Keep Your Art Out of My Science

A couple of decades ago while earning my bachelor’s degree in education I recall a professor asking whether we thought that teaching was an art or a science. At that time it was a pretty good debate for a bunch of 19 and 20 year-olds.

Whether we like it or not, there really no longer is a debate about how teachers are expected to teach. Art is no longer appreciated or rewarded. Science – data, pre-made assessments, canned lessons and are I say teaching to the test – is the expectation. There really is no time or necessity to be creative when there a finite number of objectives to accomplish. Sure, you can feel free to address those standards in any way you like! Or can you?The list of expectations for teaching behavior from lesson planning to classroom management to instructional delivery to professional behavior have been spelled out in detail. This is what great teaching looks like!

You understand in order to make the expense of public education justifiable, it has to be boiled down to a number. A number that Joe Average Citizen can comprehend. In order to get to a number you have to have a measurable product. In order to have a measurable product you have to have a concrete tool with which to measure. You can;t have a lot of loose ends that aren’t part of the accepted equation. Too messy.

Teachers in turn feel the pressure to reach some agreed upon number from the ivory tower and do exactly that. Believe me, it is hard to distinguish the standardized testing scores of students taught by teachers who teach straight out of the book and teachers who spend hundreds of hours planning and tweaking lessons. It’s crap.

It’s crap because the test doesn’t measure heart, caring, passion. It doesn’t measure wiped noses and concerned phone calls. There isn’t a tool that can tell Joe Average how many tears are shed over the frustration of language poor and money poor families or the miles of exercise that it takes to relieve the stress of unsupportive parents and less supportive agencies.

That my friends is science. Specific, Measurable, Trackable. Rows of students who might as well be bolting together widgets and sending them down the line.

The problem is that because we don’t reward artistry in our education system, our teachers don’t know how to encourage artistry in their classrooms. When we tell teachers that their jobs depend on making the score, the consciously or subconsciously project those fears onto their students. “No, I can;t let you explore how we came to use standard units instead of metric units, that will take too much time and we have to get to fractions before the PSSA. You just need to know that they are different.”

This is in my estimation the core of the problem in education. The rule followers prevail and the rule challengers fail. From kindergarten through to college, the students who can regurgitate some information in paper and pencil are bound for greatness. The artists will struggle because we can;t quantify what they are capable of. There are many examples of creators who were “poor” students in the eyes of their teachers but went on to do great things. These are the resilient artists. Those that rose above the square peg problem to find a square hole.

Our concern needs to be with the artists who aren’t resilient. The square pegs who, if they are lucky enough, will be able to balance themselves on top of the round hole – stuck in far enough to stay – and hide their artiness in the name of societal norms. And for those who aren’t crafty enough to fake it or resilient enough to overcome, what will become of them? 

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Question this Answer

This is a response to a post by Jan Simson over at Inspiration Avenue.  His question, “how would you make the education system better?” is something that I have written about in a roundabout way over the last several months.  

I’ll start my restating that I think that what education needs is a reinvention.  Starting from a vacuum and determining the best way to teach kids.  When I think about this now I think about the times in our lives when we learn things without a teacher.  Take for instance walking.  Does anyone really ever teach us to walk or do we just eventually walk?  Sure there are encouraging words and opportunities to walk provided.  We reached out fora hand, leg or table for stability.  Someone buys us a decent pair of shoes to make sure that those first few steps go smoothly and if we’re lucky, someone sets us down on a nice, soft surface so that falling doesn’t hurt so much.  No one ever says, “Okay, in today’s lesson we are going to talk about feet.  Feet are your primary means of transportation.  Once we learn about feet we will go on to standard PK.1.2 and you will begin to understand how those feet attach to legs.” In there was definitely no side trip to the history of shoes and footwear around the world.

What if we took those same ideas and put them into practice in education?  Give students opportunities to learn about what interests them and encourage them along the way.  Provide students with the resources that they need to be successful in their endeavors.  And provide the support that they need along the way.

The truth is that in the 21st century there is no way that we will be able to teach all of the content that currently exists.  Our jobs must be to teach students how to access the content, think critically about what they find and to solve the problems that they encounter along the way. The fact is that the jobs that we believe we are preparing our students for won’t even exist in 10, 15 or 20 years.  The skills of thinking critically and solving problems will be necessary in any future job. The character traits of courage and perseverance won’t hurt either.

If I had to sum it up in a bulleted list:

  • Teach students to be problem solvers.  Really that’s why we learn to walk. To solve the problem of it taking so long to get to what we want.
  • Encourage students along the way.
  • Teach students to be critical thinkers.
  • Encourage them to take chances.
  • Provide them with the tools that they need to access content.