How to Balance the Art & Science of Teaching

Learning, Teacher Quality

Recently, I gave a TED talk outlining why I think we’re in the midst of the most exciting and difficult time to be a teacher in American history. These sorts of talks are always imperfect (and timed) efforts to inject new ideas into the stratosphere, but I received lots of nice comments and feedback, including some observations that only a mom – my mom, actually – would share (“Your posture was very relaxed, and you never even said ‘um’!”).
It was another thing my mother said that struck me, though. “Do you feel sure that your audience knows what to do with all you’ve said?” she wrote.

Great point, and I’m not sure. So here, as simply as I can say it, are three specific things – some big, some small – we need to do to help teachers get better at helping children learn and grow.
1. Follow the Med School Model – As any M.D. knows, different medical schools have different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing every medical school shares is the belief that a strong medical training is built on a dual foundation of two courses: anatomy and physiology.
In education, no similar consensus exists. Worse still, most programs – whether they’re traditional schools of education or alternative certification programs – give short shrift to one of the most important things a teacher needs to know: child and adolescent development.
Think about that for a second. Our country’s teacher training programs, by and large, pay little attention to how well prospective teachers understand the emotional and developmental needs of the children they propose to teach.
So let’s start there by urging all teacher-training programs to adapt the Med School model and establish a similar two-course foundation for all prospective educators: Learning Sciences and Developmental Sciences.
I realize that won’t happen anytime soon (if at all). But the good news is we don’t need to wait; we can just start establishing online and/or in-person courses anywhere and everywhere, for anyone that’s interested in acquiring a deeper understanding of this new knowledge base. These courses would provide recommended reading, a forum for people to communicate with some guided facilitation, and a space for learners to self-organize with each other based on their areas of interest. And while it would be great if some accrediting body offered participants credit toward a degree or certification, we don’t need to wait for that to happen, either. What matters is identifying what we need to learn to be more effective at what we do, and then learning it. Period.
2. Study the Brain – In the same way educators need a solid foundation in how people develop, we should be equally aware of how people learn. That’s why schools and districts should incentivize any efforts on the part of their teachers to better understand the brain – regardless of whether it’s a book club or an accredited course. And once again, we can start right away in any community, alone or in groups. There are scores of recently written books that translate the latest insights in neuroscience for a lay audience. So we don’t need to wait for the schools of education to catch up. But we do need to do our homework and make sure we’re creating classroom environments that are highly tuned to our students’ strengths and weaknesses and how they see the world.
3. Craft Evaluation Programs That Honor Art & Science – One thing all sides seem to agree on is that teacher evaluation systems are in need of an extreme makeover; for too long, they’ve been little more than pro forma stamps of approval, and they’ve done little to nothing to help teachers get better.
In too many places, however, efforts are already underway to craft systems that disregard the art of teaching in favor of the (misunderstood) science of measurement. These sorts of systems are more about pushing people out than lifting them up. That’s why we should blow them all up and start over.
A prerequisite of any new evaluation system should be its effort to help teachers improve the quality of their practice via shared inquiry into what is and isn’t working in their classrooms. These new systems shouldn’t be afraid of quantitative measures, just as they shouldn’t devalue qualitative measures. And we should be sure to pay attention to the illustrative efforts already underway. If you’re a policymaker, for example, take a close look at what they’re doing in Montgomery County. And if you’re a teacher, consider getting certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
It will always be true, in teaching and in the natural world, that not everything can be measured, just as it’s true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than test scores. The challenge is to find the balance between the elusive but evergreen art of teaching, and the emerging but illustrative science of the brain.
We can do both. And we can start today.