Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | September 25, 2010

My Teaching Manifesto

  1. Teaching is not a science, it is an art, and should be treated as such.
  2. Students are not customers (“persons who buy”) – they are clients (“persons who seek the advice of a professional man or woman”).
  3. “Good learning experience” means mastering something new and advanced. To help his/her students, a university teacher has to be able to transform and restructure highly complex material from his/her subject area into a form suitable and accessible to the learners.
  4. This cannot be achieved without teachers being experts in their disciplines.
  5. Successful and inspirational teaching is a highly individual skill. The choice of teaching methods should reflect not only specifics of the target audience, but also the experience, teaching philosophy and individual psychophysiological characteristics of the teacher.
  6. Structuring of the learning environment, choice of teaching and assessment methods have to be subject specific.
  7. Values, standards, criteria of assessment in learning and teaching have to originate in, and be set by, the professional academic communities of their particular subject areas.
  8. The role of managers is to create an environment which helps professional standards to be maintained; however, managers should not interfere in setting the standards.


  1. Any claim for “being a professional educator” should disqualify the person from teaching math/science for life or until the explicit renunciation of the educators’ heresy 😉

  2. I made a search in my blog — and, to my relief, found that I never claimed that I was a professional educator. But I can claim that I have 36 years of experience of teaching — in various forms. 🙂

  3. Well, we never educate, – we teach (and study ourselves)…

  4. Of course, people are not being educated, they educate themselves.

  5. It is a very interesting manifesto, however I was surprised to see nothing in it committing the teacher to continue to learn about teaching and extend their own understanding of teaching (and learning)

  6. @Tom: Good point. I can explain why I omitted it: because everyone says so, it is taken for self-evident. My 8 points are intentionally aimed at what I think is missing in the current discourse on education.

  7. Do you have a view on student evaluations?

  8. Excellent list. I would like to add that teaching itself takes work and time. It is necessary to be an expert in the material, but not sufficient.

  9. @dennis: Feedback from students is crucial for successful teaching/learning, and various questionnaires make an important part of it. However, the quality of design of questionnaires run by universities is frequently dubious, see a letter by Steven Zucker in the Notices of AMS.

    There is a deeper issue here: “student evaluation” is usually part of “evidence-based” management policy. On that point, I refer to works by Gert Biesta.

    I quote below the abstract of Biesta’s talk The art of the possible: Linking teaching and research (but not too much) at the meeiting The Teaching-Research Interface: Implications for Practice in HE and FE a couple of years ago. To my great disappointment, “Research” in the title of the meeting was “research in teaching”, this also was the meaning of the word “research” as Biesta was using it. Gert Biesta said:

    The question of the relationship between research and practice in education is as old as the academic reflection on education itself. It is, however, a persistent question, as can be seen in recent calls for evidence-based education. In my presentation I will explore some of the assumptions about educational practice, knowledge and research that inform discussions about the connections between teaching and research, in order to outline in what ways and to what extent teaching and research can and should be connected. I will argue that any connections between teaching and research should always be mediated by professional judgement, and that such judgements always entail normative questions. I will also indicate where and how there is a need for a critical distance between teaching and research.

    Listening to Biesta was a revelation. It was the first time that I met an educationalist who stated publicly that teaching is not a science, it is art. He also warned that we should not expect too much from the education research, and argued against evidenced-based policy making in education — see his paper Why “what works” won’t work: evidence-based practice and the democratic deficit in educational research.

    Gert Biesta’s position can be condensed into one line:

    The key question about the “evidence-based” practice in education is who owns the evidence: a teacher or a manager.

  10. @gelada: I agree, teaching takes time and effort; a teacher needs time for developing teaching skills. Following my principle to highlight less frequently mentioned but important aspects of teaching, I would suggest that a mathemtatics teacher needs to develop specific skills of didactic transformation; these, in case of mathematics, are highly specific. See my old paper or a chapter with the title containing the words “didactic transformation” in my dratf book Shadows of the Truth

  11. Your list reminds me of some remarks by Simone Weil on “attention” as core of teaching: “Although today this seems unknown, the training of the faculty of attention is the true goal and almost only value of all study. Most school exercises have a certain intrinsic value, but this is secondary. All exercises that require the same power of attention are of interest, almost equally so.”, “So it comes about that, paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though done wrong, may be of great service one day provided we devote the right kind of effort to them.”

  12. @Thomas: attention is a much wider cultural issue. When 20 year ago I started to teach at University of California, I was shocked to discover how short was attention span of my students. By that time I had already had some diverse teaching (and public speaking) experience and could easily detect this handicap of my students. Why it was something new for me? It was simple: in backward Soviet Russia, there were no 30 seconds TV commercials, and, as a consequence, children’s natural ability of keeping attention was not damaged.

    But we cannot change the cultural background of our students; we have to accept them as they are and teach them as they are — and try our best to compensate them for their losses at earlier stages of education and cultural conditioning.

  13. If we must view university education as a business (something I think is inherently mistaken and pernicious), then students should not be seen as the customers of that business, but as its product. No real business asks its products how they think they should be transformed during the process of production.

  14. @Peter: Trying to imagine, how universities-turned-businesses would be, I am reminded to a joke by Gunter Dueck, a former mathematics professor and now chief technology officer of IBM. He could not believe his eyes when everyone took his satire serious (e.g. awarded by Financial Times as one of the most influential management books of the year) and he received many requests for instructional seminars. Dueck later extended his joke to the theme of “Neurotic Leadership”, curious on what happens then.

    Dueck’s parodies fit into an old tradition of humor in Germany, starting in the 17th century with the Simplicissimus of Grimmelshausen, continued later e.g. by Wieland‘s wonderfull, but unfortunately still up-to-date “Story of the Abderites”, whose final exponent was Seeliger, whose novels anticipated e.g. the mechanisms behind the recent crisis of the financial markets.

  15. Peter: I agree with you that Dueck’s books and parodies are fine examples of depth through humor and posture. But a precision: it was Financial Times Deutschland who awarded the prize. To the best of my knowledge his essays and columns in Spektrum der Wissenschaft have not been translated in english.

    This tradition of parody exists in most countries, although it is seldom translated and does not age very well.

    • @ogerad: The parody gone wrong provides that unexpected way an interesting insight into the mentality in business and management. It was taken very enthousiastical and serious in Germany and (to the author’s amazement) many companies try it. IMO it is an important issue that the science community has an idea what mindsets are on the other side of the table.

      BTW, Dueck is now busy with another perplexing debate: After remarking that the 34% (+ imigrants up to total ca. 40%) of the pop. having university degrees is on the long run far too little for an industrialized country like Germany (and that 20% (in big cities up to ca. 30%) analphabetism rate is too high) and stressing that he in his position can estimate coming problems by smart administrative software for the desk job middle class without university degrees, he concluded a huge need of more school/university education. He was extensively discussed, but noone understood the line of reasoning. It really is amazing to browse the discussions on it and see his increasing puzzlement. The german public behaves a bit like in that old story about the foreign minister, who simply did not understand that english is a language of some relevance and he should learn it a bit, until it was too late.

  16. Alexander:

    Concerning point number 5. I would suggest a point number 5.5 or 1.5:

    – As an art, teaching can be best acquired and honed by continuous apprenticeship and emulation. The organization should place students in situation to practice skills useful as future teachers and offer temporary teaching and tutoring opportunities even to freshmen.

    Concerning point number 8. Do you have a position on what background should a manager have ?

    As I see it, by definition a good manager cannot really exist. If he is (or was) knowledgeable in the field it will be very difficult for him not to intervene in the definition of standards. If he is not knowledgeable at all, from another field altogether or out of a management school, he will be resented as moronic or unsympathetic by the teachers even if what he proposes is sensible. If he is mildly knowledgeable he will be seen as having embraced management for lack of brilliance, for political influence or by power hunger.

    I may see things like this because most university managers in France are chosen/elected/designated/promoted out of pools of professors and lecturers.

  17. David Pierce contributed in an email tome some further comments:

    By the way, one of my facebook friends posted this link. Probably there is some facebook way to share it with you, but I don’t know it. The url gives a hint of the contents.

    We’ve discussed the art/science distinction in your manifesto before, but I am still moved to say something. In the online OED, under “art”, the
    first definition is:

    “Skill in doing something, esp. as the result of knowledge or practice.”

    I think this is the primary historical sense of the term, notwithstanding Collingwood’s 20th-century understanding (to which the OED gives a nod at
    the 8th definition).

    Under “science”, the first two definitions are:

    “The state or fact of knowing…Knowledge acquired by study…”

    Your manifesto can be understood as saying that teaching is not knowledge, but skill: not knowing *that*, but knowing *how*. This makes sense, and it fits with the link above: education is not acquiring knowledge, but figuring out how to use it.

    But is this exactly what you mean?

    It should be noted that Donald Knuth is considered a computer scientist, but he wrote The Art of Computer Programming.

    Your point may be that teaching is not a subject like physics or chemistry. We cannot study students and teachers and their interactions
    in the way we study atoms and molecules.

    But still we are both scientists and artisans (practitioners of an art). The knowledge that we acquire through research is intimately connected
    with our ability to teach that knowledge (to colleagues or students).

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