inTuition taster: Teaching art, craft or science. SET invites experts to debate the issues

The Society for Education and Training (SET) is commissioning a series of articles from leading writers and researchers around the world that will explore contemporary thinking and research on the nature of teaching, learning and professional practice in the 21st century, writes Paul Kessell-Holland.

Paul K HTeaching is evolving. This is not a reflection on recent policy changes, advances in understanding or a response to current funding pressures. It is a fact. Teaching evolves in a Darwinistic way – what is working in a classroom or workshop tends to ‘stick’, and what doesn’t tends to slip away. Sometimes ideas stick even when they are superseded or undermined.

Take Visual Auditory and Kinesthetic learning (VAK), for instance. Despite substantial evidence that learning simply does not work in this way, many teachers stick to using VAK styles. So, while there is little evidence to support VAK, it has left a legacy, and many teachers are now comfortable with variation in teaching approach, differentiation of activity, and so on.

Mostly, as is often lamented, evidence and action focuses on schools, and the majority of researchers and commentators are based in universities. This can sometimes have the effect of leaving teachers in FE feeling isolated from conversations.

And yet, the need to be evidence aware, to know how, or why teaching functions the way it does, has rarely been more pressing in our sector. We need to be the best teachers we can be for a number of important reasons, not least our shared altruistic desire to make a difference in people’s lives.

All provision across our diverse sector plays a major part in supporting growth in our economy, and in societal change. At a time when our future society is being reimagined (through Brexit, but also more fundamentally due to digital technologies), when we are preparing for enormous change in our curriculum (T levels and apprenticeship reforms), we owe it to ourselves, society and to our students to be the very best teachers we can be.

Competing voices 

It is a real moment in time for teaching and training. We are evolving and growing as a profession, at the same time as those around us need us most. But how is a busy teacher to stay up to date with all of the evidence in what is a noisy, confusing and often contradictory debate? What truly counts as ‘evidence’?

What should we be measuring when we are looking at ‘change’? Who, of all the competing voices, is speaking the ‘truth’? The answer is as complex as the question, and finding it is likely to be a personal journey for every teacher.

However, there are some key questions that it would do us well to try and answer. ‘Questions of our time’ so to speak, which we should try to understand and debate as a profession. Challenges or ideas that reach to the heart of what teaching is really about, and on which we are all likely to take a point of view, no matter how hard we try to be impartial.

With the aim of fostering debate, and helping us all to find our way in this age of change, the Society for Education and Training (SET) is commissioning a series of articles from a range of leading writers and researchers across the education world, based on the following proposition: 'Teaching: art, craft or science?'

Why this question? Developments in science related to learning are hard to dispute. The rapid and important growth in educational neuroscience and related work are key areas. We know much more than previously about the functions of memory, learning, recall, adolescent brain development and a whole range of related areas. Does this change the nature of teaching forever?

Should we stick to approaches that seem to work when the latest neuroscience suggests more
effective strategies? At the same time, teaching in our sector has distinguished links into the distant mists of medieval guilds.

Are we to discount the instincts of a modern-day master craftsman or woman to involve their students in practical learning? Do we risk losing part of our heritage and effectiveness by turning our backs on the craft of learning and teaching? Or is education an art? Is it an ephemeral thing, wholly dependent on the context of its existence? Do we need to learn the skills, but then develop a facility that is creative, and responsive to our ‘audience’ of learners? 

There are tensions for us in our professional choices, and no silver bullet answers. But the more we understand the positions of people who are making it their lives to understand these philosophical, ethical and scientific debates, the more informed our own choices as teachers can be.

The articles we are commissioning will express a range of viewpoints. They promise to challenge many assumptions about what teaching is, how we should try to work and think, and what pitfalls lie in our way.

So far our prospective authors include Professor Gert Biesta, Professor Tanya Ovenden-Hope, Professor David Hopkins, Professor Maggie Gregson and Dr Greg Yates. More will confirm soon. We will be publishing edited versions of these articles in inTuition over the coming months, and sharing the full texts with members on our website. We will be building debate and discussion, including at the inaugural SET Annual Conference in the autumn. We look forward to sharing the debate with you.

Paul Kessell-Holland is Head of Partnerships at SET. Paul is also a Fellow of SET.


  • Sennett, R (2008) The Craftsman. London: Penguin.
  • Biesta, G (2009) Good Education in an Age of Measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education, Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), pp.33-46.
  • Woods, P (1996) Researching the Art of Teaching, London: Routledge.

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