Teaching is rarely a predictable act. Woven into it are a million threads of impression, expectation, feeling, and narrative construction for which teachers cannot plan. From the very first time a student reads a course title or teacher’s name to the lifelong mentoring relationships that so often follow, teaching thrums with assumptions, senses, beliefs, and attitudes that grow the identity and purpose of students and teachers alike. Holding these threads together like a loom constantly at work as new material is fed through, the teacher’s unique identity as artist balances, coordinates, and creates the learning environment.
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The Science and Art of Teaching
Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.
Parker Palmer, Courage to Teach
Our age is one where “scientific teaching” encourages the growth of evidence-based practices and approaches like active learning and data-driven assessments. Amidst this recent movement, the “art” of teaching connotes those elements in instruction that cannot be entirely measured, quantified, or shown to have outcomes (for instance, the impressions made upon a student by the complex interrelations among course design, instructor attitude, and teaching philosophy). These and other elements can, in some way, be measured and translated into principles. Yet like any work of art, their expression emerges from the coalescing of unique features (like the flow of discussion, or teacher-student relations) that are best described and experienced, not quantified or qualified. Possible iterations are as endless as the people capable of teaching and learning, but all demand immeasurable quantities of love and commitment if they are to be realized.
The art of teaching, then, is this: the marriage of a teacher’s ability to lovingly orchestrate the subtle strings of classroom dynamics and student expectations into learning with the truth that each class session is a unique, unrepeatable incarnation of shared presence. It is course design married to expression. Sometimes called the teacher’s “signature” upon the teaching act (Eisner 1983), a teacher’s way of knowing the threads and agencies of a class represents a kind of creative freedom in teaching best described through language of art alongside terms of science. Where the “science” of teaching describes how teaching should go, “art” suggests the unique way teaching unfolds as a teacher pursues these and other practices. In this way, every successful teacher is an artist.
The Expression of Teaching
Love is at the root of everything – all learning, all parenting, all relationships – love or the lack of it.
Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor by Focus Films
The “art of teaching” calls up well-known names in education like John Dewey, Mortimer Adler, Maxine Greene, and Parker Palmer. With each name comes a unique color or intonation defining teaching in different ways. Dewey alone described the teacher as an artist, lover, gardener, composer, social engineer, and more (Simpson, et. al. 2005). As a florilegium, the “art of teaching” encourages all the different metaphors that illuminate what it means for teaching to bloom.
Serving as a through line in many of these conversations, the art of teaching thrives through a kind of expressive personality. Friendly and open personalities often mark excellence in teaching: successful teachers have been shown to express their trust in students and willingness to invite students into their intellectual curiosity (Bain 2004). The freedom to convey these traits derives from the particular choices a teacher makes in the wording of their syllabus, the ways they draw student attention, their sensitivity to human emotion. This mélange cannot be prescriptive, for its elements are many. Instead, individual teachers, guided by theory, experience, principle, inspiration, and instinct, cultivate their particular approaches that, in turn, define their teacherly profile. As such, the art of teaching has been compared against the idea of “craft,” which typically denotes standards of practice and closely-defined products from field experts. Such an approach, so goes the argument, enervates the teacher’s ability to respond to the unique needs of students when designing, redesigning, or customizing a course (Lupton 2013). To borrow from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, there are as many kinds of teaching as there are teachers in the world.
However, this art can be hampered when the conditions governing learning in a course are not set by the teacher. As Maxine Green writes, when the teacher has freedom to establish conditions for learning that encourage curiosity and welcome diversity of opinion and representation, they create space for students to express the “energies and preferences” that invite further learning (Blue Guitar). A syllabus can emphasize these points; a course design pursuing particular learning objectives can be aligned to meet these principles; but only the ongoing perception and creativity of the teacher in daily decisions, narrative flow, directing of attention, and encouragement of student thought can cultivate a consistent learning environment as such. James Lang writes that, more than technology, design, objectives, and content, being fully present with students provides the most vital impression for them. Distracted teachers guided by technological prompts or measurable practices alone can only succeed so far; present teachers, committed to their students and invested to the point of their own excitement fueling student creativity, perform a balance and work of empathetic teaching that can only be called an art.
If art is human expression about the world, then teaching is human expression about the unfolding and ever-changing ways that we think and learn about the world. This art must be relational, for the ways we learn about the world cannot be pointed to and dissected, but only embodied and experienced: patience, empathy, collaboration, awe, and transformation.
Learning the Art of Teaching
Ideally, readers will treat their teaching as they likely already treat their own scholarship or artistic creations: as serious and important intellectual and creative work, as an endeavor that benefits from careful observation and close analysis, from revision and refinement, and from dialogues with colleagues and the critiques of peers.
Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do
Like writing, teaching can be taught, mentored, and made into principles; but its actual expression will always have an individual style, a personal approach, a unique coalescence of practices that cannot be replicated by others. In many ways, then, the art of teaching develops naturally as a teacher allows experience, mistakes, and successes to form and reform their approach, and cannot be summarized easily. However, a variety of practices can help teachers articulate their particular approaches, beliefs, and habits that comprise an art of teaching.
- Write a Teaching Philosophy: Writing a teaching philosophy can be a challenging, invigorating exercise for instructors. Because their form is first-person, but formal, teaching philosophies ask instructors to effectively articulate their knowledge of teaching and learning with details from the classroom. Philosophies are typically brief, but can speak to teaching habits, best practices, inspirations, and pedagogical goals; in short, many of the elements that comprise an art of teaching.
- Form a Community: Practitioners learn best from fellow practitioners; they also come to define themselves against the styles and norms of others. Instructors chatting together regularly about their learning will invariably share best practices and perceive differences among the various ways they approach challenges to learning.
- Reflect on Mentors and Inspirations: Instructors seeking to be reflective about their practice are often prompted to think about the mentors and teachers that most influenced them (Brookfield 2017). Like other art forms, teaching draws on traditions as much as innovations, and instructors can learn much about the elements they value by considering the sources and inspirations they are most drawn to, or that have most impacted their thinking and feeling.
- Consider Challenges: Like many other conditions in life, challenges tend to reveal deep-seated assumptions and beliefs in teaching. When instructors reflect on the ways they have handled challenging students or situations, they can identify the instincts and reactions they most wish to cultivate or eradicate.
The Immeasurableness of Teaching
Works of art extend their power beyond the moment of experience: they abide in our memories, alter our emotional states, inspire our actions, become part of who we are. So do excellent teaching and impactful classrooms, as our own memories and experiences in school can illustrate. To data mine teaching and insist solely on measurable outcomes dispenses with the emotive, creative, and formational elements of teaching that can only be defined by quality of thought, resonance of emotionality, care for the living, and curiosity for truth.
Perhaps that is also why teaching is so prone to metaphors. Teaching is people changing, in the process of helping other people change, while they all consider changes in numbers, letters, natures, thoughts, and events. This page alone has resorted to painting, orchestrating, gardening, weaving, and writing to make its points, never mind the metaphors of others it has recorded, and the one with which it will end. The lesson here is broad, and simple: take the time to think about what teaching is for you, and what it is not. The chosen metaphor matters less than the act of striving, always, to make teaching into something more than teaching.
Teaching is a sky full of stars, full of students, hopes, desires, challenges, the unexpected, the tiresome, the traditional, the bold, the known, and the unknown. It is a sky full of constellations as complex, illuminating, and guiding as the teacher and student can create. The depth and meaningfulness of the constellations depend on how many points of light can be perceived and known.
Bain, K. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Brookfield, S. 2017. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Eisner, Elliot. 1983. The Art and Craft of Teaching. Educational Leadership 40.4 (4-14).
Greene, Maxine. 2001. Variations on a Blue Guitar. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
Jenkins, Rob. 2015. The Four Properties of Powerful Teachers. Advice: The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Lang, James. 2015. Waiting for Us to Notice Them. Advice: The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Lupton, M. 2013. Reclaiming the Art of Teaching. Teaching in Higher Education 18.2 (156-166).
Palmer, P. 1998. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Simpson, D, Jackson, M., and Aycock, J. 2005. John Dewey and the Art of Teaching: Toward Reflective and Imaginative Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.