The Art and Science of Teaching

I’ve always been a good athlete. Playing almost any sport, except the ones where I had to be really tall or strong, came pretty easily to me. In high school, I picked up tennis to rehab a soccer injury, and before I knew it, I was the best player on my team. I was so proud when the coach made me the #1 singles player. And then I started losing…to everyone. I found a coach who agreed to hit with me to help me understand my strengths and weaknesses. On our first day together, I hit all my best shots to show him my tennis skills. When I strutted up to the net, I expected to hear how good I was, and instead he told me, nicely, respectfully, and honestly, that I didn’t know how to do anything. I’d never had a tennis lesson before. So I was using every inch of athleticism I possessed, but if I ever wanted to improve, we needed to start at the beginning. He asked me if I wanted to learn how to play tennis, and if I wanted to understand the game. When I agreed to let him teach me, we didn’t start by tracking down difficult shots in the corner, or serving as hard as I could. Instead, he started at the beginning, by teaching me how to hold a racket correctly.

I had a similar experience when I began teaching. At the time, I thought of teaching as only an art. I can’t play the piano or the guitar, but as a young teacher, I thrived in front of the kids. I felt like I could connect with the toughest students; pull inferences and understanding out of a hat, and lead disadvantaged students to the learning I wanted for them. I was an artist, with the classroom as my palate, and the students as the canvas. Then my mentor, over time, nicely, respectfully, and honestly, taught me that entertaining kids and teaching students are not one and the same. She helped me to practice the purposeful shift away from students memorizing what I told them, to students constructing and making their own meaning from the ideas we explored together. My mentor helped me to purposefully practice my teaching, just as my tennis coach had years before. Purposeful practice of specific instructional strategies was my introduction to the science of teaching.

In my administrative graduate program, Elliot Eisner asked us whether or not teaching was an art or a science. Are all good teachers born to it, or can good instructional practices be learned, practiced, and improved upon? I do believe in an IT factor; a quality that some great teachers have. Those of us who spend lots of time visiting classrooms know that every once in a while we stumble into a room where the teaching and learning is beautiful and it feels like art in the making. But we also know that a school year is a marathon, and plenty of days throughout a school year fall far short of anyone’s criteria of beautiful. Teachers who have IT can connect with angry, shy, brilliant, and struggling students. But IT isn’t enough to move student learning forward daily. But IT alone isn’t enough to move student learning forward, daily.

I believe good instruction is also a science. I know in urban schools, we give far more credence to the art of teaching than the science. We act like only those teachers with the IT factor can survive in urban communities. But the truth is, it’s the science of teaching that ensures whether or not all students learn. Each year, we hire close to twenty-five first year teachers on our campus of high schools. Many enter our schools like I entered the tennis court in high school or my first classroom, full of confidence. These new teachers are gifted entertainers, talkers, readers, or writers. But they don’t know how to teach, yet.

I’ve learned that new teachers, who are willing, start with practicing the instructional equivalent of learning to hold the racket, improve every year, and become some of our best. Those that believe the IT factor is all they need, either leave on their own, or ultimately we invite them to leave because they can’t meet our diverse learners’ needs.

I’ve spent more time recently thinking about the convergence of the art and science of teaching because my son is learning to swim. Every Saturday, we attend a thirty-minute lesson. His teacher is amazing. Watching her work with my son and the other beginner swimmers has me thinking about what I do and do not see in the classrooms I visit back at school.

Here’s some of what she does:

  • She gets the students excited about both swimming in general and the specific activity ahead
  • She acknowledges whatever fear the students bring to the pool, but she doesn’t let anyone focus on that fear
  • She has a clear idea of the skills she wants students to practice in each lesson
  • Every lesson is a balance between something the students can already do and something they are working to master
  • No swimming skill is ever finished being learned, everything is practiced and refined, and improved upon
  • There are multiple activities in each lesson, but they are all different ways to practice the same skill
  • She encourages, laughs, commends, and challenges the students each and every class
  • She makes time to instruct the whole group, but understands individual strengths and weaknesses
  • She pushes, and never accepts when a student says they can’t do it
  • Every student has the opportunity be successful; and how they accomplish the learning is a little different for each swimmer

At some point in our training most of us take an educational psychology course and study Lev Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Each Saturday, I watch my son’s teacher find his zone. He is nervous at the beginning of every class and so proud at the end of the lesson. His teacher pushes him, meaningfully and purposefully, and I’m watching him learn to swim. His teacher has found the right balance between the art and science of teaching. She absolutely has the IT factor. My son talks about her all week long, and watching her instruction is like watching art in the making. But more importantly, she understands her content and is developing purposeful lessons to push the whole group and each individual student.

I see well-developed lessons regularly. But I don’t regularly see lessons that ensure all students are in their ZPD. Do you? Are you having conversations with teachers and colleagues about how to develop lessons to purposefully push student learning forward?

I’ve written before about the hidden contract of urban schools when teachers, students and administrators agree not to push at each other. Watching my son’s swim lessons is a stark reminder for me of how often the school day just happens to our students. Despite our best intentions, students can experience a period, a day, or a week where real learning doesn’t happen. Without a doubt, they are exposed to new ideas regularly, but we have to be far more purposeful about designing learning experiences for students where new learning is the outcome. Attending class and completing seat time towards finishing the day, the week, or the course is not learning. Why does it seem easier to set up meaningful learning experiences for students in the pool, on the tennis court, or on the baseball field, but with those same students, it’s a struggle to set up purposeful and dynamic learning in English, chemistry and history class?

Are you having this conversation at your school? Do you emphasize the art or science of teaching in your community? Is learning about finding each student’s zone of proximal development in your school community? Are teacher teams designing learning opportunities for students in the way coaches help students improve their practice on the athletic field?

The fast pace and relative chaos of each day and the entire year in an urban environment contributes to our efforts to hire teachers who understand the art of teaching, and hope they pick up the science on their own. But growing a good school has to mean investing in teachers to purposefully improve instructional practices. Does your school make this commitment to teachers? Is improving instructional practice a clear component of what your school is all about?

CC images:

Art by viewerblur

Juggling skittles by Jarod Carruthers

Science ZONE by Jacob Earl

Swimming Lesson by Eric

tennis veld tijdens de les / tennis court during a lesson by tdietmut

This is cross posted over on my blog.






  1. Brilliant articulation of all that I truly believe, but have never been able to adequately express! In high school and college I taught swimming lessons — which I think was excellent training for my present career, however, when I have mentioned this belief no one has ever thought it relevant. All of your sports analogies were great…I will be sharing this, thank you!!

    April 11, 2011
  2. Siva said:

    Excellent article. applies not only to teachers for all other professions.

    April 11, 2011

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