Education Letter to the Editor

Teaching Is as Much an Art as a Science

October 25, 2005 1 min read

To the Editor:

Pressured by the federal No Child Left Behind Act to produce a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, it’s understandable why reformers are eagerly scrutinizing the preparation of practitioners in other fields as a model (“Scholars Eye ‘Signature’ Method of Teacher Training,” Oct. 12, 2005). If schools training doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals have been successful by developing a distinctive pedagogy, then why can’t schools of education do the same?

The answer is that teaching is as much art as it is science. Two books, curiously with the exact same title but published 55 years apart, make that clear. In 1950, Gilbert Highet’s The Art of Teaching cautioned that it is “dangerous to apply the aims and methods of science to human beings as individuals.” He based his thesis on the belief that teaching involves emotions, which “cannot be systematically appraised and employed,” and human values, which “are quite outside the grasp of science.” In 2005, Jay Parini said essentially the same thing, although he used a different metaphor. He wrote that “the classroom is a form of theater, and the teacher must play various roles, often in an exaggerated manner.”

If the primary purpose of teacher training is to ensure that teachers possess a basic competency, then looking for a scripted approach is defensible. But if the purpose is to create teachers who can inspire students, then the quest is in vain. That’s because the best teachers can violate an entire volume of principles and still be remarkable. Their personality and style defy immediate measurement.

Walt Gardner

Los Angeles, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Teaching Is as Much An Art as a Science