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which were occasioned by a recent conversation where i was asked if I thought teaching more of an art rather than a science.  I responded that the question was a false frame, and was asked to explain.

My explanation comes in part from my background and formal education in music.

I think what we are seeing in education is neither art nor science, but the attempt to turn education into an engineering problem.  In engineering, it is of course important to have rigorous standards.  In manufacturing the ideal of exactly the same interchangeable parts is an important component of mass production, which provides consistency, and may even save on cost.

But students are not, and should not be, widgets or other manufactured outputs.  They are absolutely unique individuals, and should be respected as such, even as we try to assist them in growing and developing and learning how to learn.  Please note that last phrase - learning how to learn -  we thereby empower them to lifelong learning that does not depend upon a formal school/educational setting.  

Is music composition an art or a science?   Is performance of a pre-composed piece an art or a science?  Is the improvisation one sees in jazz, which is part of fulfilling the continuo of many baroque works, which was originally what was done in the cadenza of a concerto, an art or a science?  

The answer is, as far as I can tell, both and to a lesser degree neither.  It is both because it is not an absolute dichotomy.  If I compose and have in mind how the piece is going to sound, there are elements of science - harmony, acoustics, timbre, the range of instruments or of human voices - but by itself that does not a meaningful musical work create.  I might create a work that technically follows the rules of strict counterpoint or sonata allegro format, which is performable by the instruments and/or singers for who it is written, but is absolutely boring.  It is then equivalent of much of what we are seeing happen as a result of 'reform' in American education.

There is more.

When I play a piece of music previously composed, I have material with which to work:  the printed music, with notes, dynamics, perhaps even fingering.  I also have knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument.  I could mechanically move from the sheet music to the sound production, which I suspect would be a boring performance for any listener.  Or I can engage with the music, perhaps discovering something new each time I play it.  In preparing to perform, I am likely to take apart the music, try different things, reflect (perhaps subconsciously, perhaps fully consciously) on the differing results.  In a sense one could see the lesson, no matter how well defined, as the notes and the students as the instrument(s) being used - except this puts the students into perhaps too passive a role.

In improvisation, one has some idea - perhaps a theme, perhaps an outline of a musical idea - and works with that, making changes as one goes along.  Each time one improvises on the theme the result is somewhat different, which makes it scary, even as it is potentially exciting.

Yet even these images are but partial descriptions of the process of classroom teaching.

There is another role in music, and it is that of conductor:  there is pre-written music, there is an ensemble of instruments and/or voices, and the conductor is attempting to get all to work in common for a common purpose, an interpretation/performance that has a vision.

Getting closer to teaching, but still not quite there.

There is music - the lesson plan.

To a degree there is performance - both by the teacher and the class

The teacher has the responsibility similar to that of the conductor.

But there is, and always will be, some degree of improvisation, and not merely by the conductor/teacher, but by every member of the ensemble/classroom.

The analogies are far from perfect.  I understand that.

What I am trying to describe is the nature of the productive classroom environment, at least as I see it, as I have read in research, and - of greatest importance -  as my students have given me feedback.

Things will vary.  Certainly with students beginning a course there may be more direction -  it is the equivalent of learning one's scales, or how to transpose the clef between what is written and what one hears (particular important to those of perfect pitch, I might note).  

The teacher is simultaneously composer, performer, conductor, improviser and audience.

If students are to learn how to take ownership of their own learning, they will also have to learn how to do all of those roles, some more than others, depending on where they are in their learning.  

As a teacher with 30 or so students in a room for 45 minutes, I may have to make several hundred decisions during the course of one class period.  I will have to adjust what I may have planned depending upon what the students bring to the "performance" or "composition" -  the class is, after all, their learning opportunity and in some ways they shape it as much if not more than I do.

Is teaching a science or an art?   Great art often involves large amounts of scientific knowledge that is assumed and transformed by the creative vision.  Art without fundamentals often is a mess, and does not express in a way that can be comprehended by others.

Thus teaching is both science and art, yet something else.

Great teaching is a co-creative process that empowers the students.  

There is a Buddhist aphorism that when the student is ready the teacher will appear.  Those of us who are classroom teachers must be present for that moment, yet also help the student become ready.  Then  we simultaneously become co-learners, learning from our students what they need from us, which may vary greatly between classes and among students within classes.  

Just a few thoughts on teaching.  At least of my understanding of the process as i have lived it over this and the previous 16 years of public school classroom teaching.


Originally posted to teacherken on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 11:54 AM PST.

Also republished by Education Alternatives and Teachers Lounge.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (15+ / 0-)

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 11:54:41 AM PST

  •  great diary! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, MKinTN, Reino, Lujane

    23 years in the HS classroom; and you summed up eloquently what I'm still trying to master! Thanks!

  •  Excellent (4+ / 0-)

    Now if I could just get the Governor of the State of Washington to understand this.

    Yesterday Governor Gregoire decided the state could save money by "getting rid of all the bad teachers."

    Apparently someone has whispered in her ear that the schools are full of bad teachers and somehow they could save money if they just got rid of them.  This is after a second round of cuts that are taking educational funding down past the bone and right into the marrow...

    We all have photographic memories. Some people just don't have any film.

    by fireflynw on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 12:16:38 PM PST

    •  consider this: (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      50% of teachers are below the median performance.

      You could fire them all.  If you did not replace them, 50% of what is left will be below the new median performance.

      If you get rid of them, either you double class size a la Michael Bloomberg's proposal, or you have to replace them.

      Replace them with what, or whom?

      And does your governor realize that the cost of hiring and inducting teachers is expensive, not a cost you want to constantly be incurring?

      "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

      by teacherken on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 08:42:55 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  apologies for not staying by this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    grannycarol, Lujane

    I have errands that must be done in next 90 minutes, and will not have online access except by cell phone, and besides, I will be doing a lot of driving.

    I hope this is of interest to at least a few.


    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 12:18:57 PM PST

  •  And it explains why teaching is so exhausting. (5+ / 0-)

    I've always thought of teaching as being akin to stage performance, an analogy that has some merit, but I do believe this is better.

    Mama B always used to wonder why I'd be so tired at the end of the day, until she moved from newspaper work to teaching English.

    Teaching is not really physically demanding (which can - and does, in Montana - lead to accusations of "not having a real job", a topic for another diary), but does inflict terrible mental/emotional stresses, which take their toll physically.

  •  Music plays an important role (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, Lujane

    in my preschool class.

    Besides the fact that almost every request to the children is sung- I play classical music in the background.

    "Keeping the beat' is a basic pre-math development and everyday there are lots of games we play 'keeping the beat'- from marching to clap sequences to repeating patterns.

    I love the phrase 'learning how to learn'.  That to me is my goal as a preschool teacher- how to make wanting to learn the child's choice.  Curiosity- wonder of discovery- (I never tell a child "this is how it is' I watch as it is discovered) and independent thought (yes- people- listen to the children- let them speak- you will be amazed at their foresight) are far more important than A-B-C and 1-2-3.

    Growing old is inevitable...Growing up is purely optional

    by grannycarol on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 12:43:17 PM PST

  •  My daughter is an education major (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    grannycarol, teacherken, Lujane

    who has wanted to be a teacher since 3rd grade. She gets very upset with people who think of using teaching as a fallback position.

    I'm sharing this with her - she is just starting to be able to relate to this.

    "Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" — Isaac Asimov

    by wintergreen8694 on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 12:50:00 PM PST

  •  So, as a practicing engineer (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I don't see any major movements to turn education into an engineering problem. I see attempts to turn it into manufacturing as managed by MBAs.

    Interchangeable parts may be part of the final assembly stage, but from an engineering perspective, education is not paying attention to the raw materials or the process development that a real engineer would find critical.

    The closest I've seen to engineering problem approach in education was an article in the NYTimes a year or two ago about developing the skills to analyze incorrect math problems, or the Khan academy idea of having students do individual work at their own speed, with a teacher on hand to monitor progress, and do active intervention and problem solving when students have problems.

    Like any field, understanding of manufacturing and engineering by people not involved is driven by old images and trendy stories and topics (Lean and 6-sigma are big offenders).

    I have long been tempted to write about how I would approach education as an engineering problem, but have not gotten around to it. If and when I do, the title will be "Students are not Toasters!"

    "All things are not equally true. It is time to face reality." -Al Gore

    by Geek of all trades on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 01:42:12 PM PST

  •  As a student teacher I learned the science. As a (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    practicing teacher I began to learn the art. Every year I taught, the art was refined. So many things are like that. The first years of playing a musical instrument are anything but artistic, but with time and experience the emphasis changes. You could probably say the same thing about carpentry, preaching, or gardening to name only a few.

    There are always those who will argue that any discipline is artless. In education they are often the administrators, the school board members, and the politicians. Not surprisingly, those who see the art in education are most often the participants - the students and parents.

    Taking on a student teacher was always a dilemma for me, my students, and the student teacher. The instruction would not be very good. The delivery would at times be strained. But somehow nearly everyone acknowledged that this activity was part of the process that allowed another teacher to dare to become an artist. And nearly everyone joined in support of the effort. Sort of like an improv comedy club, I guess.

    There are a great many artists out there in our classrooms. More than many might think are virtuosos.

  •  nicely put, Ken (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, Lujane
    There is a Buddhist aphorism that when the student is ready the teacher will appear.  Those of us who are classroom teachers must be present for that moment, yet also help the student become ready.  Then  we simultaneously become co-learners, learning from our students what they need from us, which may vary greatly between classes and among students within classes.  

    Präsidentenelf-maßschach; Warning-Some Snark Above"Nous sommes un groupuscule" (-9.50; -7.03) "Sciant terra viam monstrare."

    by annieli on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 08:36:17 PM PST

    •  I think of teaching as Eric Dolphy did about music (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.
      This applies to classroom teaching which is why online teaching must use this as its measure of reproductive success

      Präsidentenelf-maßschach; Warning-Some Snark Above"Nous sommes un groupuscule" (-9.50; -7.03) "Sciant terra viam monstrare."

      by annieli on Wed Dec 14, 2011 at 08:38:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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