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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Teaching is Not an Art

Teaching is Not an Art

Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chair
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

It seems there are many writers who like to characterize teaching as an art form. As an artist and lover of art, I have always had a difficult time with that analogy.
Then it hit me…
As I recently sat through a music concert, I was cast into a mental oasis, listening to the music as it took me back into my past. Combined with the music was a sense of aesthetic relaxation. “These guys are good – true artists,” I thought.  
That’s when it hit me; they have no idea I am out here.
Sure, they know there is an audience, but the nature of that audience, our knowledge of the music, our ability to follow the music, even our appreciation of the music, did not influence their playing. This particular band will play well whether or not we pay attention, clap, or sing along. They are artists.
Effective teachers, conversely, are very aware of their audience.
They come prepared to bring information to a group, usually knowing who that group is, what the people in that group know and what they need. When members of the teacher’s audience (students) have questions, seem lost, disinterested, or inspired, this tends to influence what teachers will do next. They will adjust what they are doing so the students will walk away with something new they have learned; they may even work with some students one-on-one.
Artists don’t care.
When artists are painting, dancing, or writing, they are unaware of any audience. They typically get into a zone (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow) and proceed to express themselves.
Artists do not stop during their performances to ensure the audience is following along, nor do they care if the audience understands or learns anything. Creating art is not based upon pleasing others. Artists do not think about who will be looking at their work, who will be judging it, who will buy it.
Those who do care about these particulars are not artists; they are salesmen.
Some may claim that teaching is a craft, like pottery or woodworking. When a potter is working on the wheel, he does not let the environment influence what he makes. He does not look up to see if the group is following him – most of the time artists work in solitude because reaction from others during the process can be debilitating. Even at the completion, when all is finished, fired, glazed, and ready for display, he does not let the criticisms, or praise, from the audience determine his next work. Those who seek to please the audience (again) are simply salesmen.
Are salesmen good teachers?
Artists do not let the reaction of the crowd determine their next performance. They do not cater to the masses; they are constantly trying to capture the essence of humanity, reality, emotion, or imagination in an abstract form.
Sometimes artists cannot create that which they intend. Sometimes they just walk away from their work for a few minutes or a few months. Sometimes materials don’t cooperate, yet something aesthetic happens. We call those happy accidents when the work turns out to be something inspiring yet obtuse from the original vision. Where does anything like this occur in the act of teaching?
And, just because teaching is not an art, this does not mean it is a science.
The idea that anything as complex as teaching could be reduced into discrete, measurable behaviors is just silly.
Watch an artist perform, try to identify the “effective” behaviors, or try to identify common behaviors among a group of artists. Whatever recipe seems best to predict successful art will soon be proven wrong by the personality of the next person trying it and/or his or her life situation.
If teaching is not an art, then leading is not an art either – same reasons noted above will apply.
So, if teaching is not an art, nor a science, just “what” is it?
The question seems to require an answer from those who do not understand teaching. Those who do it well do not need a definition, rubric, or explanation. They just know it exists and enjoy the opportunities they have to do it. It may be more like parenting. There is a flexible knowledge of what is to be taught; teachers can identify with the situations in life their students are experiencing, and they care for them. There is a patience for those with reasons for not understanding something quickly and a passion for those who can take the information and apply it to life, perhaps building upon it more.
Teachers are not artists.
Teachers are more like athletes, or soldiers, coming in with a plan but adapting as the situation changes. Effective teachers, and leaders, will adapt to their environments, changing them as needed so they are better able to meet their goals. The only environment an artist has to endure is his or her own mind. Situations and other people may serve as inspiration, but they do not engage the artist. Artists have no moral obligation to ensure the next generation has a better life.
One thing artists may have in common with teachers is sensing the intrinsic reward that comes from knowing they have planted a new idea that may inspire new thinking, but even this elusive outcome is impossible to measure and rarely part of any lesson plan objective.
Take learning, now that is an art.


Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Perennial.


Dr. Steve Gruenert encourages your comments, extensions, and even refutations of his perspectives.  Please comment on his article above or write him at


  1. Is this perspective why we have the term "starving artist"? The starving is a result of not having a care about the marketplace. On the converse side, there are many artists who do very well financially because they meet the marketplace demand. Are these artists truly an artist or a manufacturer of public demand? Educators seem to be a manufacturer of public demand in today's world.

    1. While teaching may be an art in process it is an art in the value it can bring to students' lives! Yes teachers are very aware of their audience and they better be. There is a reciprocal relationship that must exist in good classrooms and with good teaching. Teaching is like practicing medicine only only not to heal but to empower and enrich. Every student is different and thus many decisions on educational treatments are made every day. Like the musicians you mention they will continue to exceed for love of art and pride. Good teachers do this too, for pride and excellence.