Is Teaching an Art or a Science?


The Barnes Foundation
Yesterday my mother and I visited the Barnes Foundation,  a wonderful museum outside of Philadelphia. Unlike a traditional museum, this house-school-museum was curated by Dr. Barnes, its founder and remains in its original design according to the rules set forth by him in his will and through his Foundation.  In addition, rather than artwork being organized by time period, style or artist, each wall of the museum is organized according to Dr. Barnes' own interpretations. Some walls have a particular color that runs throughout each work, some walls position works to show how artists were inspired by others and sometimes there is furniture, candlesticks or sculptures by the wall that serve Dr. Barnes' vision. I remember two Renoir paintings of fairly large women, each with a fairly large chair perched underneath them. Alongside the paintings are pieces of ironwork that Dr. Barnes collected and placed on the walls, adorning the paintings, with their shapes often mirroring shapes in the paintings.

One of the most poignant parts of the experience was learning about how different artists like Cezanne and Renoir influenced each other by looking at paintings right next to each other. In fact, the docent who guided us through the house explained the importance of these relationships and how common they were among artists, even over the course of decades. In fact, the collection at the museum is so rich that we could look at a painting from the 18th century and see how it influenced an artist from the 19th century. As a former art student, I remember studying different painters and analyzing their techniques and styles. I remember seeing what my peers were doing and being influenced and inspired them, even at a young age.

In fact, art as we know it would not exist if artists had not shared their work, critiqued and talked about each others' work or picked up techniques they admired. I'm sure some of you have at some point read about or imagined those dark caf├ęs thick with smoke with artists and poets sitting around drinking absynthe, smoking cigarettes and reading poetry or critiquing art. These kinds of communities are glorified in the history books as labs of innovation and a vital part of our cultural heritage.

As a teacher, I find that I practice the same kinds of sharing, reflection and inspiring dialogue with my peers, though my art is not painting, but teaching.

Some of the conversations I've been reading recently point to the fact that many schools, districts and educational leaders look at teaching as a scientific algorithm; something that can be pared down to scientific data-based methods.

So, I wondered, is teaching an Art or a Science? I decided to poll my colleagues.

It was a loaded question, as many people who answered my poll argued. Here are some of the responses I received on Twitter:

However, I was curious to see what people would choose when faced with only an 'either/or' situation.

Here are the results of the poll:

If you go to the poll page, you will see that most people believe that teaching is truly a mixture of both, but still, when faced with a decision, most people (a large majority) chose the 'art' option.

As for the argument about art being both a Science and an Art, I would agree. However, I would also argue that a big part of art includes science. A good artist knows the chemical composition of his or her materials. Certain paints contain cadmium, certain chemicals have certain effects on the texture of paints, still others can turn a paint into a glaze. Master artists understand colors and use them purposefully to create an emotion, an experience or an impression. In that way, Art is a Science, but we still consider it Art.

In the same way, a good teacher knows the composition of his or her curriculum and his or her students. Master teachers understand their students and the curriculum and know how to create learning experiences for his or her students. This requires a scientific understanding of how the brain learns and how to engage students, but it takes an artist to create a powerful, deep learning experience.

What do you think?

Barnes Foundation photo by marybethhertz on Flickr
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Designing Instruction for Learning


I just finished this fabulous book by Ken Washburn that really has me thinking about instructional design. The Architecture of Learning has also made me more concerned about the direction that education is headed in this country.  My main takeaway is embodied in this quote:
Instructional design differs from lesson planning.
I have been lesson planning for years.  I think about what I want my kids to learn and what content they need to know and, in the past, I have designed for how I would deliver the ideas and content. However, I now have a better understanding of how important it is to plan for how my students will build knowledge and how to guide them through the exploratory phases of learning that lead to deeper connections and a better chance of retention and ability to apply new knowledge to new situations.

To truly design learning experiences is a pretty exciting idea. Washburn's blueprints for skills and concepts really helped me pull all of my professional learning this year come together into something cohesive. His model follows this sequence, based on how the brain learns:

Experience--> Comprehension--> Elaboration--> Application--> Intention

All of the approaches I've been studying point to the importance of letting students explore content before assessment and of addressing misunderstandings before we move on and expect them to be able to apply what they have learned. Giving them a point of reference is also important. Washburn does a great job explaining how the simple use of stories can help provide a metaphor that can guide a student through the learning process. Being able to say, "remember when...." and compare new situations to previous experiences is powerful.

I am hoping to use this experience stage of learning when I teach my 6th graders Scratch. Before they start coding, they will practice acting out lines of Scratch code kind of like a play. That way, they have a visual and sensory frame of reference for the code they will be writing.

I am looking forward to mapping out units this summer. I can't wait to put myself in my students' shoes and plan for how they will organize and unpack content and synthesize skills to experience learning that lasts.

This year I have taught fewer units, but feel that my kids have learned more than in many of my previous years due to my focus on instructional design for learning rather than just lesson planning to deliver content. By taking the time to let my students explore the tools we use and by taking the time to scaffold them toward both proficiency with tools and with content and concepts I have found that my students have surpassed all of my previous students in retention and ability to apply the concepts and skills I want them to know.

As Washburn says,

...teachers combine four elements to design instruction: an understanding of students, a knowledge of learning, an awareness of subject matter types, and a sequence of classroom activities that mirrors how the brain processes new data.
The scary part? I have never seen unit development or curriculum mapping that puts this in action in any school I have ever worked in.

The great part? I attended a few schools that did. And man what a difference it made in my life!

If you are looking for practical advice on how to design instruction, I highly recommend this book!
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edcamp Philly 2011


I am so excited to announce the second annual edcamp Philly!  It is a day full of learning and making connections with teachers just like you!

When: Saturday, May 21st
Where: Jon Huntsman Hall, University of Pennsylvania
Cost: FREE!

The day is completely unstructured until that morning, when the schedule of sessions is built by the attendees themselves. Sessions can range from discussions about assessment to sharing of Web 2.0 tools to interactive sessions.  There is a lot of social networking and use of technology, but it is NOT a technology conference. Next to someone with an iPad you will also see someone taking notes on a legal pad. However, if you are looking to open up your classroom to more technology this is the place to go.

The best part of edcamp? The Rule of Two Feet.  If you walk into a session and it's not what you expected or you are not impressed, you can simply choose a different session.

What's more, you can take tips, tricks and ideas back to your classroom on Monday and the whole day is FREE!

For more about edcamp, visit our website and check out the video below:

Ed Camp from True Life Media on Vimeo.
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