Art or Science?

Robert Pondiscio at The Core Knowledge Blog highlighted a video from University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham that poses the age-old question: Is teaching an art or a science?  Not surprisingly, Willingham suggest that it is neither:

I’m arguing that teaching is somewhere in between.  Like an architect, a good teacher knows some fundamental findings from science but then also uses creativity and ingenuity to go beyond any strictures science can offer to create something wholly original, functional and enduring.

Pondiscio uses the video to lament the lack of science in education, pointing to what he sees as flawed ideas such as whole language and learning styles as examples of places where educators run off the rails. He focuses on the ideas that Willingham presents in the second half of the video about where science can help educators: by recommending boundary conditions, the “must haves” that are essential to learning (ie, practicing a skill), and suggesting “could dos,” ideas for how educators might teach certain ideas.  Pondiscio concludes, “The larger problem, to put it bluntly, is that education  pays insufficient evidence to science.”

That may be true, but the important part of the video for me was the first half in which Willingham shows how difficult it is to actually study teaching and learning in scientific ways.  He points out that the kinds of controlled studies that scientists like are done outside of the classroom environment, eliminating all the messiness that happens in a real classroom where you can control for distractions or motivation levels of students.  And, trying to do scientifically based studies in classroom is almost impossible for a whole host of reasons.  Even if you can do such research, according to Willingham, classrooms vary so much that findings from one 3rd grade class may not be applicable to any other 3rd grade class anywhere.  For me, to paraphrase Pondiscio, the larger problem is, to put it bluntly, that learning is complicated, kids and teachers aren’t robots, and even paying sufficient evidence to science doesn’t solve the host of problems that confront any given teacher on any given day.

I don’t disagree that we should equip teachers with whatever is known about the “boundary conditions.” And Pondiscio is right to suggest, “This creates an enormous opportunity for the cognitive scientists like Willingham to frame the discussion and offer evidence-based guidance on those ‘must haves.'”  But I worry that those who push us towards scientifically based best practices want to gloss over the conclusions from the first half of the video about the complex messiness of classrooms.  As Willingham points out, knowing a boundary condition doesn’t help with how to teach it and that’s where the creativity and ingenuity comes in.  And, as a teacher of teachers, helping them learn to be creative is a much more difficult task.

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