Teachers and other educators have been debating what makes an effective teacher for as long as the profession has been recognized. Certainly in the last century, the topic of what makes a good teacher, and what comprises good teaching, has been an important topic in colleges of education. Because the role of a teacher is so important, the topic of what constituted good teaching has been looked at philosophically, from the viewpoint of pedagogy, and through empirical research. The result has been a large supply of books and articles written about how to teach, how students learn, what techniques teachers should use and what makes for the best teaching materials.
Into this mix must be included the personal qualities an individual must possess if he or she is to be an effective and compassionate teacher (Banner & Cannon, 1997). On top of everything else, teachers are role models for the students in their classes (Ayres, 2000). The long list of qualities and skills good teachers must possess are daunting, and only some of what a teacher needs to know can be taught as part of a college education. However, teachers can be taught some of the science and some of the art of what it takes to be a good teacher. By "science" is meant the things that have been proven to be true about teaching, particularly those things described as "best practices" -- approaches proven to teach the majority of students effectively. By "art" is meant the sum of experience, judgment and instincts a teacher brings to the classroom in the implementation of those best practices.
SCIENCE OR ART?
Bellanca (1998) divides the characteristics of effective teachers into two clusters: the art of teaching, and the craft of teaching. This may be a misleading dichotomy as some factors from both groups as described by this author can be or have been demonstrated in research, while some in both groups have not been. He reports that good teachers are "democratic," but it could be asked: how democratic can a classroom be? The students cannot vote on which parts of a year's curriculum will be covered and which will not. In music, for instance, they would focus on modern popular music and learn little about the great music of the past. There are certainly opportunities for instances of democratic action, but does its presence or absence contribute to how well students learn? However, Bellanca makes it the first thing on his list. Whether documented as a "best practice or not, it is important to Bellanca. He suggests that good teachers should be compassionate toward their students, flexible, and passionate about what they teach. It seems likely that such approaches are reflected in research and might well be part of "best practices." However, he also states that good teachers are "a champion of children's daydreams." Is this part of the art of teaching? What is meant by "daydreams?" Some children daydream about skipping school, while others daydream about writing a book or going to college, or being the best motorcycle mechanic the town has ever seen.
The difficulty of identifying what good teaching is and is not is demonstrated by Bellanca (1998) when he describes how one individual's view of teaching shifted over time. At one time the teacher said, " ... my job is to cover the content ... " and described traditional testing and evaluation to determine grades. Some years later the same teacher said, " ... my job is to interest students in the value of this [subject]. This is much more than giving them information to spit back out on a test or quiz. I have to help them understand how all the information fits together and why it is important. I also have to help them get as excited ... As I am ... ," listing a variety of teaching and evaluative approaches. Bellanca notes that the newer approach is based on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. However, Gardner's theories have not been widely proven across a broad spectrum of teaching situations and educational goals. The approach looks like science, but is it? Gardner is a well-respected psychologist who presumably knows what he is talking about when he discusses the nature of intelligence. But does that theory translate into improved learning? That would be the standard for science. It sounds like "best practices;" however, it may or may not be. Bellanca is also an advocate of authentic evaluation -- seeing students use the information they've learned rather than giving tests and quizzes. Again, for this to be "best practice" we would need evidence that authentic evaluations tell us more about what the student has learned than traditional tests have. Many teachers assume that some combination is best, but there is little science to support the assumption.
The issue of whether what teachers do really result in improved learning or not is an important one. It isn't just education that struggles with what really constitutes best practices, however. Even when researched, an approach can have hidden pitfalls that went unnoticed both in the research and in the implementation of the presumably proven result. A new retail practice may reflect such hidden outcomes.
A few businesses have begun refusing to accept returns from customers who show a high rate of returns. Unless those returns are compared to the total sales over time from that customer, however, the store doesn't really know how justified the refusal is.. Are four returns too much if you spend $100 a year in the store? What if you have three teenaged children and spend $2,500 in the store? The new returns policy may show increased profitability over the short time, while the loss of business from a newly alienated customer may never be identified. Choosing best practices on information that is too narrow is not the best practice. Educational research often suffers from the same flaw: the research is too narrow and blinds the teacher to the larger picture, and may not show the practice's effects over time.
The problem with blending art and science is that sometimes the art of teaching is misguided, and sometimes the science misleads. One example of this can be found in the literature about whether, and/or when, to retain students. Jimerson, et. al. (2002) Some research demonstrates very clearly that retention is nearly always bad because in the long run students who have retained perform worse than similar students who had not been retained. However, the researchers also found cases where retention was successful not only immediately but years later. They identified socioeconomic factors that could predict with some reliability which students were most likely to benefit from rather than be harmed by retention. The difficulty with this science is that it doesn't line up well with what teachers believe regarding the art of teaching. Many first graders will state that they know that retention can help students, because they hear from the second grade teachers regarding the relative success or lack of success of students who were and were not retained. Researchers point out that such a short timeline disguises the negative impact over several years on many children who have been retained (Jimerson et. al., 2002).
At the same time, the science conflicts with the art of teaching for a different reason: most schools would not be comfortable picking students for retention based on the criteria identified in the Jimerson study -- for instance, amount of education completed by the mother. In their research, the children of more highly educated mothers, from families where school success is highly valued, benefited more from retention than the children of families where education wasn't considered as important. So even though the research of Jimerson, et. al. May provide important new insights about retention, many schools will not be comfortable acting on it. Their knowledge of the art of teaching conflcts with the science, and they might feel quite justified in rejecting the implications of this research.
There are other difficulties in relying on research to establish best practices. Good research is by definition highly focused and narrow. It is like studying the scales of a butterfly's wings: the observer learns new things about the tiny scale but can no longer see the whole butterfly. Research systematically removes issues from the larger picture, but teachers must teach in much broader circumstances than any well-done research study.
Science can help teachers and schools out in this regard, however. Bellanca (1998) notes that when teachers and students work within peer teams as well as individually, both groups find it easier to successfully implement new approaches. Without peer support, new approaches will become part of standard educational practice for the teacher less than 20% of the time. However, peer support won't help teachers note when the application of research has been poorly thought through, and it won't identify those times when over-reliance on personal instinct causes teachers to stay stuck in ineffective teaching patterns.