education philosopher

The Skilled Practice of a Practical Occupation: Why teaching is a craft before a science

Posted in Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on September 13, 2009

In a graduate class of mine, we have been discussing whether education is or should be a science. Towards that end, we have read a book called An Elusive Science, which profiles, as its subtitle states, the “troubling history of educational research.” The book’s thesis, delicately stated, is that education does not easily lend itself towards being a science and attempts to shape it thus end up taking away the holistic nature of education.

I see teaching not as a science, but as a craft. The reason I do so is reflected n the dictionary definition of “craft” that is this essay’s title: “the skilled practice of a practical occupation.” Compare that with the defnition of “science” -“the ability to produce solutions in some problem domain” – and we will begin to see why education seems more like a craft than a science.

The first reason to see education as a craft before a science is because education is irreducibly practical. “Pure” sciences are theoretical: they exist for knowledge first and action second. To the physicist or biologist, information about their subject is worth pursuing for its own sake. Education, of course, is irreducibly practical: any knowledge gained in the field, to mean anything, must be gained in order to help real teachers in real situations.

And here lies one of the biggest problems with calling education a science: teaching is more improvisational than those who want it to be a science could ever be comfortable with. When we say we want education to be a science, we use the word “science” to mean “an exact method or protocol designed to produce the best results.” When we say “Mrs. Walker has teaching down to a science,” we are saying “Mrs. Walker knows exactly what to do to maximize effectiveness in a systemic way.”

But anyone who has ever taught – I am pretty sure on this – knows that teachers who follow inflexible scripts tend not to be very great teachers. Teaching is an interaction between teachers, students and a whole host of variables (classroom, the social goings on of the students, chance events, etc). As such, the best teachers are those who do NOT treat education as a science, but as a partly planned improvisation.

To put it another way, the dream of “education as science” is to get to a point where we know so exactly how to educate that we could program a computer with all of this knowledge and it could teach. I am arguing that, as of yet, there is absolutely no reason to think that this could be done, because it would take out one of the things most effective to teaching (why I call it a craft): improvisation and the ability to constantly readjust.

The reason improvisation and readjustment are so necessary to education – and why education may never really be a science more than a craft – is because, as trite as it sounds, all students really are different. I could know what the experts say about how to educate an autistic child, but when I am in the class with a particular autistic child, this may or many not help my actual situation. If it does, great. If not, it is up to me to be creative with varying my approach, reading the feedback given by the student, and readjust accordingly.

To go even further, we can think about a thought experiment. Imagine that a new teacher comes in armed with all the best scientific knowledge about how to teach students. She has even learned all the best scientifically gotten knowledge of how to teach kids in the socio-economic status of which she will be teaching, how to teach kids with all the disabilities that her students will have, etc.

Does this scientifically-gotten knowledge give us any indication that she will know how to teach the actual kids in her class? No. (And I suspect most readers who are teachers will realize this straight away.) Even though this teacher’s students look, on paper, exactly the same as the students she read of in the scientific studies, there is still a large chance that our teacher will need to deviate a fair amount from what all of this scientifically-gotten knowledge tells her to do. Thus, teaching is more than being able to follow even the best scientific wisdom about how kids learn; it is the craft of knowing how to tailor one’s approach to the actual kids one is teaching.

Now, compare this to the similarly interactive craft of acting. I could know all the approved methods of line-delivery, method acting, etc., but the key to acting is in the ability to try, read feedback, and adjust (with the adjustment being relatively spontaneous; no time to consult a double-blind study). And, like acting, teaching gets better the more one practices, rather than the more one reads about the act.

The skilled practice of a practical occupation.

Thus, while the beginning teacher is best to learn the current ideas on how best to teach students, these can only ever be well-recommended suggestions that may be added to, tweaked, or discarded whenever they are found to fall short in a given situation. This knowledge is valuable for sure, but the best knowledge a teacher can have is not this “scientific” knowledge. Rather, it is the knowledge, hard-earned via experience, of how to try what approach with what student at what time: the knowledge to employ good improvisatory judgment.

At this point, we see another reason education may be best seen as a craft rather than a science: like other crafts, it functions best on an apprenticeship model, where experience is seen as a better teacher than theory. Sciences are more theoretically concerned as they often contain a wide array of fact knowledge than inductees must learn (placing primary importance on factual mastery before practical application). While teaching does require certain pedagogical knowledge, the emphasis is placed not on the attainment of knowing pedagogical facts, but on whether one can put these to work in the practical world of teaching: hence the reason every teacher undergoes student-teaching (or other on-the-job training).

[Here, I must point out the curious discipline of medicine, which straddles the fence between science-like valuing theoretical knowledge and craft-like valuing of practice. Students must get both a rigorous training in factual knowledge (much more rigorous than teacher training), but also go through a rigorous internship where information is only as good as how well they put it into practice. This is why many have called medicine a science but doctoring a craft.]

The skilled practice of a practical occupation. Skilled because doing this requires practice in real situations; practical because all knowledge of teaching leads towards helping improve judgment in the concrete classroom.

Thus, there can certainly be a thing called a science of education: studies can be done on how children learn best that are falsifiable and replicable, so that they can fit the demands of science. But saying that there may be a science of education is far from saying that education is a science. At best, this science of education is done in the service of the craft of education: teaching. As interactive, practical, holistic, and improvisational as it is, it is doubtful that teaching could ever be a science without ceasing to be teaching.



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