Is teaching an art?

close-up of Monet's Nymphea at the Musée de l'Orangerie

close-up of Monet’s Nymphea at the Musée de l’Orangerie

How can we appreciate an artist’s work or know an artist’s worth?

We can see the genius of Frida Kahlo in one of her paintings, get a flavour of her life at La Casa Azul in Mexico City, or understand her dramatic story arc through a comprehensive exhibition of art she produced throughout her life. We can marvel equally at one of Monet’s early Impressionist works as at the spectacular exhibition of his Nymphea in the naturally-lit oval rooms of the Musée de l’Orangerie. One of Salvador Dalí’s paintings can give us insight into his skill, style and artistic significance, but a visit to his Teatre-Museu in Figueres allows us to more deeply know his life, work and mad genius.

Richard Olsen tweeted in the #educoachOC chat this week that he considered teaching an art, and that he thought that when being appraised, teachers’ teaching should be looked at as a body of work, rather than as individual pieces. You can see Richard’s tweets, which got me thinking, in the screenshot below. His view is consistent with those who warn against the compartmentalisation and atomisation of teaching into disparate, de-contextualised bits.

There are also, however, those who advocate for clear maps and standards of teaching in order to develop shared understandings of what good teaching might look, sound and feel like. My own school uses the Danielson Framework for Teaching as a tool for developing our shared language of teaching and the precision of our reflections on and planning for teaching and learning. These reflections are also based on lesson data snapshots of practice, which provide the basis for Cognitive Coaching conversations. Our approach seems to fit into Richard’s notion of “critiquing specific pieces”, rather than looking at a body of work. Yet fine-grained lesson data and consequent reflections allow teachers to drill down into aspects of their teaching practice, while acknowledging that one lesson is only ever a moment in time, a snapshot of practice, a through-the-keyhole-peek into their teaching as a whole.

Many, including Robert Marzano, describe teaching as an art and a science. The notion of blending art and science, creativity and systematisation, resonates with me. It was the approach I took to my PhD research, one that I outline in this paper in Narrative Inquiry. I have blogged about viewing research as sculpture, as art-esque conversation, about teaching Art, and about textiles as political metaphor for academic writing and identity.

Elliot Eisner’s body of work explores education as artistry and connoisseurship. Eisner advocates for the arts as a frame for re-imagining education as innovative, artistic practice, rather than as a cookie-cutter or assembly-line one. Conceptualising teaching as an art, or arts, or artistic, assumes a complexity, a non-linearness, a rich tangled web of intangibles and un-pin-downables.

Is teaching art or science? Or both? Is it inappropriate to look at a single work, a close-up of the brushstrokes or the marks made by the sculptor’s tool? Should we only talk about teaching in terms of bodies of work, portfolios of evidence, the whole and not the parts? Can Michelangelo’s David be separated from his Pietà, the Sistine Chapel ceiling and his unfinished ‘slaves’? Can or should meaning be sought in a singular laboured-over artwork, or in a dusty pile of experimental sketches found in the attic? Or should we only assess or seek meaning in a body of work accumulated over time?

How might a teacher’s performance be appraised? How can the whole, as well as the parts be considered? Of what use is the performance of teaching for observations by management, versus relaxed one-on-one discussions with students or an experimental lesson tried for the first time? And of what use are the ‘individual works’ such as unit plans, student work examples, lesson data and external test results? Data from particular lessons can provide a tangible, depersonalised third point for professional conversations, just as a particular work of art can be representative of an artist’s work. An exhibition from a particular period of an artist’s work can give a broader picture of their work during that time. A posthumous exhibition of their life’s work can provide the broad narrative of how their work has evolved. These are all different but meaningful lenses for appreciation and critique; each is a useful way of viewing the work and worth of the artist or teacher.

On the one hand, teaching does become a body of work over time. A life’s work for some. This gestalt includes ever-expanding subject knowledge, evolving pedagogies, relational skills and behaviour management tools. Many of the things teachers do become internalised, less-deliberate moves, part of a way of being. Perhaps a teacher should not be judged by a lesson that they teach or one set of student results, but there is value in each piece of work being reflected upon and closely considered for the understandings it might surface about that teacher’s practice; the details it might reveal; or the points of celebration, critique or change it might incite.

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One thought on “Is teaching an art?

  1. Pingback: Richard Olsen's Blog › This Method Acting, Well, I Call That Teaching

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