Some thoughts about teaching

Dec 14, 2011 by

which were occasioned by a recent conversation where i was asked if I thought teaching more of an art rather than a science.  I responded that the question was a false frame, and was asked to explain.

Kenneth J. Bernstein

My explanation comes in part from my background and formal education in music.

I think what we are seeing in education is neither art nor science, but the attempt to turn education into an engineering problem.  In engineering, it is of course important to have rigorous standards.  In manufacturing the ideal of exactly the same interchangeable parts is an important component of mass production, which provides consistency, and may even save on cost.

But students are not, and should not be, widgets or other manufactured outputs.  They are absolutely unique individuals, and should be respected as such, even as we try to assist them in growing and developing and learning how to learn.  Please note that last phrase – learning how to learn –  we thereby empower them to lifelong learning that does not depend upon a formal school/educational setting.

Is music composition an art or a science?   Is performance of a pre-composed piece an art or a science?  Is the improvisation one sees in jazz, which is part of fulfilling the continuo of many baroque works, which was originally what was done in the cadenza of a concerto, an art or a science?

The answer is, as far as I can tell, both and to a lesser degree neither.  It is both because it is not an absolute dichotomy.  If I compose and have in mind how the piece is going to sound, there are elements of science – harmony, acoustics, timbre, the range of instruments or of human voices – but by itself that does not a meaningful musical work create.  I might create a work that technically follows the rules of strict counterpoint or sonata allegro format, which is performable by the instruments and/or singers for who it is written, but is absolutely boring.  It is then equivalent of much of what we are seeing happen as a result of ‘reform’ in American education.

There is more.


When I play a piece of music previously composed, I have material with which to work:  the printed music, with notes, dynamics, perhaps even fingering.  I also have knowledge of the capabilities of the instrument.  I could mechanically move from the sheet music to the sound production, which I suspect would be a boring performance for any listener.  Or I can engage with the music, perhaps discovering something new each time I play it.  In preparing to perform, I am likely to take apart the music, try different things, reflect (perhaps subconsciously, perhaps fully consciously) on the differing results.  In a sense one could see the lesson, no matter how well defined, as the notes and the students as the instrument(s) being used – except this puts the students into perhaps too passive a role.

In improvisation, one has some idea – perhaps a theme, perhaps an outline of a musical idea – and works with that, making changes as one goes along.  Each time one improvises on the theme the result is somewhat different, which makes it scary, even as it is potentially exciting.

Yet even these images are but partial descriptions of the process of classroom teaching.

There is another role in music, and it is that of conductor:  there is pre-written music, there is an ensemble of instruments and/or voices, and the conductor is attempting to get all to work in common for a common purpose, an interpretation/performance that has a vision.

Getting closer to teaching, but still not quite there.

There is music – the lesson plan.

To a degree there is performance – both by the teacher and the class

The teacher has the responsibility similar to that of the conductor.

But there is, and always will be, some degree of improvisation, and not merely by the conductor/teacher, but by every member of the ensemble/classroom.

The analogies are far from perfect.  I understand that.

What I am trying to describe is the nature of the productive classroom environment, at least as I see it, as I have read in research, and – of greatest importance –  as my students have given me feedback.

Things will vary.  Certainly with students beginning a course there may be more direction –  it is the equivalent of learning one’s scales, or how to transpose the clef between what is written and what one hears (particular important to those of perfect pitch, I might note).

The teacher is simultaneously composer, performer, conductor, improviser and audience.

If students are to learn how to take ownership of their own learning, they will also have to learn how to do all of those roles, some more than others, depending on where they are in their learning.

As a teacher with 30 or so students in a room for 45 minutes, I may have to make several hundred decisions during the course of one class period.  I will have to adjust what I may have planned depending upon what the students bring to the “performance” or “composition” –  the class is, after all, their learning opportunity and in some ways they shape it as much if not more than I do.

Is teaching a science or an art?   Great art often involves large amounts of scientific knowledge that is assumed and transformed by the creative vision.  Art without fundamentals often is a mess, and does not express in a way that can be comprehended by others.

Thus teaching is both science and art, yet something else.

Great teaching is a co-creative process that empowers the students.

There is a Buddhist aphorism that when the student is ready the teacher will appear.  Those of us who are classroom teachers must be present for that moment, yet also help the student become ready.  Then  we simultaneously become co-learners, learning from our students what they need from us, which may vary greatly between classes and among students within classes.

Just a few thoughts on teaching.  At least of my understanding of the process as i have lived it over this and the previous 16 years of public school classroom teaching.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Related Posts


Share This

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.