Techne and Teaching: Is Teaching an Artful Science or a Scientific Art? – Catherine Schryer


The other day during a discussion someone mentioned that teaching was obviously a techne. From the context of the discussion they seemed to mean that teaching consisted of a set of consistent practices. Just by chance, my research group and I had done a lot of investigation into the history of the term techne. We had been investigating teaching and learning practices in healthcare situations and noted the novice practitioners were often rigorously tested on their knowledge of specific facts and terms while at the same time their mentors sometimes talked about moving beyond facts and negotiating situations of uncertainty. We also tied these two conflicting observations into the debate around medicine as either an art or science.

Our research led us back to the origins of the word techne in the Hippocratic canon, Plato, Aristotle and Isocrates. In fact, the term techne was obviously a hot button in classical thought. Plato, for the most part, really, really wanted techne to describe situations of certain knowledge—where theory resulted in absolute knowledge, certainty—you’re right; you’re wrong— black and white kind of thinking. Spelling and Mathematics might be paradigmatic examples of areas of which Plato would approve (although many Mathematicians would argue otherwise).

Other commentators such as Aristotle, Isocrates and the authors of the Hippocratic canon disagreed with Plato. They could not see how formulae and rules automatically translated into certain knowledge, certain solutions. Rather they looked back to older meanings of techne—a concept that was allied with “metis” or cunning intelligence. So they saw craft knowledge as cunning sets of flexible strategies that could be adjusted to different circumstances. For them, the paradigmatic example might the field of navigation. Navigators, especially in the era before compasses and weather forecasts, had to constantly adjust their craft knowledge to changing circumstances. In other words, they had to become savvy improvisers.

Consequently, even though techne was translated into the latin word “arte” or art as in the “Art of Medicine,” this translation failed to capture the richness of the term. Techne meant something like artful science or scientific art: practices intended to produce savvy improvisers capable of adjusting craft knowledge to changing circumstances. And to me this is what teaching and learning is all about.

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Catherine Schryer

As Director of the Centre for Excellence from 2006 to 2009, Catherine F. Schryer provided leadership in the promotion, development, and advancement of excellence in teaching and learning at the University of Waterloo. Prior to joining the Centre, Catherine was Director of the University of Waterloo's Teaching Resources Office. She has a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, with interests in advanced literacies in the professions as well as education and healthcare communication. Catherine is now Chair of the Department of Professional Communication at Ryerson University.

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