Saturday, June 4, 2022

Teaching Is a Craft: It Will Never Be a Science

What if we have got it all wrong as educational professionals, that our enterprise of teaching is not a science, never was a science, and never can be a science? Instead, it is a craft, and we really should see ourselves as crafts-persons, and not as “scientists” tackling the problem of education.

We are still looking for the scientific recipes for teaching and have been searching for over a century now. The same applies to educational leadership, where we have been searching diligently for scientific principles to guide leaders in the field. Instead, in both fields we have had a endless torrent of fads and tactics-of-the-day to try address the same recurring problems and the new problems we face. In the end, we still have not made sure progress in resolving old issues like achievement gaps, student drop outs, and student apathy. Nor have we made any new headway to resolving new issues like increasing student apathy, raging societal inequality, and best-practice technological application. This is due in large part with the paradigms guiding teaching practice and teaching research. We are looking for method A that will definitively bring about result B, only discover each time, method A only sometimes brings about result A. This is because our thinking about environment C and the instructional materials we use aren’t as simple and uninvolved as we thought. Equally true, the students we work with aren’t standardized, which means we can’t really understand them on a macro-level as a hypothetical student; we have to understand them as individuals, as single complex human beings, not manipulable, standardized automatons who respond in predictable ways when certain teaching tactics are applied.

Hence my argument for teacher as a craftsperson…

It is important that educational craftspersons understand that we can’t direct learning, we can only guide conditions that make it possible. Like the metal craftsperson shaping a piece of steel into a sword, she can only create the conditions where this transformation can happen. Often, some equipment or tool issue or environmental issue intervenes unpredictably; it is then the craftsperson shows his true expertise by looking for an then applying an additional tactic. 

In education we rarely engage in these additional steps…we spend too much time in postmortem analysis with assessments scrutinizing what about our tactics failed, when if we had acted like a craftspersons, we would have analyzed the problem in a split second, used our experience, expertise, and knowledge to apply a solution while the learning was in progress. 

Education is not nor never will be like medicine. Educators would perform much more effectively if they viewed their work as a craft rather than as a practice infused with science applying cures to educational ills.

Richard Sennett writes in The Craftsman, “The corporate system that once organized careers is now a maze of fragmented jobs.” I can’t help but think of education slowly moving into this fragmented direction when it comes to teaching jobs. We’ve may have inadvertently imported this view of the teaching work from business and industry, whose management tenets so powerfully undergird educational leadership. Education once viewed teaching as a viable career…now it has become a stepping stone to other work. That’s why there’s the scramble to leave the classroom. The working conditions sustain this scramble along with the installed business-leadership hierarchy in public education now. In a word, the system no longer wants career teachers. Temporary workers are just fine. We don’t have to pay them as much. There is no long-term benefit plans to support like retirement pensions. This is accomplished by simply creating a front-loaded pay scale that pays people on the front end only marginally less than those who stay in the field 15 or 20 years. Education as a field no longer wants to foster teaching as career. It focuses instead on just getting individuals into the jobs shorterm in order bring about the short-term goals, and I would also add short-sighted goals, of test results.

While reading Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman another thought came to mind. Business and industry are fond of dictating to education what kinds of workers they need, when they are the ones who caused the massive mismatch between the labor force and their own needs. They wanted an unskilled immigrant labor force in the late nineteenth century to the early to mid twentieth century. They did not want an educated workforce because such workers would demand more pay and be more expensive. They still don’t really care about the educational attainment and training of workers; they are looking to add to their bottom lines and push educators to provide the workers that would add to their profits. 

In The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols describes his experience of become an expert in reading Soviet materials. He states:

“Another mark of true experts is their acceptance of evaluation and correction by other experts. Every professional group and expert community has watchdogs, boards, accreditors, and certification authorities whose job is to police its own members and to ensure not only that they live up to the standards of their own specialty, but also that their arts are practiced only by people who actually know what they’re doing.” (p. 35)

In education, because of managerial business ideology and discourse, the expertise of the teacher has been disrupted and destroyed by de-professionalizing practices. Education may never recover from these influences.

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