Thursday, September 25, 2014

The 5th Friday: Teaching As Art and Science

“When you look at the truly effective teachers, you will also find caring, warm, lovable people. Years later, when the students remember their most significant teachers, the ones that they remember the most are the ones who really cared about them. Effective teachers know that they cannot get a student to learn unless that student knows that the teacher cares.”
(Wong & Wong, 1998)

Quotes like the one above from Wong and Wong relate to the art of teaching more than the science of teaching. This remains my primary passion related to education: the “artistic” abilities necessary to become and remain an outstanding educator. However, it is important to note that the subtitle to Wong and Wong’s now-famous tome, The First Days of School, is How to Be an Effective Teacher. Although the art of teaching is my own primary area of interest, and one that goes a long way toward making an effective teacher, we must also examine the science of teaching-----focusing on research that sheds light on what makes some teachers more effective, efficient, and relevant than other teachers. In one of the first graduate classes I ever took, I learned that teachers who were identified as exemplary possessed six common characteristics (Rice & Taylor, 2000):
  • Knowledge of content
  • Planning skills
  • Use, after selection, of appropriate materials
  • Classroom management skills
  • Human relations skills
  • Instructional skills
Obviously, the qualities listed above are neither esoteric, mystical, nor new. In addition, all but one is necessary for success in any line of work, not just teaching. The one characteristic unique to the teaching profession is instruction skills. What exactly are “instructional skills”? We could likely come up with several different—and possibly lengthy—lists, but many such lists go all the way back to Madeline Hunter’s work that has been around now for decades. Although not all-encompassing, her Seven Elements of Lesson Design might constitute one example of the “science” of teaching:

  • Anticipatory Set
  • Objective and Purpose
  • Input
  • Modeling
  • Checking for Understanding
  • Guided Practice
  • Independent Practice

The science of teaching, then, might be at least partially comprised of these lesson design elements. No matter what subject or grade, these elements remain useful to consider. Both the kindergarten teacher and the algebra teacher must select objectives at or near the correct range of difficulty and level of complexity. Elementary and secondary teachers need to teach the objectives while checking for understanding. Guided and independent practice opportunities are present in many instructional lessons, and all effective teachers use some form of modeling at some point during their teaching.
An oft-debated topic in many of my education classes back in the day revolved around whether effective teaching is an art or a science. Personally, I have always focused more on the art of teaching than the science of teaching. However, in reality, the two are not only nearly equal in importance, but also interrelated. Even the most sterling teaching performance may prove meaningless unless such a performance is based upon a sound scientific knowledge base. At the same time, the most scientifically sound lesson in the history of pedagogy will prove fruitless in terms of student learning if the teacher is not proficient in the art of teaching. In his book on the topic, Robert Marzano promotes the notion that teaching is part art and part science, suggesting that the science part is founded on extensive research that provides guidance, both general and specific. The art part is founded on the realization that such research cannot provide answers for every situation and that some teaching techniques can be employed in different fashion and different order by two different teachers with equally beneficial results.
The single biggest perk of my current job is that I am able to visit classrooms at a number of schools every single day. During these visits, I am able to observe artists and scientists (disguised as classroom teachers) in action, ensuring that students are comprehending complex material while also nurturing an inviting, caring, and warm environment in which to do so.

Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the fifth problem, along with his fix:
Grades are broken when they are directly or indirectly related to a student’s attendance record. The simple fix requires absences to be reported separately from grades, and that grades be determined only from evidence of achievement. I suspect there are very few people who value attendance and punctuality more than I do, yet standards-based learning is not about seat time, but about what students know, understand, and can do. Most students need to attend class to be successful and teachers must ensure that engaging learning activities are being provided so that students feel it is worth their while to attend; however, absences should not directly affect students’ grades.


  1. Jeff,
    I thought the greatest perk of your job was working with me! Seriously though, as you have said before, we can substitute the word leader for teacher.
    Thank you as always for write so well and allowing your readers to see and feel that which you write!

    1. Mike,
      It goes w/o saying that working w/ you is perk #1! So true that teachers are leaders and leaders are teachers. Thanks for serving in both roles!