Education: Science? Art? Technology?

In general, humans like to categorize using dichotomies; an object is placed in one group or another. As an undergraduate student preparing to be a science teacher, I classified plants using dichotomous keys for a particular botany class, hours examining specimens (usually alone and with coffee) to decide if each demonstrated a trait described in the book, and then proceeding to a different section in the book depending on the characteristics of the plant and continuing until the species was identified. At the same time, I was a student in education. Classmates and I debated various questions about teaching and learning, hours discussing (with others and with coffee) whether education is a science or an art (for example). Rather than being merely a speculative conversation among undergraduates, how one answers the question “Is education a science or an art?” has important implications for how one approaches the process of education and how one seeks to improve education.

Those who argue education is a science typically hold that education can be understood as the process of implementing practices following the guidelines outlined by well-known principles that embody cause-and-effect relationships. Education-as-science approaches curriculum and instruction as a predictable endeavor: If an educator undertakes a particular instructional activity in a classroom, then a known outcome will be observed in the students. According to this view, teaching can be reduced to taking well-established and highly controllable actions and the effects of those actions can be measured with reliability and validity (the same actions can produce the same result when repeated with other populations in similar settings and the action does actually cause the effect that is measured). Advocates of education-as-science also tend to predict that the same pedagogy can be used with all students and in all curriculum areas; this stance views curriculum and instruction as neutral.

Those who argue that education is an art typically hold that the reduction of teaching to well-known causes and effect relationships is not possible, and that effective education cannot be described as well-established principles and only through observation and insight can one be an effective educator. Further, those who believe education is an art hold that it is difficult to measure learning and that the factors influencing effective teaching are difficult to deconstruct and control; this stance views curriculum and instruction as non-neutral. Although this debate can sometimes lead to a deeper understanding of the characteristics of education for all stakeholders, it does suggest that education is either one or the other; but that is a false dichotomy. In the 21st century, a third option must be recognized: education is a technology.

This idea… that education can be understood as a technology… will be explored in forthcoming posts.