Wednesday, March 13, 2013

More Art or More Science?

The first time I can recall engaging in the discussion was in the mid-90s. My wife and I were hosting a book club for about a dozen of our teaching colleagues. The book was The Elements of Teaching. I don't recall much about the book except that it delineated certain qualities and practices that all great teachers have. As great a debate as one could have about that notion, what I remember is a rousing discussion on whether teaching is more art or more science.

It's an argument I've reconsidered many times since then, and I can make quite a compelling case for either side. Overall, I still tend to lean quite a bit to the art side. That's not surprising, given my heavy humanities background. My primary reasoning is that the best teaching is highly personal, even idiosyncratic, and relational that some of remains mysterious and elusive. At the same time, every teacher can study effective practices, child development, and cognitive science, thus taking a more scientific approach.

Last week, while listening to one of our second teachers present at a PA meeting, a new thought occurred to me--one that, now seems rather obvious in some ways. Before I explain, I want to point out that I think the younger the student, the more artistry. Anyway, she was demonstrating what she can do with an iPad app called Storify. She can pull up all sorts of data on each student' reading, from the amount read in a period of time to annotations to words checked in the dictionary. This teacher is a veteran dedicated to professional development, and she gushed that finally she has the information necessary to truly individualize instruction. She is merging art and science.

Just as technology can empower students in amazing ways, it can also do so for teachers who embrace its possibilities. It's about more than finding resources on-line or building a robust PLN or blogging to deepen one's reflection. Those can matter greatly, of course. But they matter little if the teacher doesn't use them effectively to improve each student's learning, which is a basic professional imperative. I remain on the side of teaching as more art, but many of us would benefit from injecting some more science into the endeavor.

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