What Is Teaching: An Art or a Science?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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.

Definitions:

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?

Conclusion:

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.

Download:

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

@TeacherToolkit

Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, a simple Twitter account which rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on Twitter in the UK'. He is an award winning teacher and an experienced school leader and as @TeacherToolkit, curated this website you are now reading as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated for '500 Most Influential People in the Britain' by The Sunday Times and one of the most influential in the field of education. He is the only classroom teacher to feature. He is a former Teaching Award nominee for 'Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School in London' and has also written 3 books on teaching. Read more here.

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