For everyone The art of navigation: why teaching is more art than science

Did you hear the story of the man who blindly followed the directions on Google maps right off a cliff? It’s what happens when you confuse abstractions for the things they represent, and it’s been happening for a while now in our schools. Convinced that the science of teaching has made a perfect map of education, we have taken our eyes off the road, certain that if we just follow the guidebooks we will get to our destination.

The guidebook that has become the Department of Education’s bible is John Hattie’s 2008 book, Visible Learning – and with the recent publication of the sequel comes the reminder that if we want to be good teachers, we must first become good scientists. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. We’re in the middle of a crisis, with staff walking away from a profession already bogged down by data, strategies, and feedback cycles. We need to have a look around, if not to see where we’re going then at least to make sure we’re not about to drive off a cliff. 

I don’t blame Hattie for this situation, or even disagree with his findings. He’s a scientist; finding trends in big data is his thing. But teachers are paid to teach, and that takes more art than science.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the science parts of my job. There is satisfaction in engineering a good formative assessment rubric and then reflecting on its efficacy. Science and art are just two sides of the human creativity coin, after all. But, where science forms abstract rules by analysing real-world examples, art uses abstract rules to generate real things. 

There is a natural symbiosis between both modes of thinking – but education has gone so far into the science camp we have lost sight of the people and experiences all those Guttman charts and meta-analysed findings represent.

Not once did the word ‘pedagogy’ pass our lips. But we spoke about our students all the time.

Evidence-based evangelicals try to hide this fact with corporate euphemisms, claiming their graphs “tell stories”, hoping this might transform their PowerPoint presentations into campfires and their exhausted audiences into wide-eyed children holding burnt marshmallows. But, whatever it is that ‘box and whisker’ charts plot, it’s never been an Act Three twist.

It wasn’t always like this. I was lucky to start my career under the guidance of a mentor–teacher who told me right from the start to forget the theory of my Dip Ed, and not to copy what he did, either. He saw that we had different styles: where he was gentle in his instruction, I was direct; where he liked to tell anecdotes, I liked to tell jokes.

Not once in the four years that I worked with him did the word ‘pedagogy’ pass our lips. But we spoke about our students all the time – what they were working on, what we might do to push them, inspire them, surprise them.

He was big on the power of surprise to generate wonder and curiosity. Try it, he’d say when I posed a possible lesson activity. See what happens. He taught me that when I trust my instincts, teaching can be a process of discovery. He showed me that if you practise what you preach, the students will follow you anywhere.

There aren’t many teachers like him now. It’s too risky. It doesn’t fit the models.

Ironically, books like Visible Learning hide more than they reveal. In following their strategies, I have seen so many colleagues despair that their students remain disengaged and their results below average. These teachers proclaim their learning intentions and success criteria, and flip their classes so student agency increases, all the while generating so much data that schools have had to create ‘leading teacher’ roles just to manage it all. Once you take up the hammer of science, every problem looks like a data nail. You can’t even call it science anymore. It becomes mere bookkeeping.

Sadly, Peer Observation, the one FISO 2.0 strategy that has a chance of undoing all this, has been protocolled into pointlessness by similar risk-averse thinkers. I learned so much in those first four years just by watching how other teachers taught. Now we are told to organise peer observations with as much rigidity as our lesson plans.

Artists don’t work from maps. They use principles to get started and take risks as they go, so that each artwork is a surprise. That’s why we love galleries and cinemas so much. We want to be surprised. Once we trust ourselves enough to come to teaching with the same curiosity, you never know where we might end up.

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