Does research use conflict with the art of teaching?

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Recently, I was a guest on the Relate the Educate podcast hosted by Erin Patton and Rick Holmes. We were discussing the importance of research use and data analysis in classroom level decision-making when Rick asked me a question I have heard dozens of times before: Does research use conflict with the art of teaching? While Rick and I unpacked the issue briefly, you can listen to our discussion here, I feel like this is a topic that warrants a deeper dive.

Opponents of evidence-informed teaching have written extensively on its dangers. In the interest of transparency, here are a few well-articulated examples:

These authors raise some valid concerns – and some concerns you’ve seen on this blog before. They discuss important issues such as the lack of teacher and administrator training, the myriad of tasks that educators are already asked to do, the sometimes low-quality of educational research, the undue influence of funders, and burden of publication bias. In my view, these are all persistent and pervasive challenges, but they are challenges that can be overcome by thoughtful leaders focused on systemic change.

The argument that bugs me is the idea that research use is antithetical to the soul of teaching. Some argue that teaching is an innate ability; a vocation that one is born into. There is a persistent idea in our society that teachers nobly enter the profession after taking vows of poverty and sacrifice – my new-teacher mentor used to say, “teacher rhymes with preacher for a reason.”

This outmoded view of teaching is, in my opinion, harmful to the long-term success and development of our profession. Is teaching an art? I think that for many it is. Can an art also, sometimes, be a science? It sure can!

Before leaving the classroom to pursue my study of school improvement, I was a music teacher. I had nearly twenty years of music training. My undergraduate degree is in music first, with a secondary emphasis on education. During my undergraduate study, I logged more than thirty hours a week of rehearsal and practice time. Music is something that has always been a part of my soul. It was something that I was born to do. It is also something that I studied intensely.

Good music doesn’t just happen. There are accepted best practices that must be mastered before artistry can take over and create new ideas. Before you can write a symphony, you must understand what makes it a symphony and why a symphony is not an aria. There is even a field dedicated to the deep study and research of the development of musical traditions; its called musicology.

Teaching is no different. There are accepted rules of pedagogy and classroom management that must be mastered; we call them best practices. We encourage master teachers to innovate and create new ideas that eventually become the best practices of tomorrow. The transition towards a more evidence-informed profession is not a turn away from the art and soul of teaching – it is a turn towards intentionally capturing and sharing best practices so that new teachers have a firm foundation to stand on and experienced teachers have a stronger platform to innovate from.

Most artists do not work in isolation. They work to get better at their craft. There are many parallels between education and the art world. Artists attend master classes where they watch and learn from an experienced professional – teachers conduct peer observations and instructional rounds. Artists attend retreats where they practice new skills in a controlled environment – teachers attend professional learning conferences. Artists make mistakes, rebound from them, and go on to produce something better than they imagined – teachers do the same through lesson planning and delivery cycles.

Art and science are not opposites – they’re best friends. If we want to improve the art of teaching, we do so by using the science of teaching to inform our ongoing development. We know that this can happen. Take instructional coaching as an example. There are many studies that have demonstrated that instructional coaching can improve teaching and learning outcomes (check out this literature review from REL West, this one from University of Oklahoma, or this meta-analysis out of Harvard). Good instructional coaches know how to blend their passion for the art of teaching with their knowledge of the science of teaching in order to pass along new ideas and skills to their fellow educators.

While the love of teaching may be intrinsic, and many of us (myself included) feel a strong vocational passion to pursue a career in education, we can learn to do it better. Teaching isn’t a gift, it’s a skill, and like any skill it can be improved through thoughtful reflection and hard work. As we work to transition our field into a more evidence-informed profession, we must acknowledge that the educational sciences play an important role in developing effective educators and helping the field adapt to a rapidly changing society.

So where do we start? I think this journey begins by acknowledging that many of our efforts to infuse research and evidence into education have been unpleasant. We have required teachers to sit through hours of poorly presented professional learning and forced them implement “best practices” that didn’t come with sustainable supports. We have mandated research use by administrators without giving them access to research databases and training to do the work in a meaningful way. We have built two systems – an education system and a research system – that run parallel to each other but rarely intersect. It is no wonder that some educators feel that their souls are being crushed by these efforts!

We need a system re-boot. The education profession must learn to learn from itself. Research must be embedded into the profession in a meaningful way. A way that includes educator voices and participation, that eliminates burden instead of creating it, and that channels the intrinsic motivation that most educators feel in their hearts towards positive change. This shift won’t be easy, and it won’t be completed by any one person or group. It will take a commitment from all of us to help the education profession fully self-actualize into an evidence-based profession. I believe we can do it.

Good luck on your journey friends!