Is Teaching an Art or a Science? New Book Takes a Fresh Look at ‘How...

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Is Teaching an Art or a Science? New Book Takes a Fresh Look at ‘How Humans Learn.’

By Jeffrey R. Young     Feb 5, 2019

Is Teaching an Art or a Science? New Book Takes a Fresh Look at ‘How Humans Learn.’

This article is part of the collection: The EdSurge Podcast.

Just how do humans learn? And can science unlock secrets of the learning process that can help teachers and professors be more effective in their classrooms?

One of the latest people to tackle those questions is Josh Eyler, in a new book called “How Humans Learn.” But as Eyler warns readers at the outset, he’s not a scientist himself, but a humanist with a PhD in medieval studies. And that’s what makes the book such an interesting and unusual take on what is becoming a hot topic.

Eyler certainly spends a lot of time thinking about teaching, since his day job is now the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University. And while his book offers plenty of practical tips, it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. By offering a guided tour through a variety of theories about human learning, he may just cause you to rethink what teaching even is.

EdSurge talked with Eyler about what surprised him most as he dove into the topic, and what he sees as examples of great teaching.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Is teaching an art or a science?

Eyler: That is the perennial question. We actually wrote a post for our Teaching Center’s blog with that title, “Is teaching an art or a science?” It has by far been read more than any other blog post that we’ve written.

My answer might be a little unfulfilling because I think it’s actually both. I think there is a scientific element to teaching. The book is about understanding the science of how we learn, how learning has evolved over time, and the social interactions that shape teaching. And the best teachers also often approach teaching and teaching issues scientifically. They have a hypothesis of what they think will help students learn, and they’re going to test it out and then learn from it and revise.

But if we focus too much on the science, we lose the human element of teaching—what I think of as the art of teaching. There is a lot of improvisation that goes into teaching, a lot of one-on-one work with students. There’s something very creative about that process, knowing our material and knowing student learning well enough to be able to adjust on the fly, to figure out what a particular student or group of students need to get them over a hurdle or an obstacle. I think there’s a real art to that.

The danger of the art narrative, though, is that if we think teaching is only an art, we slip into this narrative of the person who was born to be a teacher, in the same way that artists get tired of hearing about the person who was born to be an artist. Artists work really darn hard at their craft. That can be a dangerous narrative about teaching because it suggests we have it at the beginning and there’s nothing we can do to change it. It also provides a convenient excuse for not continually improving.

I think it’s both. I think there are caveats on both sides, though.

There’s a sense that science can unlock some secrets right now about how to teach more effectively. Do you believe there are some secrets being unlocked with research?

If we know more about learning from a scientific or even a humanistic perspective, we can be better teachers. Some of it is not necessarily breaking a code or unlocking a secret, as it is there’s information and studies that have occurred in widely disparate disciplines that very rarely talk to each other. It’s not as much about unlocking anything as it is bringing those pieces of the puzzle together so that people can see the whole picture for the first time, because one thing that is true about academia is that we tend to reside in silos, talking to people within our discipline but not always with those outside.

It’s really more about bringing all the threads of the conversation together so that we get a more complete picture of learning.

You mentioned that fads are out there in teaching that come and go. Do you feel like that’s been a problem in talking about teaching?

It can be distracting sometimes. The latest fad tends to crowd out the discourse, the conversation about teaching. I know from my discussions with faculty that there’s this very real phenomenon of initiative fatigue and fatigue over these fads that I think can distract from the more productive conversations that we could have about, “Okay, what do we know works? Why does it work? What’s the tried and true research on some of these techniques?”

It’s not to say that anything that’s new is bad. It’s that in some cases attention gets really focused on a set of practices that are untested and can distract from the discussion that we have about teaching.

Your book is organized around broad themes such as “curiosity,” “emotion” and “authenticity.” And so when you talk about critiques of the lecture style of teaching, you group that under a practice that lacks authenticity.

One of the things that is apparent as you start to read about the lecture-versus-active learning debates is that everyone is defining those terms in very different ways. You could ask 10 people and they’d all have 10 different definitions of “lecture.” For some, it would be talking from minute one till the end of class, but for others it would be mostly talking, some activity, some other kind of mix.

I want to be very clear: what the research shows has a detrimental effect on student learning is the nonstop lecturing.

I put it in the “authenticity” chapter because a lot of times the culprit with lecturing being ineffective is attention span. But when you dig into the research on what scientists call “cognitive authenticity,” attention span turns out to be the symptom, not the cause. What cognitive authenticity simply means is that our brains are really good at attuning to whether a learning environment is artificial or whether it feels more authentic, more like actual conditions under which you would apply that learning. The reason our attention spans suffer in a non-stop lecturing environment, or a “continuous exposition environment” as some education writers call it, is that our brains make this quick decision. “Do I need this? Is this important to me? Can I use this right away?” They switch off, and our attention spans follow really quickly.

The educational environment can be a good example of this. In some cases we can force ourselves to pay attention if there’s an external motivator, like grades, but we’re not learning as much in those conditions as we would if there were other kinds of evidence-based activities and interactive strategies used.

Can you give an example from your own experience of a great teaching practice?

I have so many just even from my home university of Rice, because we have some great people doing wonderful things in the classroom. We have a first-year seminar where they’re teaching students how to read scientific papers and then they take the students to the labs where the papers were written.

We have an engineering course here for first-year students where they’re put in teams and community partners come in from the outside to outline the problem that they have. These teams are tasked with designing appropriate solutions. Some of them actually come to fruition. The Houston Zoo, for example, needed a better giraffe feeder and some of our students made some of those in that class.

Those are great examples of authenticity. The act of hearing someone outline the problem and then designing a solution can be more authentic. Anything that engages students in the work of the discipline.

What’s the thing that surprised you most in your research or putting this book together?

Much of what surprised me most makes up a lot of the final chapter, which is on failure. As teachers, we don’t get trained to think of failure as a positive thing in any way, even though as researchers we know that failure is a part of the learning process. No one walks into a lab right away and comes up with the Nobel Prize-winning discovery. It’s an iterative cycle.

We have these educational systems that are set up to move in exactly the opposite way. We give students really high-stakes assignments and assessments with very few opportunities to do them.

There’s a lot of research where people are now harnessing the power of failure as an opportunity for learning within courses. That was really surprising—how much work people were doing with it and the results that they’re getting. It reframed even my orientation to, “What can I do in my courses to de-stigmatize failure for students to give them more opportunities just to try things out and take intellectual risks in order to move their knowledge forward?” I think that’s amazingly important for higher education.

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