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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Mapping quality teaching

Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love Source: http://www.rockshockpop.com/forums/c

Sidney Poitier in’ To Sir, with Love’. Source: http://www.rockshockpop.com/forums/

This is the third post in a series of posts on quality teaching. You can also read:

Part 1, which explored the terms ‘teacher quality’ and ‘quality teaching’; and,

Part 2, which outlined those things that effective teachers have been found to do.

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If we accept that the quality of what teachers do in their classrooms influences student learning, and that quality teaching has some agreed characteristics, what can teachers, schools and systems do? How does the profession come to a common understanding of what good teaching looks like? Amid teaching debates like ‘traditional vs. progressive’, what is it that teachers should be striving to do?

Some question and warn against the itemising of teaching into a set of prescriptive elements, and many agree that attempting to quantify the complexity of teaching is fraught with difficulty. Many scholars and educators have nonetheless worked to identity what quality teaching looks like and what effective teachers do, trying to capture what teaching encompasses. These authors attempt to detail, describe, interpret, and evaluate the elements of teaching; to find what quality instruction looks like and the conditions necessary for developing the quality of teachers’ instruction.

Many authors suggest that in order to develop their teaching, teachers need a ‘map’ of where to go and how to get there. In his 2004 book Successful school change, Claude Goldenberg reflected on his work with a USA primary school over five years. He noted that the school and teacher change model he and the principal implemented was too abstract and unspecified. He added that “we should have been more nuts-and-bolts oriented, in the sense of specifying more clearly what teachers were to do in various settings, including their classrooms” (p. 173).

In order for teachers to improve, not only do teachers have to want to improve, they must know how to improve and on what aspects they would benefit from focusing their attention. Schools can benefit from frameworks that provide the knowledge base of what good teaching looks like, as well as processes that facilitate the improvement of practice. A map of teaching involves a clear set of agreed standards and a way to think systematically about the complexity of the task. Mapping teaching can be less about identifying quality and proving teacher performance. It can be about empowering teachers to improve, developing a common understanding and shared language of practice.

Examples of attempts to address the need for a framework or map of the intricacies of teacher practice include the Danielson Group’s Framework for Teaching, the Marzano Causal Teacher Evaluation Model, and the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) National Professional Standards for Teachers.

The Danielson Framework for Teaching, endorsed by Dylan Wiliam in his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning, has been shown to: identify the most effective teachers and positively correlate their quality with student achievement gains; focus observers’ attention on specific aspects of teaching practice; establish common evidentiary standards for each level of practice; and create a common vocabulary for pursuing a shared vision of effective instruction. Students showed the most academic growth in classrooms with teachers who rated highly on the Framework, and the least academic growth in classrooms with teachers who received the lowest ratings.

Marzano’s model has also been tested in studies and meta-analyses, which report that using the instructional strategies of the model improves student achievement and helps teachers develop themselves professionally.

In evaluating the perceptions of the AITSL Professional Standards, AITSL has found that pre-service teachers were the most enthusiastic about the potential of the use of the Standards in their practice and their students’ learning, school leaders were most engaged in the implementation of the Standards, and non-pre-service teachers were least likely to perceive the Standards as useful in changing their practice or impacting their students. AITSL’s measures have concentrated on educators’ perceptions of their tool.

Frameworks such as Danielson’s, Marzano’s, and AITSL’s may have a place in helping teachers to achieve clear, measurable targets, but schools and systems using these tools need to be considered in their purpose and process of their implementation. My school uses the Danielson Framework (overlaid with the national AITSL Standards) as a third point in conversations, in order to help novice and veteran teachers to reflect on their lessons with specificity. It is a tool, as part of a large toolbox, for developing shared understanding.

My PhD study found that the Danielson Framework for Teaching, when used as part of a non-judgmental model of teacher growth, helps to develop teachers’ precision of reflection around teaching practice and a common language for talking about teaching and what it can look like. At my school, teachers who develop familiarity with the Framework and its descriptors find that while teaching they mentally aim for the descriptors of ‘Distinguished’ teaching; knowledge of the Framework shapes their decisions and their classroom practices.

As much of the world grapples with how to wrestle the octopus of ‘teaching’ into a small, rigid glass jar of pithy statements or political one-liners, we need to be wary of atomising teaching into disparate parts, but we can be equally open to tools that might help us deepen our professional understandings and practices. We can focus on dialogue, interrogation of practice, reflection, collaboration and growth, and on researching and critically appraising the frameworks and measures available to us.