“More matter, with less art!” – Hamlet
Alongside age-old questions about chickens, eggs, and roads, there is another conundrum that grinds on down the decades: is teaching an art or a science? It is possible to argue for art, since teachers have to exercise creativity and skills in engaging students’ interests, present information in new ways, and communicate the passion that they bring to the classroom – which in turn inspires and motivates children to learn the subject for themselves. On the other hand, there seems to be a scientific element to teaching, not only in the large body of scientific research that exists, but also in the careful, logical planning and analysis of lesson sequences and student work.
Much of modern education is firmly on the side of art. A large part of the teaching profession has very strong views about the importance of self-expression, autonomy, authority and power. A high value is placed on ‘student voice’, creating the democratic conditions in which people will feel valued because their views are heard, and limiting the teaching of moral codes to the requirements for learning to take place in institutional settings. Encouraging freedom of expression for students comes from the same underlying beliefs as the demand that teachers have autonomy and freedom of expression. Authenticity is all. If it feels right, do it. If the kids are happy, everyone will be happy. [These are not made up statements. They are things I have heard teachers say].
Raphael’s The School of Athens
It is arguable that there are advantages to such an approach, for example, that it creates a safe emotional environment; that it builds confidence and self-esteem; and that it develops the learner as whole person, so that he or she is fit to help bring about a more just, open and happy society. These noble goals are pursued through minimising hierarchy, creating ‘shared’ power structures and emphasising personal choice over conformity to group rules. In this scenario, the teacher is an artist-activist, freeing others through their passion, creativity and care for people.
However, the art proposition can also be self-defeating: while children from supportive, educated and prosperous homes may succeed in such an environment, those children for whom life circumstances are more difficult, and who are therefore more reliant on their schooling for educational and economic wellbeing, cannot achieve security, confidence and good grades without skilled teaching. In other words, advocates of education as a force for social justice will fail the students they claim to serve without a repertoire of teaching skills to achieve their ends.