Educational Insights

Teaching By Numbers and the Downfall of Creativity

I cannot get this image out of my head since reading the introduction to the book Teaching by Numbers by Peter Taubman. It’s a familiar image, probably wedged somewhere in your memory between nostalgia and fad. It also probably represents the last time I attempted to “paint” or be artistic in any traditional sense. The title references the infamous Paint by Number sets that allowed any John, Jane, or Sarah to become an instant artist by following prescribed directives as to what color to paint each sectioned and numbered area on the page, that eventually evolved into a coherent image when–voila–the painting was complete! To even suggest that the art of art could be broken down and essentialized into coloring corresponding segments is simplistic at best. To take the essence and soul out of an aesthetic understanding may have reduced the creation of art to a list of steps, but then again, it was basically an activity for children to complete–not a devaluing of  the profession and nature of “art” itself.

In a similar fashion, the art of teaching is being reduced by and large into a disturbingly familiar pattern of “teaching by numbers,” as his metaphor goes. In many ways, the privatization and corporate take-over of public education is applying the same methodology to dull the creativity and genuine passion that has led so many professionals into the field of education. Pre-packaged curriculum with pacing guides, prepared materials, and the imposition of externalized values of worth and corresponding measures, have attempted to essentialize and reduce the nature of teaching to its most simplistic form. And yet, what I fear most, is not just the existence of this trend but what feels like an ever-increasing tide of public agreement with this sentiment. In contrast to the former example, where painting by numbers did not intend to replace the imaginings of what constitutes “art,” I fear in many ways that the opposite reality exists in the realm of education.

By reducing the myriad of decisions related to content, instructional strategies, classroom management, communication, organization, and most importantly relationship building down to a list of bullets or steps to follow with little input or reference to the actual “goings-on” in the classroom, how can these pre-packaged systems really deliver any legitimate education? How can we reduce the complexity of context and culture to boxes and numbers and honestly tell ourselves (and our communies) that our intent lies in improving the quality of educational experiences?

One more lie, I just don’t buy.


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