The Art and Science of Teaching

Some educators view teaching as primarily an art. Others take an opposite point of view and consider teaching to be strictly a science. Many educators believe that effective teaching is a combination of both art and a science. A teacher gains knowledge both, of teaching methods and subject matter throughout his or her career. The art of teaching lies within the application of knowledge gained from research, taking place in the context of the unique, situational nature of the classroom. One cannot truly become an effective teacher without integrating both the art and the science of teaching.

Teaching as Art: Understanding Through Definition

Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary gives several definitions, which can be used to support the idea of teaching as an art. The definitions include but are not limited to: (1) “the activity of using imagination and skill to create beautiful things (Webber,1984, p.41)”, (2) “a field or category of artistic activity (1984, p.41)”, (3) “a trade or craft and the methods employed in it (1984, p.41)”.

Teaching As an Artistic Process Achieving an End Product

Teaching involves imagination and skill in creating student learning. This refers to the activities in which teachers engage each day, utilizing both imagination and skill, and one might add intuition. Teachers engage in such activities to bring about the product which is student learning. It is interesting to note that the product in this case is also by definition, a process.
The classroom environment, for example, can be broken down into 2 components: (1) physical design, and (2) social-emotional climate. The classroom learning environment can be considered a work of art in and of itself. Without a proper environment, both physical and emotional, students will not be able to learn effectively. The physical environment can be relatively easy to maintain, but the emotional climate for learning requires the artful application of imagination, skill, and intuition on the part of the teacher.

Some aspects of the emotional climate of the classroom can be pre-planned, but most of the work involved in the maintenance of a proper social-emotional climate for learning, is done in the moment. In Maintaining a positive learning climate, the teacher must take into account the endless supply of variables that may appear without warning, in the milieu. Keeping the classroom and the students organized and on task, while teaching the required skills and concepts, and the whole time fostering an atmosphere of respect, caring, and responsibility, describes the artistic process by which teachers conduct business. The product of this artistic process is a class of students who respect and care for one another, in the process of effectively learning subject matter.

Teaching is a Category of Artistic Activity

Teaching is indeed a category of artistic activity. In an interview on pedagogy, teacher Camille Paglia describes her teaching style as “improv”, and relates it directly to performance art (Rodden, 1996). She refuses to accept someone reading a prewritten lecture as teaching (Rodden, 1996). Madeline Hunter describes teaching as a dynamic activity, and finds it important to see each teaching situation as unique due to the interplay of many variables (Magestro, 1994). The art of teaching involves not only knowing what to do and how to do it, but also knowing when to do it, and in what situations not to do it (Magestro, 1994). It is this kind of thinking process that takes teaching from a scientific base to an art form (Magestro, 1994).

Teaching as a Trade and a Craft

It is obvious to most that teaching is both a trade and a craft, and therefore by definition, the method by which teachers practice their trade, is an artistic process. Those who argue teaching to be purely a science cannot properly argue against this definition. In defining art in such a manner, one can easily see that it is the application of the science that constitutes the art. Teachers apply a body of knowledge regarding what is known about teaching and education, as well as subject matter. The art of teaching consists of decision making in the moment, building a repertoire of techniques and skills, and knowing when to draw upon which techniques, that make up the art of teaching. Some consider this an extreme form of multi-tasking, a challenge even to ex-soldiers, as described by Brougham (Inspiring Words, 2003).

Teaching as Science: Using definitions to Gain Perspective

Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary defines “science” as (1) “the study and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena (Webber, 1984, p.620)”, (2) “a systematic activity requiring study and method (1984, p.620)”, and (3) “knowledge, especially that acquired through experience (1984, p.620)”.

Teaching as the Study and Explanation of Learning

Broadly speaking, education can be defined as the study and theoretical explanation of teaching and learning. Educational research, along with research from several other fields, provides the basis for our understanding of educational methods (Ivie, Roebuck, and Short, 2001). Educational research is a component of education, not a separate field, as may be commonly assumed. Educational research is an important part of what teachers do in the classroom on a daily basis. Teaching as a profession, as described by Madeline Hunter, is based in the “science of learning” (Ivie et al., 2001). Teachers utilize the knowledge gained from research findings in the classroom each day. Educators sometimes even take part in educational research, conducting action research within their own classrooms.

Teaching as a Systematic Process

Teaching is systematic, and it requires much study before entering the profession, and throughout one’s career. The results of experiments done by B.F. Skinner in the 1960’s were found to be applicable in the classroom setting (Ivie et al., 2001). Many principles of behaviorism are utilized in classrooms today, especially with students with special needs. Students with certain presentations often respond well to behaviorally based programs, in which they are rewarded for positive or desired behaviors in an attempt to extinguish negative or unwanted behaviors. Behavioral techniques often provide some benefit to the general student population as well.

There are some that view the use of technology in education, as an aid in systematizing teaching (Ivie et al., 2001). Author Seymour Papert, who writes on children and technology, states that the use of technology and computerized learning will someday allow us to so modify a child’s learning environment to point of not needing schools (Ivie et al.)! Such an idea may seem a little strange to the educators of today. However, Papert may be on to something. Computerized technology may be of great help in systematizing aspects the educational system, or at least in terms of the teaching and learning of isolated skills in the classroom.

Education as a Body of Knowledge

Madeline Hunter has described teaching as an applied science based on research on learning and behavior (Ivie et al., 2001). The body of knowledge that makes up what we know about education, broadly speaking, defines education as a science by definition. Hunter has noted that education as a field takes into account knowledge based on research from several other fields including: psychology, neurology, and sociology (Ivie et al.),

On an individual level, the teacher has also developed his or her own specific fund of knowledge, integrating information from other sources as well. A teacher builds a repertoire of teaching and subject matter knowledge over the course of his or her career. The acquisition of knowledge begins in college, or maybe even before. It does not, however, end with formal higher education. Not only is professional development mandated by state and federal agencies, teachers are also involved in continual reflection, and are by design, always trying to improve their teaching methods. Improvement is made possible only through the continual accumulation of knowledge. This accumulation of information and improvement of teaching practices based on information gained from speaks to the science of teaching.

Some people view teaching as an art, others consider teaching to be a science. It is important to note however, that those who truly understand the process of teaching can appreciate the interrelated and synergistic combination known as the art and science of teaching. The art of teaching i.e., the creative processes, the skills, and the teaching craft, is found in the application of the science of education: the systematic processes, the body of knowledge gained from several disciplines. A teacher needs to utilize both the art and the science of teaching to create effective student learning

Brougham, H. (2003). Inspiring words for educators. Curriculum Review. 42(9), 8.
Ivie, S.D., Roebuck, F., & Short, R. (2001). Experienced teachers insist that effective teaching is primarily a science. Education, 121(3) 359-35.
Magestro, P. (1994). Tribute to Madeline Hunter. Educational Leadership, 51(7) 83.
Rodden, John. (1996). A TPQ interview ‘improv’ is my pedagogical style: Camille Paglia on teaching as performance art. Text and Performance Quarterly, 16(2), 161-171.
Webber, H. (Ed.). (1984). Webster’s II new Riverside dictionary (Berkley ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin.

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