on the Science of Teaching

There's a lot said about the art of teaching. The right brain. The feeling. The music and theatre behind it. Ask anyone who's been in the classroom for some time, and they'll tell you about the instinct and the art, the symphony in the little moments.

It's all true.

But there is another side of teaching that is equally important to the art of it.  One that begs to be given the recognition it deserves: the science of teaching.

Before you make assumptions and click on that open Amazon tab up there, thinking 'Oh great, another post on data', let me explain.

What I'm talking about isn't the exclusive idea of data, although yes, that's important too. Any teacher in the 21st century knows all about the value of assessment and data (provided it is the right of of assessment that leads to the right kind of data. But that's another post entirely).

I'm talking about the scientific method -- a kind of, scientific process of teaching and learning, where teachers essentially test their own hypothesis and assumptions, and later come to a revelation regarding it.  Teaching well involves this process and sadly, it's a school of thought that I fear is beginning to wither.  I don't mean to say that this process involves scientific testing on students, at the expense of their learning.  What I am describing is the inner thought process of a skilled teacher who uses information to test themself, to test their ideas about what comes next in the learning progression of their class.

Let me tell you the experience I had in my classroom where I really began to see this.

You might know that I've recently moved to teach sixth grade. One of the biggest challenges of teaching sixth grade is the new emphasis on argument writing. It's a messy thing, writing arguments well. 

Before I began teaching this, I spent some time researching what the general consensus was about arguments. Collegiate level ideas, high school ideas, middle school ideas. I researched steadfastly. I wanted to have a clear picture of what it was I was asking my students to do, where I wanted them to be when the unit was finished.

Once we began, though, and my students turned in pieces of assignments and papers, I began to develop different expectations.  I began to realize at times that perhaps, the lesson I initially taught led the students in the right general direction, but it didn't quite get them where I wanted them to go.  Yes, they were making progress and they were writing well. But the subtleties that I knew I wanted to see, they were missing.

Something about a paper didn't feel right. Or I realized that the way I presented something was worded incorrectly, and yielded something different. At one point for me, after a lesson on adding evidence, my students were adding so many quotes that they weren't actually arguing anything! Or I'd teach a lesson, and get something back from a student that was beyond what I wanted, which gave me a new idea.

And that's how it went. Lesson after lesson. Feedback, revision, conferencing, a-ha moment for me, new lesson. I'd collect a stack of papers and read them through. I'd get a general sense of where the ships were heading, then I'd plan a lesson to try to send the learning to the next level, and wrangle some that were astray. Each time, my writers grew, but more importantly, I deepened my own understanding of the students as writers. We learned together.

Is it wrong that I didn't know exactly what the result would be when I began? That I didn't know what the precise outcome would be after every single lesson? I don't think so. My point is that this kind of teaching that is responsive to what the students are doing, though it may appear confusing and disorganized on the surface, is it not. 

Some call this the art, but really it is very scientific.

We look at their students work and we think about the topic we'll be teaching. We question, What do my students need? Where do they need to go from here? What are my next steps? How will those next steps get them closer to the final steps? We are constantly asking these kinds of questions.

We look at student work in order to conduct research. We look at what our students can do and what they can't. We evaluate anchor papers and projects that represent what it is they are striving to reach. We search reputable sites and teach ourselves new ideas that can help our students grow. We talk to trusted colleagues.

Based on the question and the research, we formulate a hypothesis. We decide what the next steps are and we plan accordingly. We think we know the right choices to move our students forward.

Planning a lesson to execute how to deal with the hypothesis is important, and the actual lesson is where you test it out. No, you're not 'experimenting' on the students. You're experimenting with your hypothesis - whether your hypothesis will hold up, whether your next step got the result you thought it might.

Once the lesson is over, you can look at the student work and analyze whether your hypothesis was right. Did your lesson get the students where you thought it would? Did taking out all the quotes build awareness in these writers? For example, do they now, in their revised or new papers, have a better balance of evidence and ideas?

If yes, then you've been successful.  If no, then it's time to go through the process again. That lesson wasn't quite right.

And it starts all over.

Teaching well can be messy science. Sometimes you add too much of something, and the pot boils over. Sometimes you heat the beaker too quickly, and it cracks.  But that's a good thing. Each time you learn, each time you grow.  And when you learn, they learn.

And isn't that the point?


  1. Teaching is messy- you are exactly right. Great post!


  2. I really liked reading this post, Kate. It was very thought provoking. :)


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