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The Age-Old Question. Teaching: Art or Science?

For several years, I read and evaluated applications from teachers interested in becoming the Michigan Teacher of Year. The application consists of various lengthy essays on important questions around the profession of teaching. One of the first questions asked candidates how they came to the classroom-- what motivated them to consider teaching?

Invariably, there would be one or two applicants who would explain that they'd always wanted to be a teacher, from the time they were very young children.  They'd write: I'd line up my teddy bears/dolls/siblings and give them assignments! Playing school was my favorite game! 

My personal response to these revelations? Not "Wow! Born to teach!" More like "predisposed toward authoritarianism."  

I don't think there's a teaching gene. While would-be teachers may pursue the career because they're certain they will love it, genuinely excellent practice and enthusiasm for the daily routines of the classroom are hammered out over time. They don't emerge as a result of a package of innate abilities or temperament. They are learned--absorbed, honed, revised and tweaked, and occasionally dumped and retro-fitted, multiple times in a long-term teaching career. Good teaching is all about paying attention to your results.

Does that make proficient teaching a science? Saying that--teaching is more science than art--generally draws pushback, if not wrath, from accomplished teachers around the country, who understand expert teaching as artistry--a context-dependent blend of creativity, rich content, playfulness and love. Not a template to follow. 

In my educator heart, I want to see teaching as an art. (I'm a musician, after all.) I believe in the metaphor of good teaching as jazz--a creative art, open to individual expression. Here's the thing, though: Jazz, that most improvisatory art, cannot be played without a solid understanding of rhythm, melody, chord construction, traditional stylistic conventions and plenty of technical facility, learned through instruction and drill.

Jazz performance is a hard science--a body of accepted knowledge, skills and procedures--long before it becomes a vehicle for artistry. Miles Davis may have been born to re-invent jazz, but he credited Julliard with teaching him essential lessons in theory and tone production. 

And so it is with teaching. Evidently, Elizabeth Green, in her new book, Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), agrees. From a recent piece in Inside Higher Ed:

"...we do know that teaching is an expertise that needs to be learned, even by the most brilliant person, and it's a different kind of knowledge than just knowing a subject well.

President Obama has insisted on using student testing and on-the-job evaluations to measure which teachers are performing and which aren't. This line of thinking holds that some teachers simply know how to teach, and others don't. Reward the stars, fire the duds. But this change will not produce better teachers, Green warns. It'll just create thousands of teachers who will need to be replaced. 

The other major argument for how to improve teaching - the thesis that teachers simply need more freedom and respect -- falters for the same reason. Both the autonomy argument and the accountability argument erroneously assume that the average teacher will attain expertise on his own.

The natural-born teacher narrative leaves teachers unanchored, Green argues. If teaching is something you naturally know how to do, then it can't really be taught. But the ability to teach competently isn't something people organically acquire."

Bingo. I wish I had a dollar for every time a truly amazing teacher confided that in her first year of teaching, she probably should have paid the school district, instead of the reverse. If you believe effective teaching is innate, you open the door toward weak, "buddy"-type mentoring, instead of transmission of tangible skills, or thoughtful observation and feedback. Framing excellent teaching as an inborn disposition--smart, with-it--also supports the idea that two-year missionary teachers can "give back" to poor communities without much special training.

When it comes to the art-vs-science debate, I think it behooves teachers to stand up for the growing body of knowledge around good teaching that exists, the lenses for examining practice that have been carefully developed. We cannot approach teaching as an opportunity for inspiration and imagination until some core building blocks around pedagogy and content expertise are in place. Autonomy and respect, yes. But only when mastery and purpose are also in place.

Two caveats which go some way toward explaining why many teachers stubbornly insist that teaching is an art:

My copy of Green's book has not yet arrived--it was released last week. I look forward to reading her take on teacher preparation, what she--as an outsider, a non-teacher--values in building an effective teaching practice.

And why should I care what any non-educator thinks about effective teaching practice? Because we're all in this together--parents, researchers, critical observers, policy-makers, as well as professional experts in K-12 schools and higher education. When the battle is over who controls the definition of good teaching, we all lose. 

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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