What Is Teaching: An Art or a Science?

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Is teaching a science or an art, or both?

I’ve been reading a research paper written by Alexander Makedon, Assistant Professor Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Chicago State University. The paper was presented at the Annual Conference of the Midwest Philosophy of Education Society November 10, 1990, Chicago, Illinois.

Here is my summary of the paper to the above question.

The research aims to unpick meaning of the terms “art” and “science,” including the difficulties involved in such discussion. And second, to help us to understand not only whether teaching is an art or science, or both, and if so, to what degree.

For me? I’d like to know if it’s an important discussion – to understand the differences between the two types of teaching. I also wonder if this is another incarnation of the progressive and traditional debate currently discussed on social media.

Importantly, the research seeks to unpick just this from the outset:

“… by TAA and TAS we mean the attitude that a teacher adopts toward his teaching, than toward his students as learners, or of his students toward their learning. A teacher’s attitude or practice toward his teaching is also different from the attitude or practice that students may adopt toward their teacher. As a result, it is not inconceivable that a teacher use a scientific curriculum under TAA, or an artistic curriculum under TAS.” (Abbreviations – TAA: Teaching-As-An-Art / TAS: Teaching-As-A-Science)

Today, some educators hold the view that students should learn through the scientific method, perhaps today cited as ‘direct instruction’ and/or ‘spaced practice/retrieval practice’. On the other hand, some teachers consider their teaching more reflectively – an ever-evolving process to be better at teaching as an art form, than an empirically pretested science.

Both are of equal importance.


Are art and science different? If the two, art and science are different, then it makes no sense that the research – albeit 30+ years ago should be asking whether teaching is a science or an art: art and science are the same. Can the same be said for progressive and traditional teaching? Same objective, just different principles.

The research reminds us that “what teaching should be is not the same as what it can be, we may find that at least some of the things that teaching can be, be they either art or science, are undesirable. This issue of ‘desirability’ opens a whole new pandora’s box of underlying reasons for choosing this rather than that.”

Since teaching signifies a method of conveying information, its precise definition may depend as much on which larger theory of teaching one is willing to adopt, as on what are the ultimate educational goals which teaching is designed to serve. As question we have still to unpick 30 years later!

Purpose of Education?

Are we educating our students for their long-term role in society, or to pass examinations as a stepping stone to college/place of work? We hear time and time again that businesses cite graduates are leaving schools without the knowledge and skills that they need for the place of work.

On the other hand, if we were to re-phrase the question to mean not what teaching ought to be, but more precisely what teaching “really” is, we may be able to get closer to the original question and answer. Thirty years ago, the answer may have been different, but what about asking the same (rephrased) question today.

Instead of ‘is teaching a science or an art?’, what really is teaching?

“Since both art and science are human activities, they share at least in the fact that they are man-made and controlled, as opposed to being controlled by, say, nature, chance, God, or other living organisms. It is often difficult to distinguish between art and science inhuman activities, including teaching. For [research] purposes here, where science represents man’s attempt to understand the world, and therefore is not much different in that respect than other attempts by man to understand, Art may be seen as man’s attempt to help the world to understand.”

Empirical Evidence

American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey advocated the scientific method for students, hoping that eventually they internalise things being taught, he did not think that teachers themselves should practice it in deciding how to teach. Dewey believed students received contradictory messages from teachers who don’t practice what they preach, and therefore in effect come to view even the scientific method with cynicism. In the paper, further details are discussed regarding ‘teaching as an art’ – as not a scientific pursuit; that teachers are not bound by “empirical evidence” that certain of their techniques may be learning ineffective for their students.

While science aims at expressing reality subjectively, through the artistic creativity of the artist, science aims at expressing reality objectively, through the empirical investigations of the scientist. TAA is not any less expressive of reality than TAS, except the reality of TAA is the teacher’s own, while the reality expressed by TAS is based, at least in part, on the students’ observable behaviour.

How different is the landscape today?


Whether teaching is an art or science depends on which definition of teaching we adopt. The same can be said for progressive and traditional teaching.

If we define teaching as an ‘attempt to help our students learn’, then teaching may be perceived as the art of applying learning research. Given the current climate for research and evidence informed methods, in spite our use of the term “art”, trying to help students learn based on how we have observed them in fact learn makes teaching more a science than an art. If, on the other hand, we mean by teaching simply as ‘the act of conveying information’ with no particular emphasis on how well students learn, then teaching lends itself easier to a teacher expressing their feelings – despite learning effectiveness – therefore, teaching as an art form.

Whether a teacher decides to teach using one or the other may depend as much on their overall educational or teaching goals, as on their definition of teaching.

One thing is certain, today we are increasingly seeking to understand ‘what works’ (science), and by learning from testing these research-rich ideas in the classroom through experimentation can only mean one thing. Teaching is an art form by learning from its scientific application in the classroom.


You can download the paper here: Is Teaching a Science or an Art?.

7 thoughts on “What Is Teaching: An Art or a Science?

      1. Actually, I feel that teaching is becoming a “customer service” profession as teachers become dependent on survey and assessment data and education funding becomes an ideological tool.
        It is not a social discussion anywhere I know, but in popular culture our children and their parents are being convinced that teachers are either the main cause of all inspiration and of all childhood trauma.

        The narrative talks about broken schools, terrible or genial teachers, and inequity in educational practices, mostly caused by teacher prejudice. Instead of following how State Education Departments are supporting schools, teachers and students, the narrative implants in people’s minds and even research that teachers have all the responsibility for failing schools. Nobody talks about the consequences of the increase in classroom sizes, decrease in specialized support staffing and professional development, and underlying assimilationist practices imposed by educational requirements, including the misuse of data driven instruction.

        Many parents these days know that their child’s specific learning style requires support, but do not get informed that the teacher may not get any real professional assistance for special needs because the existing professionals are already spread thin, as all may have classes of thirty or forty students to manage and an evaluation over their professional heads that uses assessment results and student satisfaction surveys.
        Parents do not know any of that, not even when they vote, and when they call to confront the school for not accommodating their child’s needs, they just want to be heard. Yet, Instead of establishing a professional interaction and conversation , they are placed in front of the culprit (the teacher) that will doom their child out of college opportunities, and instead of a dialogue to restore trust and the joy of learning, parents and teachers are placed in a conference room to defend themselves from each other with a mediator, an administrator, who determines the winner.
        I would like to understand why intervention plans, parent-teacher conferences and innovative educational practices which are a good idea on paper have become more like recipes than scientific tools or arts.

  1. Thought provoking article. In response to the initial question in the article, I believe that it is an important discussion, particular for school improvement through classroom practice/pedagogy.

    For me, really effective teaching takes careful account of science and applies it through the art of teaching and communicating.

    For example teaching is more effective when it takes account of the neuroscience of how we interpret, encode, store and recall/draw upon information.

    Equally, when curriculum and lesson planning applies evidence of ‘what works’ or rather ‘what is very likely to work’ when applied similar conditions to those used in research on teaching, for example the EEF guidance reports.

    But, teaching is magical when it takes account of the science above but then considered the crucial social science at play within a particular school context or community demography. For example, the nuanced hyper-local values, beliefs and cultural truths that shape individual and local identity.

    When this nuanced and more subjective understanding is applied in the classroom we create super safe environments that see disengaged learners re-engage, gaps narrow and inequality redressed. That is magical and for me a hugely powerful art.

    Some examples of the application of social science in the art of teaching:

    Re-imagining ‘routine’ into ‘safe certainty’ helps develop a deeper understanding of why consistent routines are important for pupils, particularly disadvantaged or SEND.

    Re-shaping formative assessment to ensure (for example) a disadvantaged boy is given ‘absolute certainty’ in how well they are learning whilst at the same time not undermining any potential ‘local identity‘ is more likely to provide the safety and build the confidence to take further risks over time.

    Recognising that ‘ambition and aspiration’ exist in even the most reluctant learners (and communities) but often carry different meaning because of individual and community values can help us to consider the manner and language we use to engage children (and families) in the business of learning. By choosing language and behaviour that avoids reinforcing shame we are more likely to engage and build a trusting relationship and expose children to a curriculum that reveals an alternative meaning of ambition or aspiration.

    This is why there really are no off the shelf solutions for all children in all schools and one of the reasons why gaps persist.

    Just my thoughts.

  2. Interesting! Like you I have a D&T background. With my PGCE students I (and they) find Dan Willingham’s framing of this question quite helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJrqM7Rx_FY
    He argues that teaching is neither, but more akin to a technological discipline such as engineering or architecture that is informed by science but enacted in very particular settings where a great deal of judgement and insight based on experience is needed.

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