Is Teaching an Abacus or a Rose?

First article in a series on The Artistry of Teaching


Teaching is more immediate than reflective, and the artistry of teaching, much like creativity, comes to the prepared mind, sometimes serendipitously, more often as an invention or ingenious solution to an immediate problem.

Many of you will agree that teachers are closer to being orchestra conductors than technicians. Yet, in 2013, we are in the midst of a sweeping assault on teaching and the teaching profession by people who focus on test scores, efficiency, cost benefit analysis, achievement, and common standards.The argument, in The Artistry of Teaching, is that in spite of the corporatization of schooling, it will be teachers and other educators who will lead the way to restore schooling to its democratic ideals.

This is the first of a series of articles for an eBook entitled The Artistry of Teaching  that will be published over the next few weeks.

?The Abacus or the Rose?

There are some people who believe we teach science not because it nurtures the child’s imagination, but because it might help her get a job.  Reform in science education for the past two decades is based on the idea that American students receive an inferior education in mathematics and science, and as a result will not be able to compete for jobs in the global marketplace.  In this scenario, the purpose for teaching math and science is to get a job.  Furthermore standards-based reform coupled with high-stakes testing has morphed into a model of teaching in which “whadja get” is all that counts.  Achievement scores and changes in math and science is the barometer reformers use to decide whether they should take a happy pill, or not.

In this scenario, which also includes reading scores, the arts and humanities curriculum are pushed to the side, meaning that the only content worth studying is content that will make America economically more competitive–mathematics, science and reading.     Melissa Walker, Executive Director of JazzHouseKids, and Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at the University of Georgia take issue with this new conception of schools, and suggest that arts programs (such as music) can serve as medium in which students develop a strong attachment to school, and develop positive relationships with peers and educators.  They also report that arts programs have powerful effects on student learning, as in this statement:

According to “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Findings from Four Longitudinal Studies National Endowment for the Arts,” students with deep arts engagement are four times more likely to participate in extracurricular activities, including school government, yearbook, school newspaper, service clubs, and community volunteering. Prolonged engagement in the arts shows that student participants enjoy greater academic achievement and are better prepared for college. Dedication to artistic activities also contributes to better outcomes in their entry in the initial job market, and better alignment with professional careers.

In this view, school is more than a place to drill and test students on the content of mathematics, science, and reading, but a commons where student’s lived experiences are central to the nature the school’s curriculum.  It is easy to forget that schools are actually communities, and are places in which children and adolescents can thrive and be persons in their own right.  The arts and humanities should mingle with mathematics and science in the same was that John Dewey conceived it more than a hundred years ago.  School should be a humanistic environment designed with the interests of the child at the forefront.

Instead of viewing school as each community’s social, emotional, and intellectual commons, we’ve turned school into a political punching bag, as well as source of wealth for corporations and businesses who insist on charter schools, vouchers, and the privatization of the school management.  We have to reject this idea, and begin to advocate for teachers, who’ve known before they became teachers that schools are democratic and humanistic places where parents hope for the best for their children and youth.

Humanistic Virtues

In this article, and in the blog articles to follow as part of a series on the Artistry of Teaching, a different scenario will be  argued.   And it is that schools are the most important commons in a democracy, and that the school is a center for the development of the creative, artistic, humanistic, and intellectual capacities of humans.  School is a community resource that above all else should be an part of the life of children and adults in their neighborhoods.  In this conception, teachers and administrators will use their professional knowledge in a way that educates our youth.

So, in this post I am going to argue that teaching is an artistic endeavor.  As such, the central idea about teaching is this:

Teaching, like art or science, is an expression of a personal vision of reality, and the great breakthroughs come when the teacher invents a new vision, uniting previously unconnected details. In short, teaching is a work of imagination.

Another way to look at this is the argument that “those who can, do; those that can’t teach.” But Eric Booth, in his paper, The History of Teaching Artistry, suggests this might not be true.  He writes:

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach—according to George Bernard Shaw, who also wrote that he never learned anything from a teacher, he taught himself everything; so maybe GBS had a little ax to grind. He got it quite wrong—the truth is that those who can do two things well, at the same time, in almost any setting, are teaching artists.

Teaching is neither art or science, it is its own discipline.  There is however, artistry in teaching and that is what we will explore.  The Abacus and the Rose sheds some light on this.

Science and Human Values

When I was a professor at Georgia State University, I taught a seminar for several years for graduate education students (all of them were teachers in the Atlanta area) entitled “Science and Human Values.”  I had designed the course for doctoral students, but to my surprise, each time I offered the course, it was filled with teachers who were in graduate school working on masters or educational specialist degrees.  The make up of the classes was diverse and included teachers K – 12 from most of the metro-Atlanta school districts.  The purpose of the seminar was to explore the human values that are crucial to science and art, and how understanding relationships between science and art can tell us about teaching.

17358I used two books to organize the course, each written by Jacob Bronowski.  The books were The Ascent of Man: A Personal View (including his 13-part BBC video documentary series) and Science and Human Values, three essays that Bronowski had given as lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1953.  When the three lectures were published together as a book, Bronowski added a last section.  That section was a play he had written entitled  The Abacus and Rose.

The Abacus and the Rose was a radio drama written by Bronowski and broadcast by the BBC  in 1962.  It was then published by The Nation, and then Bronowski added it as the last part of his book, Science and Human Values.  Bronowski wrote the play to express his ideas on how common ground could be employed between science and philosophy, which had been explored by C.P. Snow in his 1959 lecture, The Two Cultures.

We used Bronowski’s work to explore the human values that underscore art and science and to relate this inquiry to the nature of teaching.  The course curriculum was based on Bronowski’s artistic creation as presented his 13 part video series, The Ascent of Man-A Personal View.  As Richard Dawkins points out in his forward to Bronowski’s book:

Who more than Bronowski weaves a deep knowledge of history, art, cultural anthropology, literature and philosophy into one seamless cloth with his science?

Although Bronowski didn’t intend it as the foundation for his book, his poetic view of science was a metaphor for our understanding of teaching as discussed by teachers in this seminar.  An understanding of science required connections to history, culture, literature and art, and clearly, as teachers we understood that this is exactly what teaching is about.  There is the desire in us to make connections, to inquire, to seek answers to our questions, and as teachers we can bring this attitude and philosophy to our courses and classes.

So, what does the Abacus and the Rose have to do with teaching?

Bronowski wrote the Abacus and the Rose as an extended note in which he discussed the theme that science is as integral a part of culture as the arts are.  Bronowski wrote this more than 50 years ago, and in my view, things have changed.  I would agree that science is an part of culture, but it is not more important in the life of students in school than the arts.  As we will see, The Abacus and Rose give us insights about the nature of science and the nature of art.  These insights, in my view, can open us to powerful conceptions as we relate these ideas to teaching.

The Abacus and the Rose is a dialog among three characters, and as Bronowski points out, there is a classical model for such a dialog, and that is the Dialogue on the Great World Systems which Galileo published in 1632.  Galileo created a dialog between two philosophers and a layman concerning the belief that the earth was the center of the universe, compared to to the idea that put the sun as the center.  It was more than that, as Bronowski explains.  It was a story about a deep issue that divided the culture, as our culture is divided today, especially about schooling.

Bronowski’s dialog takes place at a restaurant in Lucerne, Switzerland during the time that the three characters are attending an East-West conference on “some” cultural topic.  The three of them are in Switzerland on Her Majesty’s Government dime.

  • Sir Edward: Sir Edward St. Albish, who represents the Establishment, is urbane and maddeningly tolerant, fifty-five plus, Deputy Secretary to the Ministry of Education. Sir Edward’s character is based on C.P. Snow.
  • Harping: Dr. Amos Harping, represents the literary furies, feels helpless in a changing time.  He’s a reader (professor type) in English at a British university.  His character is based on Prof. Frank Leavis, a literary critic at Cambridge University.
  • Potts: Prof. Lionel Potts, represents science.  He’s a little smug–his success came young (think Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA)–and is slow to realize that there really are other points of view other than that of the molecular biologist, about 42.

In their dialog, Harping and Potts argue with each other about the nature of art and science, with Sir Edward acting as critic and arbitrator.  Potts, the scientist, introduces the idea that there is an intellectual depth to the study of nature, as much as there is the same intellectual depth that literature  presents.  Harping couldn’t disagree more.  Potts goes further and suggests that nature provides profound experiences, and that those who delve deeply into nature become one with nature, experiencing a sense of awe.  This is what makes nature beautiful to the scientist, according to Bronowski.

Harping challenges Potts to give examples that show that science at the level of human activity is not very different from the arts.  Harping wants to be convinced that science is humanistic, believing that it is not.  Potts suggests that to make his point he will compare Rutherford (the scientist) and Rembrandt (the artist).  Potts explains that Rutherford and Rembrandt made something, and what they each made was personal and the result of interpretation and judgement.  At first, Harping has trouble seeing this.  Here is a brief part of their dialog:

Potts: Let me finish, Harping.  I was talking about fact and imagination, in physics and in painting.  You will agree that Rembrandt was a painter wedded to the facts.  In one sense, his paintings are an exact description of what he saw.  Rembrandt’s paintings are not photographs, certainly; but they are representations, and they were intended by Rembrandt (and accepted by those who commissioned them) to represent reality.  In this sense, Rembrandt’s paintings are every inch as factual as Rutherford’s description of his experiments.

Sir Edward: Go on.

Potts: But of course, Rutherford’s reputation was not made by his description of the experiments.  It was made, like Rembrandt’s by his interpretation: his interpretation of what lay hidden below the surface reality and which the experiment or the painting revealed.  One experiment, one painting, pointed to the next, until they wove together a network of interpretations which made a single image.

Sir Edward: An image of what?

Potts: In Rembrandt’s self-portraits, an image of himself.  In Rutherford’s atomic experiments, the extraordinary and unbelievable image of the atom as a minute solar system.

Facts and imagination, in Bronowski’s view, are fundamental to science and art.  For Bronowski, the artist and scientist are connected culturally and by human imagination.  Bronowski believed that art and science can teach us a great deal about human values.  Although his book, Science and Human Values was intended to help ferret out the values that compel the practice of science, he also said that he would have liked to have included discussions of those values that are not necessarily generated by science, including the values of tenderness, of kindliness, of human intimacy and love.

Bronowski’s thinking has profound ramifications for teaching.  Although I am not suggesting that teaching is a science, I think most of us believe that teaching is a performing art.  But teaching is deeper than simply saying that it is a performing art.  Teaching touches the deeper aspects of human existence, and teachers foster hope by helping students uncover aspects of themselves that lay hidden.

Teaching: Science or Art, Abacus or Rose?

I recently wrote an article on What Everybody Ought to Know About Teaching?  To answer the question, I wrote brief narratives of three educators that I know.  Bob Jaber was was one of the teachers featured in this post.

Coincidentally, one of the students that took the course on Science and Human Values that I taught at GSU (c. 1973) was Bob Jaber.

Bob Jaber was a high school chemistry teacher who taught in the Fulton County schools (Georgia) in the 1970s and 1980s.  I first met him when he took one of my courses in the science education graduate program at Georgia State University.    While at GSU he studied advanced graduate chemistry and science education.

Bob Jaber is not only a scientist, he is also an artist.  His work used mixed media to create textured art forms.  One of the art forms that he perfected was using colorful carpet samples to design floors, walls, and create poster size wall hangings.

Like Jacob Bronowski, Bob integrated science and human values in his high school chemistry classes. Like Bronowski, Bob Jaber believed that science can be part of our world, and can create the values that humanize our experience.  I learned from Bob Jaber that values and attitudes should be as important as the content that we are teaching.  But more than anything, Bob Jaber was a teacher who embraced the values of tenderness, of kindliness, of human intimacy and love.

Everyone should know this about teaching, yet, in the present day, we are breaking teaching down into dozens of components, and in doing so forget that there is something much more important about teaching.  Teaching is something much more than the way it might look on the Danielson Framework for Teaching which many districts are using to judge teacher performance.  Teaching is about the whole thing on so many levels.  It’s not about skills (although they are important to know), it not about lists of content spelled out in the standards, and it’s not about the tests that are given to students.  It is harmony and holism in teaching, and to teachers like Bob Jaber, teaching is a journey of  profound and enduring connections with students.

Perhaps teaching is an abacus and a rose.   What do you think?


About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University