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Learning at its Best

Teaching: Art or Science?

It was posited to me recently that an internal professional development system for teachers designed to foster discussion about teaching and learning fits within the “teaching-as-intellectual-pursuit” model (“science” for short here), as opposed to the “teaching as art” model. To this person’s credit, this suggestion was more a musing than a statement of fact, but it got me thinking – both about whether teaching can be viewed as being solely in one or the other of those frameworks, and then, assuming that were true, where does discussion of teaching and learning fall relative to the two? I’ll save the dichotomous model question for later and assume here that it is, at least in part, valid. Assuming that is so, and assuming the synergy of said professional development model is agreed upon relative to the “teaching as science” model, the question remains: Is there a place for such activity in the “teaching as art” model? Should an educational organization catalyze discussion and sharing among its faculty as a way to help improve teaching and learning?

I will suggest the answer is a strong “yes”.

If teaching is art, then it comes down to the question of how artists hone their craft, and not only that, but how art itself progresses to more advanced and complex stages. Artists working in isolation, I would suggest, do not progress on average as fast or as far contrasted with artists working as members of communities of artists. Why is that so? Transfer of information. Artists share technique. They talk about it. They view others’ work and emulate what they like about it. They build on what has come before them, they partake of and contribute to advances in the technologies used by their art. If this were not so, art would not progress. The advent of perspective in European painting in the 13th and 14th centuries would not have evolved into what it is today – it would have to be re-created by each artist. And paint would still be the iron oxide, black manganese, and other mineral pigments used on cave walls by pre-modern-humans. And how do we account for art classes? And teaching schools?

Well, now you have my opinion on that. Now back to the dichotomous teacher model. If teaching is an art, it is one that can be improved through sharing within the artist community. However, as with the false dichotomy of the “skills vs. content” debate, this dichotomy is not so cut and dry. I do believe there is a good deal of artist in every teacher, and a good deal of the scientist. Every teacher in the world likely falls at a different place on that spectrum; however, the very best, I believe, share a healthy mix of both approaches, and no matter where they fall on the continuum, sharing of information between teachers on their craft is beneficial for continued improvement individually and as a learning organization.

P.S. We discussed faculty here, but if the concept holds, should it not be extended to all stakeholders in a learning community?


About Aaron Eden

What's your Give? I think that is a critical question in everything we do. What value are we creating? The core of my work is educating for a sustainable future. Value-oriented learning. Community-integrated learning. Social entrepreneurship. Emergent, inquiry-driven, entrepreneurial learning. I've spent the last 20 years designing and facilitating face-to-face and online learning experiences and co-creative processes that help individuals and organizations develop the skills and attributes to transform themselves and the world. I have extensive experience in instructional and learning experience design, innovation, and technology spaces.


11 thoughts on “Teaching: Art or Science?

  1. Aaron, as dichotomies go, I think the “art and science” one is a doozy. Especially as you describe it here. What you describe as the “artist: operating in community, is in fact the way the best professional development happens. Of course, this is an intellectual pursuit, but that does not mean that all knowledge that teachers share comes from books or outside. As we know from looking at cognitive paradigms for learning (such as Bloom’s taxonomy, for example), not until we can use the learned knowledge in our own practice are we then able to reflect upon it and teach it to or share it with others. So I’m not sure about the art/science divide as you describe it here, but I really do like the grassroots and authentic model of professional development (i.e., teacher as artist) that you describe. The National Writing Project is a great example of a successful professional development model that features teachers as artists. As you might be implying here, too often, PD doesn’t honor teachers’ knowledge or professional expertise. The typical “in-service” in largely worthless without a lot of time for teachers to process the info and work it into their existing professional repertoire.

    Posted by cynthia | July 27, 2012, 1:27 pm
    • @Cynthia, thanks for your comment. That was quick 🙂
      My allowance that the dichotomous model might be valid was in this case only to show that it is important for teachers to share their craft no matter what model one might use to think about teaching. Further on that sharing, I think it is critically important, as you mention relative to integrating external PD, for teachers to have time in their day-to-day to take part in thinking and communicating about teaching and learning, as a component of institutional culture and practice.

      Posted by Aaron Eden | July 27, 2012, 1:46 pm
  2. Very well said. And, might I add that if we are in agreemnet that all teachers are artists at different points along the spectrum with different strengths and delivery methods can we also agree that all of the students are in the same boats as recipients of what their “Artist” teacher is presenting.
    If in fact the students are having difficulty seeing and hearing the information as it is being presented (and they are) then it really matters little how great the teacher or the textbook is because they are missing too much of the information.
    Proper assessments of the students learning abilities (SOI-IPP) are required as a starting point. Then, the delivery of the information through multiple channels by the “Artist/Teacher” becomes significantly more effective. Everyone wins.


    Jack Marcellus Sr.

    Posted by jack marcellus sr. | July 27, 2012, 1:44 pm
    • @Jack, we can certainly agree on students also all being on different points on a continuum of how they learn. I think proponents of the “artist” model would argue that good artist/teachers can recognize when students are “getting it” and how to connect with each on their own level to make sure that happens, but I myself would agree that explicit and more “scientific” approaches to determining what those methods are/need to be and how they are working is also necessary. For me the art is in the personal connection and in how we utilize the knowledge about learning that grows all the time. I think both are needed. Thanks for highlighting that angle.

      Posted by Aaron Eden | July 27, 2012, 1:57 pm
  3. How about the student, the learner also as artist? The focus on the TEACHER and what the teacher is doing, is one and only one of the crippling dichotomies of our underdeveloped, undernourished, unimaginative PD landscape.


    Posted by Kirsten | July 28, 2012, 7:52 am
  4. Aaron, this is a great post. The blending of art and science into an artist community is a concept that has found its time. I like Kirsten’s point above that includes students as part of the community. In the 21st Century, they can contribute so much and we might be taken back to the roots of educate or ‘educare.’


    Posted by ivonprefontaine | July 28, 2012, 12:07 pm
  5. Thank you for this post, Aaron –

    I like the idea of acknowledging that we are all in different places on a spectrum of shared human experiences. I also appreciate your effort to describe art as an experiential process of discovery, sharing, and rediscovery, like science.

    I’m not sure any dichotomy helps change teaching so that it looks more like learning – so that “teaching” looks like being, discovery, and connection-making immersed in a learner, student, and/or child culture. Teaching increasingly seems to me a construct, while learning remains to me an imperative.

    What do you think? If we positioned teaching inside the work of students’ learning, would we need to categorize it as artistic or scientific? As this or that? How can teaching join the ambiguity of learning in a connected world? Can it do so from any place of assumed expert authority?

    How do categories, or even mash-ups of them, move teaching forward or not?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 28, 2012, 7:50 pm
  6. Perhaps meaningful understanding comes from pulling the science away from the art, attempting to see what they are independently and then reintegrating them. I think it makes the whole pursuit of teaching more meaningful to think about what one way of viewing teaching would be like without the other so that we can ask ourselves what’s missing. I in my last year of teaching in public schools it is easy to see that teaching was a science and there was little room for it to be seen as an art. To see teaching as science or art takes time which often runs in short supply. Thank you for your post, it is an elegant reminder that I am not a whole person in the classroom unless I am working to integrate this false dichotomy.

    Posted by jsteele1979 | August 1, 2012, 6:35 am
    • On occasion, I have met teachers who had a great grasp of their material, but had no “artistic” ability in terms of passing the information along to students in a meaningful way. A teacher could be a genius and have a great command of a subject but if she doesn’t know how to deliver this knowledge in a creative and interesting way, she is not a good teacher.

      Posted by maryt82 | August 7, 2012, 2:57 am
  7. With practical examples please can anyone discuss the assertion that teaching is both art and science? And also has two sides for science for children and adults?

    Posted by Alhassan mahmud haruna | October 3, 2015, 11:24 am

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