On Teaching As an Art

Teaching as Art

On Teaching As An Art
by Irene Shih (Ecology of Education Final Paper, Completed December 12, 2012)
[When you share, please credit my name directly. Thanks!]


This month, I had the opportunity to visit ________ High School as part of an ongoing research project done on restorative justice in schools. ________ High’s ________ program endeavors to re-envision disciplinary process and, more broadly, teaching and learning on its campus.

When I first contacted the leaders of this program – Mr. John Park and Ms. Rosemary Tannen (not their real names) – I requested an interview and chance to observe circle (one significant iteration of restorative justice). They readily agreed, but on the condition that I participate, rather than merely observe, circle in practice.

“No one sits on the sidelines,” said Ms. Tannen. “We all participate.”

Ms. Tannen teaches high school English at ________, and helped pilot circle justice at her school. While circle (when used in school) remains primarily an alternative disciplinary tool, Rosemary Tannen uses it to foreground many of her classroom lessons. This day in particular, her lesson centered on the following essay topic:

Imagine you decide to intentionally notice people you would normally ignore or not see. Who would you notice? How would you acknowledge that person? And, what could possibly change for you? For them?

Circle, on this day, was used to jump-start reflection and tease out different dimensions of the prompt. The rules of circle are simple: Everyone gets a chance to speak, and only one person may speak at a time. A talking piece is passed to the left and all the way around the circle for each question that the facilitator (teacher) asks. The talking piece empowers the person holding it – and only the person holding it – to answer the question, respond to any prior comment, or verbalize the choice not to share.

Twice during circle, I noticed Rosemary’s brows knit together, bunched with internal conflict. Nearly all of her students were engaged, but their discussion moved away from her intended destination. Still, although she watched and followed with close attention, Ms. Tannen did not attempt to redirect her students’ comments – all of which were honest, insightful and poignant. She listened, and relaxed back into her chair.

Aesthetic Vision in Teaching

Contemporary views focus on the mechanics of teaching, treating each mechanism as a tool that will produce one facet of the overall desired outcome – cogs in the learning machine. Good teaching, thus defined, can be accomplished by anyone who possesses the right tools. Teachers, by this view, ought to be built in assembly-line form – stuffed with the right skills, welded together by the right values.

In “Notes from a Marine Biologist’s Daughter,” Anne McCrary Sullivan (herself a poet) challenges this view. Instead, she promotes teaching as art, and defines “aesthetic vision” as awareness – paying attention in the moment, and embracing the complexity of present emotion, imagination, and paradox. For Sullivan, aesthetic vision is an awareness of process. Process is particular and continual. Aesthetic vision explores the depth of learning – how moments in class and relationships over time (in their sweet specificity) inspire learning and inform teaching. These moments and relationships are not cogs in any machine, cannot be organically replicated in another classroom. They are art – as much product as producer, and entirely unique to the context and individuals (teacher and students) who produced it.

Sullivan’s aesthetic vision departs from a teacher’s call for students to “Pay attention!” The classroom imperative to “pay attention” is often not conducive to learning at all. A typical form of “paying attention” is not about teaching awareness, but about asserting control and redirecting students back to an outcomes-driven, predetermined agenda and curriculum. For Robert Tremmel, the drive for outcome is a state of “mindlessness” – real teaching, he argues, is absent of destination. He warns “it is exactly this desire for solutions that hinders efforts to establish reflective practice in education” (90). Standards, benchmarks, and testing: Our modern assessment of what teaching and learning should produce. Solutions to pedagogical dilemma become one-track programs to training teachers who will produce students that meet standards, meet benchmarks, and pass tests. This one-track ambition for outcome disregards and destroys the teacher’s “art of paying attention in practice” (105). It coerces an ignorance of process, a blindness to the journey.

In Ms. Rosemary Tannen’s discussion circle, she artfully let the moment take precedence over her intended destination. During our interview, I asked her what “the internal field of her mind” looked like at the time.

“Terrified,” she said, “and unsure if I’m doing them a service or disservice by sitting back and letting it happen. But I think the quality of discussion is more important.”

Ms. Tannen’s decision is not trivial. Several of her students expressed to me afterwards, “Not every teacher can be a Ms. Tannen.” They would know, and I’m inclined to agree. Her awareness is exceptional. But what I find most poignant is that she fights, viscerally, against “mindlessness.” “Mindlessness” is not only built into her training as a teacher, but also into the very demands of her working environment. A teacher isn’t *supposed* to table curriculum for real learning. That she persevered – at least on this day – merits far more than my acknowledgment. But her kind of aesthetic action is often trivialized if not downright demeaned by contemporary mandates on pedagogy. Not every teacher can be a Ms. Tannen, and not even Ms. Tannen can always be herself.

All good teachers possess, and act on, aesthetic vision. They shine a spotlight on process, and see it as the main feature rather than the matinee. These teachers acknowledge and empower opportunities for learning that arise serendipitously. The teacher, as aesthetic visionary, embraces the reality that what happens in the classroom may radically depart from what he predicted or planned for. Instead of treating these departures as mere distractions or elephants in the room, the aesthetic visionary reflects on them in the moment, considers their value, and decides what to do. Often, the aesthetic visionary draws intentional lessons from these unexpected, “teachable moments.” For the student, that moment suddenly becomes not only experiential, but relevant. With or without aesthetic vision, lessons never go quite as planned. But with aesthetic vision, the teacher acts on the impulse that lessons can go better than planned.

Anne McCrary Sullivan says that much of what she learned about the living world, she learned through immediate experience rather than through direct instruction from her marine biologist mother. Her learning came from sensual, emotional, perceptual and kinesthetic awareness. Engaging with her mother’s science inspired her own poetry. In this sense, the teacher’s role as artist is to teach her students how to pay attention, and then to let them discover, with a great deal of freedom, what comes most organically to them through “mindfulness”. Sullivan’s successful internalization of science did not make her a scientist; instead, it made her a poet. This outcome is unexpected and all the more valuable because it arrives autonomously through her individual expression of awareness.

A teacher who pays attention will teach her students to pay attention. Sullivan asks her students to reflect on the changes happening in a seemingly unchanging environment. Robert Tremmel gives “slices of life” writing assignments, asking students to narrate and reflect on an experience – to know and reflect in action. Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot tells the story of a high school football game, a Temptations song, a girlhood crush, and a beautiful outfit – all of which transform into a glimpse at her brother’s love for her (November 7th Lecture). This story has several (perhaps infinite) dimensions – three of which I experience at present: A brother’s love and careful attention, a sister’s love and keen awareness, and a professor’s love and lesson to her students: “Nothing is only what it seems. Always, it’s more.” The 7-year-old goddaughter who can’t read needs a psychiatrist who will know that she just needs glasses (September 19th Lecture). There is infinite value in the aesthetic visionary, who sees in ways unusual to the mechanics of her discipline and profession. Students need aesthetic visionaries.

Aesthetic Vision vs. Technical Rationality

My client organization for the research project would like some quantitative data to show the power of circle justice. While important ethnographic work has been done to document many successes in several iterations of restorative justice – in particular on disaffected adolescent youth – the organization feels that such work is, in some ways, not as accessible as numbers can be.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” my client said, “if we could get numbers on suspension and expulsion rates? It would be so much easier, with numbers, to write restorative justice into legislation.”

As a policy student, I find that few in my discipline question the power of numbers. We test and question validity, we adjust our instruments, but we rarely wonder about the truths missed by even the most externally valid regression analyses. This training jars with my sensibilities as an artist.

There is absolutely a place for numbers, although they will never capture the real nuance, imagination and emotion of circle justice in action. Even now, I find it impossible to explain how, in the span of a few short hours with the students and faculty of ________ High, I felt – and still feel – a lasting kinship. This kinship is about the truth of having shared. A sense of stories told, of lives beautifully suspended, of selves offered in whole. Lowered suspension and expulsion rates, higher test scores, better grades – these approximations don’t begin to capture the danger and enchantment of an hour in the life.

John Dewey vehemently critiques what he calls “easy beauty” – the disassembly of art into piecemeal parts, to be scrutinized – quantified, labeled, projected as whole – in isolation (November 7th Lecture). For Dewey, this practice is akin to limiting “poetry to one line or meter” – by trying to define the whole by its parts, we violate and misconstrue both parts and whole. Art, as experience, eludes the mechanical eye. Dewey critiques “easy beauty” as a surface endeavor. Applied to teaching and learning, “easy beauty” does not derive knowledge about a classroom from within that classroom, does not capture the dance between teacher and student, ignores altogether the tango between unique actors in a unique time and space. Easy beauty satisfies itself with “knowing” the general mechanics of good teaching. Researchers looking for easy beauty in classrooms miss the forest for a few of its trees, and fail to document the essence of good teaching.

Dewey calls it “easy beauty”; Donald Schon and Robert Tremmel term it “technical rationality” – knowledge derived outside of context, concluded on the basis of criteria external to it. Schon sees technical rationality as the direct opposite of reflection-in-action (knowing-in-action and reflecting-on-action). Knowledge in the latter comes in and from acting within context, from teacher as researcher: Acting, learning and knowing – necessitated by experience, played out in endless loop. Elliot Eisner (November 7th Lecture) asserts that the endeavor to document a teacher’s craft should be hard work. Should not, in other words, search for easy beauty. It should first and foremost acknowledge that teaching is craft, is art. Researchers need to be empathic, aware, and ready to capture teacher nuance in motion. Earnest and talented teachers are sensitive to flickers of life in the classroom – gestures, whispered words, unspoken needs. Teachers have an eye and ear for the voices and gifts of students, and a knack for spotting, encouraging, and developing their potential. Teachers, as artists, replace pedantry with open-minded inquisition – a curiosity about what sparks learning in their students, a pedagogical fascination with the essence of each student. Teachers, as artists, invite and pedagogically respond to the curiosity of their students, who naturally want to know – expressed or unexpressed – something real about their teacher’s person.

Professor Lawrence-Lightfoot’s story about her professor, Ira Reid, comes immediately to mind (October 31st Lecture). Her determined and fragile walk around the track – that rite-of-passage between student and learner, audience and actor – is one so few students dare to actualize. In a story about the real and felt boundaries between teacher and student – about an understanding of authority that is both personal and historical – Professor Lawrence-Lightfoot gifts us a glimpse at the student’s poignant impulse to connect with the person behind her learning. So often, we forget the dimension of relationships in teaching and learning. Technical rationale would tell us that teaching and learning happen in the absence of impulse to walk around the track (real or metaphorical), to arrive at that first, hard-earned “How are you?”. But a researcher in possession of aesthetic vision would know – would notice – the student coming around the bend, the teacher’s scarf whipping in the wind to encircle them both, the subtle crossing of external boundaries (teacher and student), and the quiet evolution of internal identities (student to learner). In good classrooms everywhere, some iteration of this scene – equally nuanced – has occurred, is occurring, will occur. Have we prepared our researchers to take notice?

Research, conducted with technical rationale and validated in a vacuum of academic criteria, is rarely useful to the teaching practitioner. Arthur S. Bolster confirms that theoretical research remains largely unused by teachers, and argues that truly useful research should document the variety and depth of teacher knowledge happening within particular contexts. Teachers conduct “situational decisionmaking” within particularities – the answers they look for are specific, not general. The situations they face are complex and demand complex consideration. Magdaleine Lampert, herself a teacher, would readily agree with Schon, Tremmel and Bolster. For her, the classroom demands a series of imperfect solutions to very complex scenarios. She tells the story of Rita the teacher with two students (Linda and Kevin) who arrive at different, but equally valid, answers to a problem. The textbook only supported Kevin’s answer. Rita navigated several layers of complexity in this situation. On the one hand, she wanted to affirm that more than one way of thinking – and therefore more than one answer – was possible. On the other, she had to be careful not to discount the textbook as a reliable source. In the end, Rita improvised. She told Kevin that while the textbook answer was right, other answers could also be valid. She told Linda that while her answer was right, the textbook answer was also valid.

“Rita constructed a way to manage the tension between individual understanding and public knowledge without resolving it….Rita managed to deflect the vehement competition between the two students by issuing a more complex set of rules for judging one another’s answers” (189).

Robert Tremmel asserts that the teaching process is built on improvisational, rather than formal, knowledge. For Magdaleine Lampert, teaching as improvisation facilitates management, rather than resolution, of conflicts and contradictions that emerge in the classroom:

“She debates with herself about what to do, and instead of screening out responsibilities that contradict one another, she acknowledges them, embraces the conflict, and finds a way to manage” (190).

The teacher as improviser exercises an art form that would not survive on the mechanical insights given by technical rationality. At any moment, a teacher must do more than mechanically weigh two philosophical entities against one another. No teacher possesses an impeccable instrument to balance and weigh different values. No teacher will arrive at an empirically correct response to the situation in front of her. The “internal field of her mind” isn’t searching through its library of theoretical research to act and defend in the moment; the internal field struggles viscerally with the unique individuals who present a unique conflict. Inevitably, she will improvise, reflect on how her improvisation worked for her students (and for herself), and store the knowledge she builds from acting and reflecting into her immediate library for future use. No insight given by technical rationale would have told Rita how to instruct Linda and Kevin at such a teachable moment. The teacher’s solution to dilemma is management, not resolution. Aesthetic vision, not technical rationale.

Conclusion: Embracing Aesthetic Vision

If aesthetic vision were more fully embraced, students would be taught to pay attention in ways that have real meaning for them. They would be primed for discovery – of oneself, of others, of larger phenomena around and beyond them. But they would not be told what to discover – that journey is theirs to own.

If aesthetic vision were more fully embraced, we would have more Rosemary Tannens in our classrooms. (And I bet we already have more than we realize.) We would have different ambitions for teaching – ambitions that focus on a quality of process rather than of outcome – and we would stop letting our destination get in the way of our journey. Standards, benchmarks, and testing would not be a top teaching priority – as Rita’s exchange with her students illustrates, the value of “one right answer” is vastly overstated. Process – how Linda and Kevin arrived at their answers – determines whether a student truly, critically learned. Teachable moments would happen all the time; interruptions would be allowable for the sake of learning. Curriculum would be more pliable and applicable to a specific class of students.

If aesthetic vision were more fully embraced, teaching would not be seen as a one-way street going from teacher to student. Researchers would pay better attention to the whole teacher and to his whole classroom. They would look for that tango between teacher and student, and take note of the process by which a teacher critically shapes his teaching to reflect student needs, concerns, and insights. They would look for signs of a teacher’s internal conflict, and pay attention to how he manages – rather than resolves – that conflict. They would notice the way students joke and jive with their teacher, the language they use, and document those gestures unseen by a mechanical eye. Messiness would not be automatically dismissed as failure, but rather considered in the context of conflict – between personalities and between values. Risk would be seen as a necessary part of process. Researchers, in their endeavor to develop findings useful to the teaching practitioner, would play in the field – like Ms. Tannen said, “No one sits on the sidelines. We all participate.” The researcher should have a hard time capturing the richness of what he sees, but he should know – and acknowledge – that nothing is only what it seems, and always it’s more.

If aesthetic vision were more fully embraced, our state and my client would be pleased to find ethnographic evidence for the impact of restorative justice. They would know that, for an endeavor like this, ethnographic research paints a much deeper picture of what children need, what teachers can do, and how much they can accomplish together.

At the close of my interview at ________, a student took me aside.

“Circle is the reason I’m makin’ music,” he beamed. I asked him to elaborate.

“I didn’t talk very much before I started circle last year,” he explained. “But after a few months, people heard me talk and told me I’m a philosopher. You know Tupac? That’s the kind of music I make.”

…Put that in a number.


Bolster, S. (1983). Toward a more effective model of research in teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 53(1), 294-308.
Lampert, M. (1985). How do teachers manage to teach?: Perspectives on problems in practice. Harvard Educational Review, 55(2), 178-194.
Sullivan, A.M. (2000). Notes from a marine biologist’s daughter: On the art and science of attention. Harvard Educational Review, 70(2), 211-226.
Tremmel, R. (1999). Zen and the art of reflective practice in teacher education. In E. Mintz & J. T. Yun (Eds.), The complex world of teaching: Perspectives from theory and practice (pp. 87-109). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Educational Review.


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