It’s both, and it’s more.
The way I see it, to be a successful teacher you have to balance science (fundamentals of human cognition, individual and group psychology, etc.) with your own personal experience and the collective experiences of fellow teachers (whether they be colleagues, mentors, or internet strangers); then you must refine your day-to-day approach based on the strengths and weaknesses of your own personality.
That, in a run-on sentence, is my way of saying that teaching is both an art and a science meshed with a bit of individual personality. Typically new methods or techniques in the classroom are developed, borrowed, and tweaked by the collective experience of educators. The role of science, through scholarly research, is to test those techniques and analyze whether or not they really are effective in the classroom — or, whether they can be extrapolated to a wider professional level. Your personality comes into play to determine how you execute those individual techniques, because every teacher will put a slightly different spin on the same thing.
For example, let’s take a (very) brief look at one of the most tried-and-true instructional strategies: Direct Instruction (“DI” from here on out). For centuries, DI was the primary method of imparting knowledge from an expert to a learner; only much more recently have educators begun to challenge its hegemony in school.
On the experience side of things, you’ll generally have two camps: one that swears by DI as fundamental to learning a new topic, and one that sees it as outdated, passive, and de-motivating for students. Many current teacher educations programs generally fall on the latter side of the debate, as does popular site Edutopia, which promotes a series of “Core Strategies for Innovation and Reform” that include integrating subjects, project-based learning, and social-emotional (aka, collaborative) learning. I mean, just Edutopia’s slogan surrounding Innovation and Reform should tell you all you need to know about its stance on “traditional” DI.
But if the experience of teachers is increasingly being pulled away from DI, it seems that academic research actually validates DI as one of the most effective techniques for learning. In fact, Rosenshine (2012) seems to imply that current research supports DI as a learning model. The second of ten principles for effective education is to “present new material in small steps with student practice after each step,” going on to state that, “the more successful teachers…presented only small amounts of information at one time, and they taught in such a way that each point was mastered before the next point introduced. They checked their students’ understanding on each point and retaught material when necessary” (Rosenshine, 2012). That sounds a lot like Direct Instruction!
So which approach is correct, the research-backed one in favor of DI or the experience-based one against it? Perhaps which is best depends on you, the educator. Some people have a commanding and energetic personality that lends itself well to engagement with DI, while others appreciate a much more hands-off, democratic classroom approach. It all comes together based on your personality and what you find most natural.
While this site is titled “The Science of School,” it’s goal is not to be a monument to scientific research. I find the notion that teachers (or any other profession/pastime) should only follow what has been proven to work by existing academic research laughable; there are simply too many variables in schools for researchers to have everything figured out. Rather, I find a more balanced approach the best, one that combines experience with research, or, better yet, asks, “Is there evidence that backs up this approach in school?”
This site is a monument to professional questioning and introspection, something that teachers have far too little time to do on their own during the school year.
Citation: Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, Spring(2012), 12-39.