The very best teachers know that their success relies upon a close combination of art and science

The science of teaching is our increasing knowledge base for how humans learn and what teaching methods work best. The art is the capability to creatively design and deliver instructional methods that result in highly effective and motivational learning experiences for students

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Opinion: Dennis Sale

IS expert teaching a science or an art?

This is a question I have been asked many times in different countries, educational sectors, and cultural contexts. It doesn’t surprise me, as there is still much debate about what constitutes expert teaching. Peter Drucker, a world-famous management guru, even wrote: ‘Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance. In teaching, we rely on the “naturals”, the ones who somehow know how to teach.’

Expert performances in any area of human activity are underpinned by specific knowledge bases, skills, and attitudinal components that contribute to success. People with the best knowledge, skills, and mindset are most likely to excel. In this article, I make the case that expert teaching is both science and art, naturally combined, and understanding how this works in everyday teaching contexts is essential for developing greater expertise across the profession.

In explaining teaching as a science, it is most useful to focus on the ‘science of learning’, as without good learning, teaching has little value. In fact, when done poorly, the activity of teaching may be an impediment to learning. Increasingly, research now focuses on how humans learn and, from this evidence-based approach, how we can best design and facilitate learning environments and instructional strategies to maximise learning impact for students. Furthermore, impact is not just on academic attainment, but equally focused on enhancing levels of engagement and feelings of self-efficacy and wellbeing.

Certainly, there is now an increasing base of validated knowledge relating to human learning to argue for a scientific framing of expert teaching, as is the case in other professions such as medicine and engineering. For example, research clearly shows that when teachers use instructional methods that connect new knowledge to students’ prior learning, stimulate their thinking to build understanding, utilise testing and practise activities with ongoing two-way feedback, learning is typically enhanced. Similarly, clarity and tone of voice, setting challenging goals with high expectations for students, as well as providing variety in the learning experience (eg multi-media, worked examples, and problem-solving tasks), also enhances learning.

However, does the competent execution of these technical aspects of teaching alone sufficiently define an expert teacher, or are there other less clearly understood and varied skills/attributes that are more creative, and are best framed as art? Much of the answer lies in how we define expertise, and what constitutes creativity in the context of teaching, and how this impacts the students experience in terms of their level of attainment, engagement in the learning process, and sense of self efficacy.

Expertise can be framed in different ways. For example, the pioneering work of Hatano and Inagaki differentiated between two broad categories of expertise, ‘routine expertise’ and ‘adaptive expertise’. Routine expertise is characterised by a high level of technical proficiency across the typical range of real-world problem-solving contexts. However, as challenges/problems become less familiar and novel, the performance of routine experts can dip significantly. In contrast, adaptive experts can reframe problems in different ways, modify or invent new strategies, and combine skills to problem-solve in challenging situations.

There is a rapidly changing educational landscape ahead, where expectations on teachers for ensuring greater inclusion, differentiation in instructional provision, and the effective utilising of technology-based learning, and this will create many challenges to the profession. What this means is that teachers will need both deeper and wider competencies, as well as being more creative in how they design and facilitate their lessons – much in alignment with being adaptive experts.

From my experience of training/coaching/mentoring over 15,000 teaching/training professions in many countries and varied context and cultures, I have seen adaptive expertise in many forms, and this has encouraged me to pursue the goal of enhancing teacher expertise globally. What is particularly interesting is that despite much variation in how different teachers do this, the practices employed are consistently underpinned by the ability to create and use methods/activities that create both interest in what is being taught and simplifying complex concepts into concrete examples that connect to the specific context of the students being taught. These teachers use a variety of powerful resources in this creative invention and delivery, which I have summarised in the acronym SHAPE (stories, humour, activities, presentation style, and examples).

To illustrate this concept in specific concrete terms, think of the teachers you have experienced who offered no stories, no humour, no engaging activities, poor presentation style and no examples in their lessons – not good, right? However, now think of those teachers who were in great SHAPE (eg told interesting stories that connected with you, encouraged fun in the learning process, offered you interesting/meaningful tasks to do, listened to your needs/concerns and were friendly and supportive, and illustrated difficult concepts with real-life examples). In contrast, were these teachers engaging and effective for your learning – even inspirational? This is adaptive expertise in action in the context of teaching, what I have referred to as creative teaching competence (Sale, 2020).

In summary, expert teaching is science and art combined, and there is no real dichotomy between these essential components, as both are underpinned by strong evidence-bases from diverse fields in the human sciences. The science of teaching is our increasing knowledge base for how humans learn and what teaching methods work best. The art is the capability to creatively design and deliver instructional methods (eg SHAPE) that result in highly effective and motivational learning experiences for students. Finally, creative teaching competence is a learnable capability for highly motivated teaching professionals and, as more teachers develop it, we become less reliant on ‘the naturals, the ones who somehow know how to teach’.

Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as adviser, researcher and examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100+ consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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