For a long time, I’ve been convinced that we can only improve our teaching practice in a reliable, systematic way up to some threshold. Below that threshold, we can read books, talk to those who have more experience, and refine our teaching by growing our knowledge of best practices for getting students to learn. But once we’ve really effortfully done all that, further gains just aren’t something we can get through any sort of studied practice. We hope we continue to improve, but our best bet is just to figure out over time how to fully inhabit our teaching skin.

This was never meant as an excuse for complacency: Further reading and study might make improvement more likely, so we shouldn’t let up our efforts once the low hanging fruit begins to seem depleted. (For one thing, we might be wrong about its being depleted!) But the kind of progress we can hope to make is different above the threshold than below. Above it, for example, there are few standards of success that aren’t endogenous in important ways to questions of value that we settle at early stages of thinking about what we as teachers want for our students.

To put it roughly: I thought that below some threshold, teaching is a science, and above it, an art.

Harry’s contribution to the Fall 2019 issue of Daedalus is beginning to convince me otherwise.  The issue “Improving Teaching: Strengthening the College Learning Experience,” features thirteen essays that focus on “what goes on inside the ‘black box’ of teaching and learning.”

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