye to find the right dab to apply here or extra shadow there in order to teach your students most effectively. Lesson planning is an art form, too, much like writing a one-act play, and the teacher is the playwright and artistic director of the entire drama company. There can be no doubt that teaching is an art.

But sometimes you must admit that it is a science. An article comes out praising some innovation in instruction that takes advantage of the latest brain science, and it’s clear that you should start every unit with precisely this sort of formative assessment, and if you drill your students on the skill using the research-endorsed techniques, there is no question that they will retain the information better, and there is lots of academic support for that, and testing to boot. So forget teaching as an art and accept reality: it is a science and that’s how it ought to be.

Only something will happen in your class one afternoon, and that will convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt that teaching is an art. A student will come up with an unexpected response to a prompt about the literature, and in a serendipitous flash of insight, you’ll connect it to something another student said eighteen minutes earlier, and then — holy cow! — synthesis is happening right before your eyes. Students are making new connections, and they’re turned on by the material, and when the bell rings you realize that nothing you could have written down in your lesson plan could have accounted for that. It was avant garde jazz, and you are Ornette Coleman, and there is no question that teaching is an art. Otherwise, how could that have just happened?

Still, a month later, you’ll see an article linked to a tweet about what they are doing over in Finland or Japan or Singapore to make sure that the best lesson plans are being used universally in every classroom in the country, and it will be backed up with lots of data proving that that approach is a major reason why their students are outperforming our students on those important international tests, and there you go again: teaching is a science. That moment you had in your classroom with the jazz is small potatoes compared to the clear evidence that is piling up from all of this data, and you need to get on board with the scientific approach! What do you mean you are still teaching comma rules using that same old sad lesson plan you concocted eleven years ago? Did you even read the latest research on commas when you wrote that plan? Have you read any of the latest studies since then? What business do you even have calling yourself a teacher, then? Teaching is a science, and if you aren’t using the best proven methods, you must not care about the kids. 

But then you read an article about how homework is killing the joy of childhood, and you realize you don’t want to be one of those joy-killers. No, that’s where all of this science leads, isn’t it? To killing childhood? The teachers whom you remember best from when you were a student were the artists. The funny ones, the mad ones: that’s the kind of teacher you always wanted to be. And that kind of teaching can’t be taught in some Masters program, because art can’t really be taught, can it? Clearly, some teachers are artists, and some aren’t, and you are an artist, and that’s why you reach such a variety of learners so well. Teaching has always been an art, and the proof doesn’t come from academic studies, it comes from the evidence you see before you as you hear your students talk about who their favorite teachers are and how they are so funny and engaging and inspirational. How foolish you ever were to think that teaching might be a science! You’ll never fall for that trap again.

And then your colleague shows you that really cool thing she’s doing where she’s gamified her chemistry class with an app she heard about at that conference. And so you begin to wonder anew.

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