on the Science of Teaching

There's a lot said about the art of teaching. The right brain. The feeling. The music and theatre behind it. Ask anyone who's been in the classroom for some time, and they'll tell you about the instinct and the art, the symphony in the little moments.

It's all true.

But there is another side of teaching that is equally important to the art of it.  One that begs to be given the recognition it deserves:

The science of teaching.

Before you make assumptions and click on that open Amazon tab up there, thinking 'Oh great, another post on data', let me explain.

What I'm talking about isn't the exclusive idea of data, although yes, that's important too. Any teacher in 2015 knows all about the value of assessment and data (provided it is the right of of assessment that leads to the right kind of data. But that's another post entirely).

I'm talking about the scientific method -- the scientific process of teaching and learning, where teachers essentially test their hypothesis and later come to a revelation regarding it.  Teaching well involves this process and sadly, it's a school of thought that I fear is beginning to wither.  I don't mean to say that this process involves scientific testing on students, at the expense of their learning.  What I am describing is the inner thought process of a skilled teacher who uses information to test themself, to test their ideas about what comes next in the learning progression of their class.

Let me tell you the experience I had in my classroom where I really began to see this.

You might know that I've recently moved to teach sixth grade. One of the biggest challenges of teaching sixth grade is the new emphasis on argument writing. It's a messy thing, writing arguments well. 

Before I began teaching this, I spent some time researching what the general consensus was about arguments. Collegiate level ideas, high school ideas, middle school ideas. I researched steadfastly. I wanted to have a clear picture of what it was I was asking my students to do.

Once we began, though, and my students turned in pieces of assignments and papers, I began to develop different expectations.  I began to realize at times that perhaps, the lesson I initially taught led the students in the right general direction, but it didn't quite get them where I wanted them to go.  Yes, they were making progress and they were writing well. But the subtleties that I instinctively knew I wanted to see, they were missing.

Something about a paper didn't feel right. Or I realized that the way I presented something was worded incorrectly, and yielded something different. At one point for me, after a lesson on adding evidence, my students were adding so many quotes that they weren't actually arguing anything! It was terrible! Or I'd teach a lesson, and get something back from a student that was beyond what I wanted, which gave me a new idea.

And that's how it went. Lesson after lesson. Feedback, revision, conferencing, a-ha moment for me, new lesson. I'd collect a stack of papers and read them through. I'd get a general sense of where the ships were heading, then I'd plan a lesson to try and wrangle some that were astray. Each time, my writers grew, but more importantly, I deepened my own understanding of what it was I wanted. We learned together.

Is it wrong that I didn't know exactly what the result would be when I began? That I didn't know what the precise outcome would be after every single lesson? No. It is not. My point is that this kind of teaching, this kind of responsive teaching, though it may appear confusing and disorganized on the surface, is it not.  Some call this the art, but really it is very scientific. And it is not wrong. Looking at a breakdown of the scientific method illustrates this idea.

Ask a Question: Good teachers look at their students work and they think about the topic they will be teaching. They ask, What do my students need? Where do they need to go from here? What are my next steps? How will those next steps get them closer to the final steps? Skilled teachers are constantly asking these kinds of questions.

Do Background Research: Looking at student work is terrific background research. Teachers look at what their students can do and what they can't, and they gather more information about it.  They look at other anchor work that represents what it is they are striving to reach. They look on reputable sites to teach themselves. They talk to trusted colleagues.

Construct Hypothesis: Based on the question and the research, teachers formulate their hypothesis. A hypothesis in the classroom might sound something like this: "I think my students need a lesson on analyzing evidence and not just piling quotes into their paragraphs.  They need to take out every piece of evidence from their paper to see that they are overusing quotes." Once you've constructed this hypothesis, you don't know that doing this lesson will achieve the exact result you're after. You're hoping it will, but you don't know for sure.

Plan and Test Experiment: The experiment is for the teacher. Planning a lesson to execute how to deal with the hypothesis is important, and the actual lesson is where you test it out. No, you're not 'experimenting' on the students. You're experimenting with your hypothesis - whether your hypothesis will hold up, whether your next step got the result you thought it might.

Analyze Results: Once the lesson is over, you can look at the student work and think about whether your hypothesis was right. Did your lesson get the students where you thought it would? Did taking out all the quotes build awareness in these writers? For example, do they now, in their revised or new papers, have a better balance of evidence and ideas?

If yes, then you've been successful.  If no, then it's time to go through the process again. That lesson wasn't quite right.

And it starts all over. 

But sadly, I fear there's becoming a stigma regarding this way of teaching. That in an effort to feel successful and achieve *proficiency*, we have taken this process out of teaching.  We've made things so straightforward that the scientific method isn't behind what we're doing.

In this age of stated objectives and standards on the board, I wonder why teachers aren't being trusted to formulate their own hypotheses based on their expertise, and carry out the next steps that their experience and the student work suggests. I wonder if we are oversimplifying the learning experience and taking away the discovery from teaching well, from learning well.

Is it true that a clear objective is important? Yes, just as it's important that a scientist knows exactly what hypothesis is being tested.

But teaching is also messy. It's a messy science. Sometimes you add too much of something, and the pot boils over. Sometimes you heat the beaker too quickly, and it cracks.  But that's a good thing. Each time you learn, each time you grow.  And when you learn, they learn.

And isn't that the point?


  1. Teaching is messy- you are exactly right. Great post!


  2. I really liked reading this post, Kate. It was very thought provoking. :)


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