It’s the time of year that begs us to follow traditions. One of the things I do every year is make toffee. Family and friends look forward to it, so I keep doing it. Two years ago, my candy thermometer broke. And I forgot about it – until it was time to make the toffee last year – and again this year. But, I made the toffee anyway. If you know anything about making any kind of candy, you know that temperature matters. Last year I decided I would try to “remember” the consistency, color and smell of the finished product. And it worked.

If you are a baker, cook or candy maker who values the precision in cooking, this is might drive you crazy. Guessing when the butter, sugar and water reach the right temperature? Though cooking is based in science, there is an art to it as well. There is a “sense” when things are going well and when they’re not.

The same is true with teaching and learning. There is a science to instruction. There is science behind how we learn and how the brain responds to the stimuli provided in certain ways. There is lots of research on the best ways to teach various subjects, how to help students store facts in long-term memory and how to provide enough variety in instructional practices to address most learners’ needs. Much of this is addressed in teacher training programs, and some in additional professional development. It is interesting and continues to evolve as our methods of discovering just how learning takes place become more sophisticated. It is crucial for the basis of understanding learning.

However, what is not often discussed in these programs is the art of teaching. Yes, there is an art to teaching and it is just as important as the science. You know the art is present when you experience it. You know a teacher possesses this art when you see the enthusiasm and energy that exist in that classroom. The art is not the same for all teachers. It is personal. It is based on their comfort in the classroom, their ability to build relationships and their ability to shift instruction midstream because students need something different. The art is not easily taught in teacher training programs precisely because it is not one-size-fits-all.

Just as in cooking, we can know we have added the proper ingredients to obtain the desired outcome. What we can’t insure with this approach is the engagement of the learners, the enthusiasm and interest in learning for learning’s sake. We need to make sure that not only the strength of the pedagogy is present, but that the people delivering that information are crafting their art form. As we ask more of students, demanding that they go well beyond memorization to thinking, theorizing, experimenting and adapting, we must lead the way. Facts are easily accessed. Invoking a love of learning takes skillful educators with a dedication to the art of teaching and learning.

Some of us are more comfortable with precise formulas to administer instruction and share information. Some of us are more comfortable with a good plan and an ability to adapt the plan along the way, being responsive to the students’ needs. Others of us, though we have the same plan and end in mind, are more freestyle in our approach. Just like other art forms, our preferred method of instruction depends on us and our comfort level as teachers. What we can’t forget, however, is that art matters, especially at a time when we are asking students to think, not memorize. We are asking them to theorize, test an idea and learn from those tests. We want an educated populace – not one who has simply memorized a body of facts.