That’s the question Dan Willingham poses in a new video. As you likely know, Willingham is a University of Virginia cognitive scientist whose work focuses almost exclusively teaching and learning. The video is worth watching, but – spoiler alert! – his conclusion is that teaching is neither art nor science, but “somewhere in between.” He draws a parallel to being an architect, who understands enough about physics and materials science to design a building that won’t fall down. But like an architect, a teacher “then also uses creativity and ingenuity to go beyond any strictures that science can offer, to create something wholly original, functional, and enduring.”
What is most interesting, and should spark the most informed and intense viewing of the video, is Willingham’s take on how science should inform teaching.
“I think what we know about how kids learn, and develop, interact and so on, can suggest boundary conditions. I mean by that things that, if you ignore them, will likely lead to trouble. For example, if you think that someone will acquire a skill without practice, that’s probably not going to work. Providing practice for skills is a boundary condition. Another example, most kids benefit a lot from explicit instruction in letter-sound correspondences when they are learning to read, so providing that instruction is another boundary condition. Notice this doesn’t tell you how to implement practice, or how to implement teaching letter-sound correspondences—it just says that those things have to happen. I call these ‘must have’ principles.”
But in addition to the “must haves” there are a series of “could dos.” In Willingham’s architecture analogy, there are ways to put a window in the middle of a brick wall that protect the integrity of the wall so it’s structurally sound. But there is no rule saying you must have a window in a particular location, or have one at all. This allows for a broad range of teaching approaches and activities, all of which could be good, useful or even elegant. Just like architecture.
“The ‘must haves’ and the ‘could dos’ do not tell you what the house is going to look like. The ‘must haves’ are boundary conditions, within which there is a HUGE amount of room for variation, and the ‘could dos’ are tools that you can use to help you get there, but you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to, as long as you respect the ‘must haves.’
Willingham is offering up his usual dose of fact-based common sense, but I’m tempted to suggest there might be little agreement on “boundary conditions” for teachers. The preponderance of evidence may indeed come down on the side of phonics, as he suggests, but that hasn’t entirely settled the issue. Whole language still has its adherents and repackagers. Discredited ideas like learning styles remain hardy perennials. The larger problem, to put it bluntly, is that education pays insufficient evidence to science.
Boundary conditions in architecture or civil engineering are inherently self-policing. Violate them and things fall down. I’m having a difficult time thinking of a set of universally agreed upon “boundary conditions” for teaching. But this creates an enormous opportunity for the cognitive scientists like Willingham to frame the discussion and offer evidence-based guidance on those “must haves.” And an enormous obligation on the part of ed schools and programs that train teachers to pay attention.
It will take a whole lot of science to move the field past its self-image as an art, its neglect of science–and the tyranny of its philosophers.