Teaching is not a Science

Teachers perfecting their craft.

Teaching is not a science. Somewhere along the way, around the late 1800s, people started thinking they could apply the rules of science to every aspect of human life. Just as Newton discovered that the laws of gravity applied everywhere in the universe, so-called thinkers tried to distill the universal laws of our great institutions. Government, economics and education all became objects of scientific inquiry. They became subjects studied on their own, the avowed mission being to find the universal laws that could be applied to the state, the economy and the schoolhouse everywhere in every circumstance.

It has been over 100 years since the mission has started and the experts are no closer to discovering any universal laws. Yet, each generation of education scientists and school reformers believe they have found the scientifically bona fide way of running a classroom. Their theories are clad in the trappings of science: data, jargon, studies and a sense of urgency that they are on a cutting edge that everyone needs to get in front of at the risk of being left behind. It can be said about most of these ideas that their creators were thoroughly convinced of their scientific validity.

At the end of the day, it does not escape me that there are people who make a good living off of the faith that there is a science to standing in front of a room and teaching kids new ideas. The implications of this are enormous. This means that the education theorists have faith that there is some ultimate, if still undiscovered, method of teaching that can work anywhere. With every new theory comes the secret hope of its creator that it will catch on and be used in every classroom. Every new idea in education is an attempt to reduce teaching to the mindless movements of automatons.

This is why the art of teaching is dying. The education scientists control the training of new teachers. With fast track, 5-week training programs like Teach for America, the assumption is that anybody can learn a few core theories and be empowered enough to teach a class. With the efforts of the education deformers, the assumption is that anybody can read a few scientific education books and know enough about the classroom to propose sweeping reforms. It is the cheapening of education. If the same ideas apply everywhere at all times, then there is no room for original thought on the part of the teacher.

This is what the education scientists and education deformers have done. They have rested their assumptions on some Newtonian faith that there is an educational essence independent of the teacher. They have assumed that there are a few general things that make up teaching. All one needs to do is know these things, act upon them and kids will automatically learn. What science and corporations have done to vegetables they are now trying to do to teaching. They want to freeze dry it so all one needs to do is add water and serve. Have no experience? No worries, all you have to do is read this book, remember to take no excuses from kids and get them to pass the test. It is education from concentrate, microwavable teaching.

It goes beyond the mere deskilling of the teaching profession as an excuse to treat teachers like fast food workers. Education science is part of a relentless march of so-called researchers to reduce every human activity to the cold nomenclature of the physical sciences. Instead of a vibrant humanistic activity that requires intelligence and passion, education scientists want to bury teaching under a mountain of sterile jargon. It is the same thing economists did with economics. They have all constructed a narrative of real life situations that bears very little resemblance to real life. They use neutral-sounding language to describe actions that are anything but neutral. Whether it is teaching or economic activity, human beings use judgment and experience to inform their choices. The bland jargon used by the social scientists takes us away from our humanity. They dehumanize human activity.

And this is why the corporate reformers love education science. It allows them to clad their very biased, self-interested agenda in neutral language. They want “positive outcomes”, “continual assessment” or “school choice”. It is the benevolent and objective language of science pressed into service for very selfish ends. It is the same thing whenever a corporation lobbies for more tax breaks for the wealthy, union busting or free trade. There is an army of economists there with data, theories, charts and projections scientifically proving that these things will bring prosperity. Social science is not science. Social science is politics through another means.

What the education deformers fear most is losing control of the debate. They want to hide behind the carefully controlled language of social science so their privatization schemes do not seem like the blatant money grab they really are. They are afraid to have teaching discussed in the language of teachers. A real life account of teaching would involve choices like how to break down this tough idea I have to teach tomorrow so my students can understand, or how do I diffuse this behavior issue without letting it affect the class, or what grade should I give the ESL student who tried really hard but just missed a passing average. These issues would humanize teaching, make it seem like an art form and force the deformers to speak in terms they do not understand. They need to keep the public debate in the neutral language of education science. It is the only way they can access the institution of public schooling, since so many of them had the privilege of private school.

Teaching needs to be treated like a medieval guild: a specialized craft that greatly benefits society, open to anyone with talent but requiring years to perfect.

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4 responses to “Teaching is not a Science

  1. Since I suffered myself from half a dozen school reforms during my childhood, it was a pleasure to read this.

    However, I wouldn’t say that all education-related research is waste. There are huge differences in educational outcomes. And given the importance of education, there should be research going on, trying to figure out what works and what does not.

    example:
    http://swissecon.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/educational-spending/

    The problem is that (i) many education-related debates are based on ideology rather than facts, and (ii) many research findings are rather ambiguous. This paves the way for dozens of pointless reforms.

    • I guess I am not convinced of the value of breaking teaching down into data. Each classroom is so unique, each teacher so different, that I am not confident enough to take one thing in one situation and apply it universally. I cannot imagine anyone doing a scientific study on the works of Michaelangelo or Pavarotti’s voice, so I cannot see it having value for teaching.

      On the other hand, data on the socioeconomic conditions of public schools, like average household income or money spent per student, is very valuable and vital to an understanding of how the system works. Those are things that are measureable in numbers and can be instructive for the teaching craft.

      Research does have its place, I am just not convinced it has its place in the art of teaching.

  2. Concise argument about a critical problems facing education.

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