Saving the art of teaching from the science of education

“Carpe diem,” the character played by Robin Williams whispers to his impressionable young students in “Dead Poets Society.”

“Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Later, he jumps up on a desk and implores them to see the world from a different vantage. And they do.

My high school years were spent at a place not all that different from the imaginary realm in which Mr. Keating, the Robin Williams character, held forth.

Mr. Poirot, my Latin teacher, football and wrestling coach and college counselor was one of them. He was an expert on early Christian manuscripts, a Volvo enthusiast, and a Bob Dylan devotee. His enthusiasm for teaching and learning was contagious and his success with both was enviable. He was a rock star.

Then there was Rev (short for Reverend), a pipe smoking, cape-wearing, fire-and-brimstone preacher. He would lead druid services, recite Kierkegaard, and, for dramatic affect, take the Lord’s name in vain. Doc, who wrote our Latin textbook, and Mr. Burgess, a charismatic historian and avid birder, were among teachers who inspired me to join their profession.

And, it must be confessed, I have been known to jump up on tables and desks, play obscure songs and design ridiculous projects in my own bid to make students’ lives extraordinary. I once took my seventh-graders to a sausage factory in Opelousas. I had hoped to teach them about business practices. Instead, I converted many of them to vegetarianism.

My goal was to get them fired up about learning. Whatever it took, I was willing to try. Every class was an opportunity to “carpe diem!”

Killing the sage

As the founding leader of a local public school, I once had a group of teachers evaluate Keating’s classroom technique. True to our profession, they sat silently watching clips and frantically jotting down notes. Using a state-mandated rubric developed by Pearson Publishing Corp., a goliath in the field of standardized testing, they analyzed and critiqued Keating’s every move and every word.

So, how did my fictitious mentor fare? Not so well. He was deemed “effective: emerging” by most and “ineffective” by some. “He lectured too much,” they griped. “He didn’t start with standards-aligned assessments,” others complained. “He handed out papers inefficiently. His wait time was off. He made fun of kids’ names and embarrassed them in front of their peers. He got lost on tangents. He spent too much time joking and preaching, and not enough time actually teaching.” One of them put it this way: “I couldn’t identify a single Common Core standard. His kids would never have passed the test!” According to my teachers, he was a typical old school sage on a stage. “He would never survive today,” they said.

In the film, Keating is fired, albeit indirectly, because of his unconventional style. Today, his nonscientific approach would probably cost him his job all over again. I’m sad to say my teachers may have been right.

Seize the data

About the time I graduated from high school and headed off to college, the Reagan administration published “A Nation at Risk,” the scathing indictment of American public education that marks the beginning of the modern school-reform movement. Scholars and pundits joined in the clamor to identify and impose “best practices” on the teaching profession. The second Bush administration wrapped a bow around a lot of this thinking with its No Child Left Behind initiative.

The legislation imposed performance goals on public schools, and, in the process, it turned the creation of standardized tests into a cottage industry. Today’s move toward Common Core standards is just the latest iteration of a movement that started even earlier, with the Soviet launch of Sputnik. While the new standards don’t exactly tell teachers how to teach — indeed, there’s nothing in it to stop a Keating from jumping onto a desk now and then — they do put down markers for when all K-12 students should reach various educational milestones, yet another constraint that may be squeezing the life out of schooling.

From the Cold War to our current obsession with the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula, from teacher colleges to Teach for America, from little red schoolhouses to charter schools, from chalk talks to blended learning, educational reform has been barreling down a thruway paved by the Industrial Revolution and given lights and fresh striping by Frederick Taylor, the late 19th-century savant who brought principles of scientific management into factory settings.

Modern educators are taking Taylorism off the assembly line and applying it to the classroom. But instead of cranking out Model T’s and widgets, schools aspire to produce kids who can all do the same things at the same times in the same ways — and then prove their competency by filling in the correct bubble with a No. 2 pencil. With its emphasis on efficiency and productivity, uniformity and accountability, the “science” of education is slowly but surely snuffing out the “art” of teaching.

Faced with state mandated standards, high-stakes testing, student learning targets, teacher rubrics, professional growth plans, and countless other hoops and bars, small wonder that professional satisfaction among teachers is at a low ebb. Sure, there are teachers who need to be weeded out — teachers who have mastered neither the art nor the science of teaching. Just as surely, there are plenty of lovable eccentrics still plying their trade in New Orleans public schools. But I can’t help wondering if Keating or Poirot would have stayed in the profession — and frankly, it’s hard to imagine them employable in any other capacity! They would have felt hemmed in, stymied by all the restrictions and requirements. It’s hard to be spontaneous with benchmarks looming; it’s hard to recite Walt Whitman when it’s not on The Test.

In Search of a Muse

In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson, the British education theorist, gave a TED Talk called “Do schools kill creativity?” Since its release, the speech has been viewed over 34 million times. Robinson, a retired university professor, makes a compelling case that the modern educational machine is systematically sucking the imagination out of our kids.

Along with collaboration, communication, and critical thinking, the fourth “C,” creativity, is considered a “21st century skill,” essential to the production of disruptive technologies and their incarnation in the likes of Steve Jobs. But because it’s not easy to quantify – to put into a multiple-choice format – it rarely finds its way into discussions about the science of education.

By contrast, the art of teaching is all about creativity. It thrives on spontaneity and teachable moments. It favors instructional vigor over testable academic rigor. It’s about relationships and big ideas. It can’t be found in a script; it doesn’t fit under a rubric. It still lives in untested subjects, on playing fields and now, in TED Talks. It’s a soft measure, so it doesn’t make the grade in metrics-driven surveys like the annual college rankings put out by U.S. News & World Report. (Instead of fetishizing SAT scores, how wonderful it would be if such surveys could capture the number of professors who actually inspire their students to think!)

TED Talks, Khan Academy and other online platforms for cyber sages are breathing new life into the art of teaching. (If Mr. Keating were around today, he would surely go viral!) In classrooms where Google and Wikipedia have all the answers, there’s now a need for talented guides on the side, teachers who can inspire their students to be good, productive, responsible and creative consumers of all that knowledge. They’re the ones who will coach and cajole their students into seeing the world from a different vantage and doing extraordinary things – things that don’t necessarily involve bubbles and a No. 2 pencil.

Advancements in technology aside, plenty of successful models still do put a premium on the art of teaching. Waldorf Schools, for example, hire teachers for their character as much as their pedagogical dexterity. Because they may spend as many as eight years with the same group of kids, Waldorf teachers have to be role models and heroes. Finland is another case in point. The country’s schools, which are consistently among the top performers around the world, hire the best and the brightest and then cut them loose. They don’t cookie-cut them with tests, standards and manuals. And then, of course, there are independent schools that pride themselves on, well, independence. They still recruit and hire unorthodox oddballs like Robin Williams. “Nanu nanu!”

Over the past 50 years the art of teaching has been steadily losing ground to the science of education. As with religion, art and science can and should coexist – in life and in the classroom. Today, more than ever, there is a place for Mr. Keating. Children desperately need a muse, a charismatic guide on the side and a brilliant sage on a stage. They need someone who can make their lives extraordinary.

In the beginning of the film, Mr. Keating tells his students they can call him “Oh, Captain! My Captain!” if they dare. In the end, of course, they do.

Folwell Dunbar is an artist and educator. He can be reached at

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