Teaching is an art, not a science!

One of the phrases that annoys me no end is the TTC stating that ‘teaching is an art, not a science’. It annoys me for principally three reasons. The first is that it forces a false dichotomy. ‘Do you think teaching can be a science like physics? No? then it’s an art’. Fortunately we’re not actually required to choose one or the other, after all, as Willingham notes, medicine isn’t a science in the way physics is, but science can help to inform it. Likewise, science can help to inform education. 

The second is the overwhelming asymmetry in the number of claimants. that is, hardly anyone, anywhere, is claiming the opposite. Search online and you’ll find It’s really quite hard to find supporters of the ‘actually, teaching is a science’ position. 

The troops are massing, but the enemy is nowhere to be found. In fact I was only able to find one supporter. Daniel Lindley Jr wrote a paper in 1970 titled ‘teaching is a science not an art’. Interestingly there are quite a few papers and blogs on this subject where the author will say ‘some people claim teaching is a science’ but almost never any citation or link to where I might find the people allegedly saying this. Sure, there are people who say teaching is both an art and a science, but no one fighting for a ‘science only’ vision of teaching.

The second interesting thing about this statement is exactly when it’s used. As there is seemingly no one promoting the idea that ‘teaching is a science’ the phrase tends to appear to support a whole raft of unconnected propositions. For example, you can use it when attacking the ‘broken’ education system:

When criticising teacher grading:

When railing against common core

When railing against tests in general. 

When promoting the value of student placement. 

When warning against the deindividualization of students

when promoting…erm…’vital infusing core values'(?)

and of course when arguing that students ‘are not fish’

It doesn’t really seem to matter how disparate the ideas may be, you can, it seems, use this phrase as an all-purpose battle-cry. The notion that someone, somewhere is trying to ‘sciencify’ education seems to terrify some even though it’s not entirely clear who is trying to do that. 

Among my reading of researchers and educators I have yet to come across anyone claiming that education should be, or can be an entirely scientific endeavour.  John Hattie (2009:2) calls teaching an ‘art’. Tom Bennett, the director of researchED calls it a ‘craft‘, as does Daniel Willingham. And Ben Goldacre in his paper on education notes that “being a good doctor, or teacher, or manager, isn’t about robotically following the numerical output of randomised trials.” In the EFL world, Rod Ellis writes that while research is important it is ‘not capable of providing teachers with recipes for successful practice’ (2008:xxiv). 

When so many people are railing against an imaginary foe, we have to wonder why? Science attempts to be objective and exact, art is a bit more subjective. Hattie (2009) notes that teachers operate on an ‘anything goes’ model of best-practice and insulate themselves against criticism with the unspoken law that “I’ll leave you alone, if you leave me alone to teach my way”(2009:1). In other words, classrooms can be personal fiefdoms where a teacher the power to teach any way they like. Could it be that the notion of someone, somewhere trying to systematize some aspect of teaching, and make teachers’ more accountable, threatens the convenient status quo?

6 thoughts on “Teaching is an art, not a science!

  1. A provocative post, as ever, and it will be interesting to see if anyone leaps in with the \”teaching IS art\” argument. I think that your first point is the most relevant – that science/art is a false dichotomy, and the idea that asking to distinguish is indeed thought terminating is bang on. However, (for there must always be a however), the concept of teaching as a craft is not a bad one – if we must classify it, then that is probably where I would classify it. Craft suggests a knowledge-base on which a more responsive/instinctive skill set is built according to a given context. The trouble with teaching as art is exactly as you say – and I agree, it isn't an art. There should be an evidence base for teaching, and a scientific approach is useful, even essential. The challenge with the proposition of teaching as science is based primarily on the perception that a scientific standpoint is a simple polarised one: practice X is good, practice Y is bad. For me this creates trouble: practice X works, yes, but only in certain contexts. Regardless of the evidence base, something \”proven\” as good practice may not work. A scientific stance gives the impression of absolutes, but in the context of teaching, at least, there are no such simplistic absolutes. I'm thinking of the paper by Coffield and Edward which is profoundly critical of the idea of \”best practice\” (here: http://goo.gl/ahZZGT) where they argue the case for context as a determiner of \”best practice\”.However (again), having said that, I think this is the danger of the public perception of science – for me a scientific analysis of teaching is not about fixed practices, and straight input-output approaches to methodology, but rather the science mindset which suggests that if there isn't a straight answer then we simply haven't found it yet. That straight answer may only relate to the needs and contexts of an individual class, or even to an individual student, but there is a straight answer to the question. Trouble is, of course, we may not find that answer until we have finished teaching said class. In short, I agree, I think, but only if we work very carefully on our definition of science. There are some practices which can (just about) be applied off the shelf into a classroom context, practices that are, for want of a better word, tried and tested. but sometimes they don't work, and for me, a scientific approach is to explore and examine why that was the case.


  2. Thanks for the link, I think there's a ELTJ article on the same subject. I do worry that the 'context' argument is sometimes used for shutting down legitimate discussion. As you note, some things really can be applied to all contexts, -I would add that students are all trying to learn a language and all using a human brain to do it, so context does have it's limits. I recently heard the term 'steel manning' which is the opposite of straw man. You have to present a 'perfect' version of your opponents argument before you attack it. I think the 'context' comments should always be taken as a given. I don't think anyone would seriously suggest that context doesn't matter, -would they? On a very simple lesson a private business student and a class full of kids are not going to respond to the same things.


  3. Students are not fish!!!Genius …On the level of a metaphor, the statement 'Teaching is an art' rather begs the question as to what that makes learning – is this the bearer of knowledge filling the empty vessel given a smock, beret and palette?Incidentally, it's also a rather superficial view of what art is and how it is made.Amongst other things, all those huge Renaissance era bronze casts of Gods and Heroes were, amongst other things, demonstrations of technical skill, saying something along the lines of: \”imagine the same precision that went into moulding and casting this statue of Mars being applied to moulding and casting cannons\”.Holbein, Carravaggio and Vermeer all used state of the art advances in optics; then there's the Golden Ration (\”Without mathematics there is no art,” said Luca Pacioli, a contemporary of Da Vinci.\” as the quote from this design website neatly puts it http://www.goldennumber.net/art-composition-design/).Just last week, Anish Kapoor announced that he plans to make a sculpture using 'Vantablack' – an artificial material that is apparently absorbs so much light (just shy of 100%) that it dazzles your eyes to look at it (http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/vantablack–the-blackest-black-leading-sculptor-anish-kapoor-announces-plans-to-use-new-substance-9751291.html)So anyway, by all this I mean to say that the analogy is false even before it's contrasted with science.While it would still be wrong, I think it would make more sense if they said 'Teaching is anticapitalist Romanticism' because as far as I can tell what most of those Tweets are really objecting to is enlightened Rationalism (and Capitalism, though I'm not suggesting the two are the same).Great post.


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