Posted by: crudbasher | June 16, 2011

Is There A Science To Teaching?

Ever since the Renaissance, we have wanted to understand the world around us through science.  Some things in our life we can prove, like gravity and physics and some we take on faith, like religion and man made global warming climate change. In order to prove something in science, it has to be reproducible. The scientific journals allow us to publish our findings, but if others can’t reproduce what we did then it’s not accepted. When we get to the people sciences like sociology and psychology, we have a much more difficult time quantifying things. Is the process of teaching quantifiable? Is it reproducible? Is it science or art?

(cc) x-ray delta one

To answer that, we need to understand the purpose of school, since the teachers are the primary workers in that system. I would submit that the purpose of school is to create, at regular intervals, workers for various tasks in the economy. These workers have to have a common set of standard skills at first, then they can pick up more specialized skills in college. Crucially, the whole system needs to be standardized. There is a lot of effort and money spent on setting up these standards, and even more effort and money spent on measuring the results. It seems the main tool for this is the standardized test.

This is where the problems start with the current system. As I have said before, when you create a standard, there are two ways to fail to meet it, by falling short and by exceeding it. This places serious constraints on both teachers and students. Let me give an analogy.

Let’s say you are making cars. You are expected to make the exact same car each time but you start with varying amounts and qualities of parts each time. This is what happens in classrooms all over the country each day. My hat is certainly off to teachers who manage to pull off this difficult task. But how do they do it?

I think that if all the students were exactly the same, science could be used to explain teaching. Heck, in that case you really could use a computer to teach classes. No, what actually happens is something amazing. Most of the school system is a science. It has statistics and decrees standards and policies for every students. But when it gets down to the classroom, the teachers take these science based standards and turn them into art. Somehow they can bend and adjust the abstract lesson and make it applicable for their students.

I know right now the education system in America is undergoing some turmoil. Teachers are feeling very unappreciated. Part the reason might be, they are looked at as a cog in the machine, easily interchangeable. Teachers have to share part of the blame for this impression. The unions insist the only thing you can take into account when it comes time to make staffing decisions is seniority. In other words, the most important thing about a teacher is how long they have been teaching. A lot of the time they also fight against any kind of evaluation of how well the teacher does. I can understand that argument, because it’s hard to come up with a metric for how well the teacher does what they do just as it would be hard to come up with a metric for painters or sculptors. If teachers want more respect though, they need to be willing to be evaluated in some kind of fair way. I can think of a number of factors to take into consideration but that’s another topic.

So let me wrap up. I think that above the level of the classroom, school is based on science and metrics. Once you get to where the people are, because you have to adjust the material for the students, the performance of the teachers has to vary with each class and even each student. Teaching is never exactly reproducible, therefore it’s not science.

I don’t have all the answers but if you want to make a better teaching profession, look to the art community rather than the science community.

(cc) Dave Nicoll



  1. Good post. I agree: teaching is more art than science. It is the ultimate human endeavor, requiring a flexible awareness that is most attainable in a face-to-face context where all of the senses go to work to create a magical environment for learning.

    • I like the fact you mentioned the senses. I think often times we ignore a lot of the senses in lessons. Great comment!!

  2. I like the approach Barry Bennett takes in his book Beyond Monet- the artful science of instructional teaching. He maintains there is a science within the art of teaching. He believes that science in teaching and the art of teaching inform one another.

    “There is no guarantee that a teacher who is knowledgeable, has an extensive repertoire of instructional practices, and is kind and caring will necessarily be an effective teacher.”That’s the science part. Effective teaching is a creative act using the science of teaching to meet the individual needs of students.

    • Ah I have not read that book. That one goes on my summer reading list! Thanks very much for commenting!!

  3. “Repetition aids memory.” There’s not a lot of ‘art’ in that. It’s one of the things we know about learning, and about teaching. It’s more or less a *law* that is applicable to almost all people.

    A bit more advanced: teaching something new is more effective if students’ prior knowledge is activated. This idea holds remarkably well across disciplines and across various kinds of learners.

    Even more advanced: students in school settings will learn more effectively if they like their teacher. This may not be true for 100% of students, nor for 100% of teachers. But in general, it is a useful advice for novice teachers to invest in their relationship with their students (which is not the same as to befriend them). Because it heightens the chance of becoming an effective teacher by quite a bit more than 0%.

    Of course, education cannot be fully described by mathematical formulae, nor can we reliably predict the learning outcome of student X in class Y being taught by teacher Z, given time and space. There is obviously a lot of ‘person’ in every teaching and every learning.

    But we do understand a few things about education, and our knowledge is not total bullshit. Teaching should not be purposefully mystified. When we call it an ‘art’, we stress the personal influences, both conscious and unconscious, that make up great teaching. But while building up experience, by communicating with colleagues, and by reading a book or two, teachers do collect knowledge about what works (for them, or for their students) and what doesn’t. That’s why experienced teachers are more effective than total beginners. It’s not a matter of talent, chance, vision, or ‘art’. It’s craftsmanship, rooted in knowledge

    In a way, this is like learning to become a better partner to our wives or husbands, or learning to become a better parent to your children. No two partners, parents or children are the same, and there is no infallible Magical Formula that works in every single case. But still we do know a few things that work, or at least increase the chance of success.

    So what should teachers do? They should know some of the basic scientific stuff we know about learning & teaching. We are not 100% naive, and should not ask teachers to invent wheels that have been known to break easily. Second, teachers should communicate and learn from each other’s experiences. Because experiences are gold: the stuff that knowledge is made of. Thirdly, teachers should have the opportunity to expand their knowledge on their own terms. They are the experts in what works for THEM, not the educational scientist.

    Educational scientists (like me) can at best conclude what works for *most* teachers, for *most* students, for *most* subjects etc. But that doesn’t guarantee a damn thing for student X in class Y taught by teacher Z. That is, and should be, teacher Z’s responsibility.

    In Finland, they have understood this well. Finland’s teacher corps is highly educated, highly organized, and highly autonomous. Apart from a very good basis university education, and a thorough immersion in school practice, they are not subjected to criteria that ‘educational scientists’ impose on them, and that change with the educational fashions (‘project education’, ‘constructivism’, ‘new learning’, ‘group work’, ‘computer assisted learning’). Teachers have the freedom ánd the responsibility to choose their way of teaching that suits them best – on a personal level.

    This is why Finland attracts hi-performing students to the teaching profession, and this is why Finland outperforms every other western nation when it comes to education. Yet they hardly have standardized tests! And no national curriculum! And no performance pay! And teachers have lifelong appointments! And salary is based on seniority!

    All those ideas that are downright curses in today’s discourse on US education, appear to flourish really well in Finland. Finland’s hi-performing students stand in line to become teachers! Maybe it is time to acknowledge that scaring highly qualified people out of the teaching profession is one of the worst disservices to students, and that the ‘perform-or-perish’-teacher assessment is more ideology than wisdom.

    The biggest service to our children’s education is to make the teaching profession attractive for the best & brightest students. A good salary helps, but Finnish teacher’s salaries are far from exceptional. What they do have:
    – a lot of autonomy in their work;
    – a highly respected job;
    – high standards to live up to, set by the profession in congruence with the ministry;
    – an teachers’ organization that is taken seriously by other stakeholders;
    – a steady appointment, offering them the certainty they need in their ‘rocky’ life as a teacher, with its ups and downs;
    – a normal workload (teaching 25% less hours than in the US);
    – 25% smaller group sizes.

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