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?


Anonymous said...

These metaphors are great food for thought. I am a high school teacher, and see aspects of improvisation, best practices, open-source and throwaway sketches (lots of this last) in my own practice, and recognize scripting as a practice I've heard about in teaching reading to at-risk students in elementary schools... the term "best practices" is bandied about a LOT in my district, and I suppose it's part of what I do, but I would be hard pressed to identify all the data for each student; that feels more mathematical than my approach...

Dr. Waltz said...

In contrast to Sherman, I not only believe metaphors are useful, but that they directly shape discourse, subtle though they may be. To be more precise, I believe that it is useful to explore the metaphors shaping the discussion, which begins to happen above by virtue of juxtaposition in the Sherman's list.

To the point: even in the Old English, there is a stronger sense of craft as strategy or inventive approach, which is also to say art. In some uses it conveys dexterity (though not in a manual sense) and only later it is modified by "handy" to take on a strong connotation of skill in the sense of a trade. So from early on, there is a clear sense of art or creative design about it. (Overly) simply put: craft is the practice of art.

In the last 1600s, craft takes on the meaning of a trading vessel or boat in English, which I also find a very satisfying metaphor because it speaks to transmission and passing along. Teaching is the insubstantial vessel for learning/growth.

What I take Anonymous to be further saying above is that teaching exceeds calculation or staid technique. Perhaps, teaching is what is *behind* technique. It generates technique, which is then frozen into Best practices, Textbooks, Methods courses.

If teaching takes on the sense of technique, then it can move away from the teacher and the performances of the teacher and be located instead in the designs of the textbook author or Methods scholar's models. Practicing educators become secondary in the process of workable/ successful/ pleasing decision-making. Does craft happen in the act (which is performed) or in the design (which is recorded)? Those who write about the deskilling of teachers are working out this very tension.

The policy danger here, I think, is not the metaphor, which an lead to the richness of language, but the reification, which turns acts into things. Teaching becomes method which becomes scripted curriculum. Teacher education becomes best practices which becomes state-mandated course content. In fact, craft is healthy reminder that design, at root, is a creative process that responds (opens up) to the problems at hand as opposed to determing (closing down on) a universal solution.

Nancy Flanagan said...

Quite possibly the most common decision-making template did not appear on your list: Remembrance of Things Past, a.k.a. Doing What My Teachers Did.

It is the fallback model for many if not most novice teachers, who, in times of stress or questioning, ask themselves "What would Mr. Chips do?" rather than trying to remember things they learned in their methods classes. If they're fortunate enough to have had a great field experience, they may be trying to channel their cooperating teacher. More likely, though, it's just another version of lather-rinse-repeat.

I'm fond of the jazz metaphor myself, improv on set chords and melody with infinite variations, done collaboratively. Most new teachers who hit on useful models of decision-making, however, will not only have to assess the success of their choice processes, but also defend out-of-box practice to the cynical veterans lurking around.

Good topic.