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Teaching is an art and a science

By Nancy Salvato
web posted February 26, 2007

When I was teaching at Head Start, my colleagues and I used to grab a few moments to team plan during nap (not every child cooperated) and it was usually then that I became privy to some of my co –teacher's valuable insights about the students.  Some commentary had definite implications for how we might prevent a particularly troubled student from explosively acting out; other remarks didn't have the same ramifications but were interesting none-the-less. 

I remember discussing one day how certain meals would cause the students to fight because they wanted more than their serving and how other meals would be left at the table.  My co-teacher had been teaching a number of years and hypothesized that our students didn't like Chicken Pot Pie because all the food was mixed together.  Yet, we found it fascinating that they liked to dip everything in their milk (including garlic bread).  She theorized that dipping must've been cultural.  And while I wasn't really paying attention, the students had definitely figured out when we would be having spaghetti or pizza. 

Through trial and error, I became creative in the ways I could encourage the kids to utilize the provided serving utensils to serve themselves a normal sized portion -so that everyone at the table would have enough to eat.  I became more proactive in general, preventing situations that would inevitably devolve into one or more students challenging accepted rules of behavior.  Though we couldn't prevent every melt down, we began to figure out how to meet the kids' needs and let the learning process evolve.  We grabbed those teachable moments and gave the kids all we had. 

Teaching is an art and a science.  The art is when activities in the classroom are all running incredibly smoothly and kids are learning and safe and happy.  The art is realizing when to refill the paint and how high; or how to pose a question about the puzzle; or when to stay behind the scenes and just watch. The art is in knowing when to give the five minute warning and start the process of cleaning up the classroom.  The art is to understand when to give that child a squeeze on the shoulder and when to let that child pick himself up after a fall and not draw attention to what happened.  The science in education is something else altogether.  And it is very misunderstood.

When a scientist poses a hypothesis (idea) about what is causing a behavior, it is not to prove the idea right against all odds.  Rather, the scientific method encourages other scientists to test the idea and through trial and error rule out other possible reasons for the student behavior.  True scientists aren't ideological or political and therefore don't see their role as advancing an idea and proving it regardless of competing evidence.  A true scientist wants to understand why something has occurred. 

On the other hand, junk scientists prefer to defend their ideas about why things happen and dismiss studies that question their findings.  They do not want others to test out their theories or advance competing plausible explanations. This is the opposite of good scientific practice; wanting other scientists to look at their work, test their ideas, and replicate their experiments.  It is only by replicating studies and ruling out competing ideas that hypothesis can become theories.  No scientist can ever be 100% certain about their beliefs because not every variable can be accounted for 100% of the time.  Yet in schools across the nation, junk science prevails in the types of teaching employed, in the curriculum that is implemented and in the assumptions underlying student behavior and discipline.

If teaching is to be an art and a science, teachers need to be able to determine whether there is evidence behind a teaching method or if there is an ideology behind a method.  Teachers often employ trial and error in their own teaching.  Teachers should extend that natural inclination to ask how the methods they are taught to employ in their classrooms have fared in scientific investigations.  And these methods should be held to the same standards to which they hold themselves in their classrooms.  ESR

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy. Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2007


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