Is Teaching an Art or a Science?

[Spoiler Alert:  I actually think this is the wrong question to be asking, but more on that later in the post.]

Here at Rice, the Center for Teaching Excellence is spearheading a new initiative called Faculty Owl Days, where approximately 50 faculty will open their classrooms on September 15th and 16th so that their colleagues can observe and celebrate the wonderful teaching that happens at our university.  Faculty Owl Days were inspired by a similar program at Yale, and we'll cap off the week with a reception in Herring Hall 129, a newly designed experimental classroom and home to both the CTE and Rice's Program in Writing and Communication.

We hope that this exciting new endeavor will bring with it a spotlight on good teaching and will give rise to many conversations about pedagogy and strategies for helping students to learn more effectively.  

One such discussion--a perennial favorite, in fact--centers on whether or not teaching is an art or a science.  I've heard folks talking about this countless times, and I have even entered the fray myself on quite a few occasions.  In today's post, I'd like to weigh in on the question and then offer a suggestion for a different kind of direction we might take.

Is Teaching an Art?

To the degree that teaching is a creative act, it might be said to be an artistic enterprise.  It is also true that painters or sculptors choose their tools and materials with intention, just as a teacher might decide upon a range of methods in the classroom.  Our best artists and teachers also pose powerful questions, many of which do not have easy answers (or, for that matter, any answers at all).  Here is where I think the comparison runs out of steam, though.  In the end, an artist acts upon a canvas or a mound of clay to create something masterful.  The materials themselves have no agency; you'd never see a bit of orange paint offer the artist some feedback.  This, of course, is very different from our students, each of whom must use what she or he learns in our courses to fashion a life outside of the university.  To envision teaching as an art, then, is to see it as a one-way transaction with the instructor as a kind of Pygmalion figure charged with shaping the countless Galateas sitting in our classrooms.  This is hardly the case.

This artistic argument has also led to what I think might be one of the most problematic misconceptions about teaching:  if teaching is an art, then aren't our best teachers simply born to stand in front of the classroom in the same way that those who are talented in other pursuits come by their skills naturally?  I think the answer to this is a resounding "No," and it should be said that many artists balk at the idea that their success has more to do with natural gifts than with hard work.  In particular, the notion that good teaching is innate can sometimes be demoralizing (“I’m just not good enough, and I never will be"), or it can serve as a convenient excuse not to improve (“I’m just not gifted in that way, so why bother”).  I won’t deny that some people are inherently more gifted at public speaking than others, but it is simply not true that people are born to be excellent teachers, and the perpetuation of this myth ultimately does higher education more harm than good.

Because outstanding teaching is primarily about creating the conditions in which our students can learn most effectively, being an excellent teacher does not hinge on genetic predisposition, but—instead—on a solid understanding of how human beings learn (particularly, but not exclusively, in connection with a given discipline) and on having a genuine empathy for students.  Also:  a lot of hard work.

Is Teaching a Science?

I think it is fairly easy to see the applicability of the scientific method to teaching.  Our greatest teachers observe their students and create rudimentary hypotheses about the best ways to ensure their students are learning.  They then test these hypotheses via activities, assignments, and other kinds of assessments, and evaluate the results.  I don't think this is necessarily a controversial claim, especially because there is excellent pedagogical research published every year that employs methods very similar to this. 

I do think, however, that this view of teaching is sometimes criticized for being impersonal.  After all, our students are not experimental subjects.  They bring with them into our classrooms their hopes, fears, joys, and sorrows.  They each have the potential to surprise us, to create new knowledge, to develop insights that move our disciplines forward.  Science can certainly be surprising, but the scientific comparison takes away some of the human interaction that makes teaching such an amazing, exhilarating profession to begin with.

A Different Sort of Question

In truth, teaching is probably a little bit of art and a little bit of science when it is done well, but what if we shifted the nature of the discussion altogether?

The biggest problem with both of these comparisons is that they focus primarily on what is happening at the front of the classroom.  The emphasis in the art/science divide is placed on the teacher, rather than the students.  As I suggested above, though, the most effective teaching is that which helps students learn to the greatest extent possible.  I wish this were an original claim, but I am hardly the first person to argue for placing learning at the center of our views on pedagogy.  In fact, this has been the tenor of the conversation at least since Robert B. Barr and John Tagg's 1995 article "From Teaching to Learning:  A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education," but I'm certain the sentiment goes back even further.

So how might we change the art vs. science question to reflect this positioning of learning?  Though we'll have to sacrifice the nicely compact nature of the original, a new version of this question might ask whether achieving a deep understanding of how our students learn (both in general and about our fields) is more of an art or a science.

The sorts of collaborations with students that might reveal this knowledge could certainly be called creative and even artistic.  I also think there is something of an art to being attuned to students' individual approaches to learning (or their Zones of Proximal Development) and adjusting our strategies and techniques accordingly in order to ensure we are helping as many students as possible.

What about science?  I have to admit I'm biased here.  As someone who is writing a book on the science of learning, I lean more heavily in this direction.  Because learning has its basis in the neurobiological mechanisms of the body, I think science has much to teach us about learning.  Learning is also rooted in the social world as well, so the fields of sociology and psychology provide further opportunities for understanding.  If we embrace the science of learning, it becomes much easier to see teaching as something that every instructor can do well.  Scientific principles of learning, which are firmly grounded in research, can help to establish a solid foundation on which we may all build effective, even exemplary, courses.

I definitely don't expect that I've solved anything in this post, but I do hope to have opened the debate.  What do you think?  Where do you stand on this important issue?  Let us know! 

Posted on September 14, 2015 .