Is Teaching an Art or a Science?

Recently, I spent the better part of four days with education organizers from IDEA, the Institute for Democratic Education in America, a group working on connecting powerful, progressive educators across the country. Among the participants was Sam Chaltain, a Washington, D.C. based thinker, writer, and education reformer. I encourage you to watch Sam’s recent TED talk delivered at the Brooklyn Free School last month:

Sam addresses a lot of the apprehension around school remodeling efforts. He correctly points out that we are in the middle of unprecedented changes in the teaching profession, resulting in what he calls the most exciting, and challenging, time to be a teacher in our nation’s history. There is a lot of uncertainty around the direction that schools are, and should be, headed. A good portion of his talk centers on teachers and accountability. (For a great read on value-added teacher accountability, click here.)

At it’s core, Sam’s message calls for balance between two seemingly conflicting views of teaching: is it an art or a science?  Are great teachers born, or are they made? Is great teaching based on instinct, or on data? Should teachers be free to close their door and do what they think is best without input from the outside world, or should we strap galvanic skin response bracelets to students so that we can detect their levels of engagement and adjust accordingly? The answer, Sam suggests, is somewhere in the middle.

Sam points out that John Dewey himself, a touchstone for so many progressive reform activists, called for the scientific method to help us chart our way forward in [re]designing powerful learning. Sam says that “freedom…is best unleashed through simple, shared structures, not unbounded prairies.” And he’s right. Teachers need to take advantage of their natural gifts and emotional intelligence in connecting with students, they need to be free to experiment in possibility, but they also need to learn about how the brain works and how to best craft our lessons so that they are as effective as possible. Accepting data does not mean rejecting art. When the right data is used wisely it helps us all become better practitioners.

Sam’s talk is important because it raises so many questions surrounding education reform at the moment. If this is truly a watershed moment in education, how do we approach the changing profession of teaching and teacher training? How do we find the proper balance between professionalism and public accountability? And how do we, as communities, create model “shared structures” to best promote freedom?

Because that is our work.

– Peter

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