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,┬áthe “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. (more…)