Thursday, April 10, 2008

Teaching as craft?

As the launching pad for this short entry, I'm going to use two comments from Barbara's entry last week, both of which argued that teaching is an art. That metaphor is ambiguous, perhaps usefully so, because it implies that there is creativity involved, and that there are also aesthetic norms with which (and against which) teachers work. But sometimes people use the phrase to refer to the improvisational nature of teaching, the thousands of decisions that must be made on the spot that can work beautifully but also often shapes the first phase of a teacher's career into the professional equivalent of hazing (I think that's Linda Darling-Hammond's phrase).

Those who argue over the nature of teaching often are arguing about the appropriate metaphor: are teachers artists, craft workers, intellectuals, technicians, babysitters, ... ? In the long run, I am not sure that the metaphors are that useful. (Then again, I read Howard Becker's Writing for Social Scientists my first year as a grad student, so I may have imbibed a distrust of metaphors from that book.) Instead, I'd argue for a close examination of how teachers make decisions.

There are a variety of ways in which people can and do make decisions, and perhaps one way of looking at teaching is matching up decision-making against these templates, perhaps creating some others, and seeing what is required for each to work successfully. The list below is not an attempt to be comprehensive or even fair:

  • Improvisation. Jazz musicians start with a basic melody that is repeated, and then improvise either a solo or background.
  • Scripting. Actors follow a script that is thoroughly rehearsed (for stage productions) or recorded repeatedly until satisfaction (for television, movies, etc.).
  • Clinical best practices. Medical practitioners diagnose a case and follow best-practice guidelines for making decisions based on data for an individual.
  • Open-source software engineering. Programmers divide tasks into modules, try to make a reasonably-working module available as soon as possible, and then use feedback from the user community to fix bugs, decide on further development, etc.
  • Throwaway sketches. Designers sketch multiple disposable options before anything is produced, subject the ideas behind those sketches to a social critique, and winnow the options down to what is interesting and workable.
Please remember: I'm not proposing additional metaphors but asking you to look at the decision-making involved. How do teachers make decisions, and what is required for different ways of making decisions to be workable/successful/pleasing?

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