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The Art and Science of Teaching

During a past #pechat on Positive Behaviour Management in #PhysEd, Dean Dudley shared his thoughts on how teachers can learn a lot about their work by reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”. After the chat, Dean and I continued to talk about how the ancient text could be interpreted by teachers. He told me that he had given presentations on the topic and was interested in potentially writing a book on it. I asked him “why not start with a blog post” and here we are. This first post covers Sun Tzu’s first chapter of “The Art of War”and, hopefully, there will be more on the way. Enjoy!

Author’s Introduction

There is an ancient Chinese story of a lord who asked his personal physician, who’s entire family were healers, which of his brothers was the most skilled in their profession. Being the lord’s personal physician meant that his reputation was widely regarded as the authority in the province on all matters to do with medical science.
The physician’s reply however stunned his lordship. He said
“My eldest brother sees the essence of any sickness and removes it before it takes hold, so his reputation does not extend beyond his own household”
“My elder brother cures illness in its early stages, so his reputation does not extend beyond his own village”
“I puncture veins and prescribe potions, so from my reputation and name are heard throughout the entire province”
None of the other stories from ancient China capture the essence of Sun Tzu’s message in The Art of War. What has long been considered the classic and preeminent source of science and philosophy in conflict, has now influenced nearly every discipline worthy of study from the natural and social sciences. It has however, yet to make any significant headway into educational philosophy.

My position is that we lack a universal philosophical position in which to address these issues and teachers have therefore simply become the unwilling recipients of pop psychology and vending machine philosophy. Perhaps the philosophical foundation of education lies in the origins of public education. These origins were in the form of conflict to emancipate the majority of the population from aristocratic rule.

Conflict and education share more in common than many people recognise or really want to admit. Sun Tzu’s opening statement in The Art of War is

“The Art of War is important to a nation – it is the ground of death and life, the path of survival and destruction, so it is imperative to study it” –Sun Tzu

This founding statement may seem removed from educational thought until you read the great educational philosophers like John Dewey. According to Dewey, “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself”. A nation’s ability to educate and perpetuate its identity is very closely related to the life and survival of that nation. The current situation in Tibet struggling to educate its population in language, religion, and culture due to Chinese occupation somewhat exemplifies this point. A nation’s survival is also linked to its ability to educate.

The healing arts, the teaching arts, and the martial arts may seem miles apart in ordinary day to day life, but they parallel in many regards as exhibited in the story of the Chinese physician. Firstly that one should do what is least or less taxing to achieve their objectives. Secondly, that strategy is needed to deal with disharmony or phenomena that fall out of equilibrium, and finally that knowledge of the problem is often the key to the solution.

This series will examine each of the chapters in Sun Tzu’s classic and provide an interpretation from the author from a teaching and learning perspective. Hopefully it will provide the reader with a wider philosophical foundation on which to understand their pedagogy or inform their own ‘The Art and Science of Teaching’.

Chapter One: Strategic Assessments and the Laying of Plans

Author’s Introduction

Chapter one in The Art of War is largely concerned with conceptual understanding of conflict. In pedagogical terms, it should be interpreted as a philosophy of teaching. Later chapters in The Art of War can be used in provide specific instructional strategies that teachers can use to deal with many of the micro issues in teaching. This chapter needs to be conceptualized as a strategic and philosophical approach which may challenge many preconceived truths in education but many will also appear as a blatantly common sense approach that many already use.

Chapter One

Sun Tzu
The art of war is of vital importance to the nation. It is a matter of life and death, a path to safety or destruction, so it is imperative to examine it.

Dean Dudley
The survival or destruction of a country and the very existence of its people may depend on the ability to learn and teach effectively, so it is necessary to examine it carefully.

Sun Tzu
The art of war is governed by five things, use these constants to make comparisons and find out what the conditions are. The five things are the way, the weather, the terrain, the leadership, and discipline.

Dean Dudley
There are essentially five things that need to be assessed when examining the art of teaching – the students (the way), the learning environment (the weather), the curriculum (the terrain), the teacher (the Leadership) and the organisation(s) governing the learning (discipline).

Sun Tzu
The Way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership, so that they will share death and share life, without fear of danger.

Dean Dudley
This means that students need to be guided through disciplined instruction and treated with respect. If students are treated with humaneness, justice and are valued as learners, students feel close to the teacher and think little of questioning their teaching intentions or critical decisions about their learning or welfare.

Sun Tzu
The weather means the seasons.

Dean Dudley
Many of the great military blunders in history occurred because the commander failed to appreciate how the weather was capable of influencing the outcome. Napoleon and Hitler deciding to invade Russia in the winter is a great example. In terms of teaching however, the weather is the learning environment. This is a very dense concept that is no more or less important than any of the other five considerations. It includes everything from the way tables are setup in a room or whether tables are even required. It is about the colour on the walls, the temperature in the learning space and even the use of lighting. Essentially, it is the physical environment that is most conducive for achieving the learning goals.

Sun Tzu
The terrain is to be assessed in terms of distance, difficulty or ease of travel, dimension, and safety.

Dean Dudley
In any teaching and learning situation, it is important to know the discipline content, what needs to be assessed and how learning is to be reported. It is both the overt and hidden curriculum. This is the terrain of learning. Only when you know what is expected of them in terms of reporting achievement to stakeholders (school, parents, and students), can they then plan assessment tasks. When you know the difficulty and pitfalls (political, religious or otherwise) of the overt and hidden curriculum, you can determine the advantages of using certain teaching strategies. When you know the dimensions of the curriculum, then you can assess how to prioritise your teaching time. When you know the relative safety or scientific rigor of the discipline, then you can discern whether to accept it or challenge it with your students.

Sun Tzu
Leadership of a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness.

Dean Dudley
A teacher should possess these five virtues. Reliance on intelligence alone results in rebellion. Exercise of humaneness alone results in weakness and being taken advantage of. Fixation on trust alone results in folly and recklessness. Dependence on courage results in violence and extended conflict. Excessive sternness results in cruelty. When a teacher has all five virtues together, each appropriate to its function, only then one has a truly capable teacher.

Sun Tzu
Discipline means organisation, chain of command, and logistics.

Dean Dudley
Organisation means that schools and governing bodies need to group teachers and students in a regulated manner. Put simply, consideration must be given to which teachers collaborate on certain tasks and which students collaborate on certain tasks. These groupings should never be left to chance. Chain of command means that there must be executive teachers to keep the teachers together and lead them. In turn, there are the teachers who must lead the students. Logistics means overseeing the day to day supply needs of the teachers and students.

Sun Tzu
Every general has heard of these five things. Those who know them prevail, those who do not know them do not prevail.

Dean Dudley
Nearly every teacher has heard of these five things. Those who choose to consider, study, and fluidly adapt them are successful teachers. Those who choose not to consider, study, and fluidly adapt them, are not successful teachers.

Sun Tzu
Therefore use these assessments for comparison, to find out what the conditions are. That is to say, which political leadership has the Way? Which general has ability? Who has the better climate and terrain? Whose discipline is effective? Whose troops are stronger? Whose officers and soldiers are the better trained? Whose system of rewards and punishments is clearer? This is how you can know who will win.

Dean Dudley
Effective pedagogy is therefore the sum of the five considerations and can only be made when all five have been calculated. That is, an effective pedagogy cannot be judged based on one, two or even four considerations. They must be considered as a complete package that is deficient if even one consideration has not been made.

Sun Tzu
Assess the advantages in taking advice, then structure your forces accordingly, to supplement extraordinary tactics. Forces are to be structured strategically, based on what is advantageous.

Dean Dudley
An effective pedagogy requires structure that depends on strategy; the strategy is determined by the events and circumstances unique to your teaching context.

Sun Tzu
A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear ineffective. When you are going to attack nearby, make it look as if you are going to go a long way; when you are going to attack far away; make it look as if you are going just a short distance.

Dean Dudley
An effective pedagogy has no standard form, teachers who employ an effective pedagogy plan effectively and change decisively. They are like the great river that maintains its course but adjusts its flow…they have form but are formless. They are skilled in planning and adapting and need not fear the result of thousands of lessons; for they succeed in advance; outperforming those who have already failed.

Sun Tzu
Draw them in with the prospect of gain, take them by confusion.

Dean Dudley
Getting your students to want to learn is one of the most difficult and rewarding tasks a teacher will face. Most students will need to see the value in what you are trying to teach them. They best way to entice them to learn is to initially offer them incentives (physical, social, or otherwise). Once you have the students committed to their learning tasks, you maintain their commitment through constantly getting them to question what they know. Critically thinking students become automated learners. They require little to no management and can effectively teach themselves. ‘Take them by confusion’ essentially means that a state of confusion exists in the best thinkers. This constant confusion pushes our students to seek new answers and challenge the answers presented by others.

Sun Tzu
When they are fulfilled, be prepared against them; when they are strong, avoid them.

Dean Dudley
Be wary of the student who thinks they know everything on a topic or if they think you cannot teach them anything they don’t already know. This student can become very difficult and disrupt the learning of others. Every student in your class needs to think that you have something to offer them in regard to their own life journey and learning experiences.

Sun Tzu
Use anger to throw them into disarray

Dean Dudley
Showing students you are frustrated or angry about their behaviour or performance on a task needs to be used very cautiously. Showing this emotion in a class has a wider disruptive effect on all student behaviour and especially to their learning, not just the student(s) to which the anger was directed. If you are compelled to show anger, use it sparingly and with sufficient understanding of the ramifications.

Sun Tzu
Tire them by flight.
Attack when they are unprepared, make your move when they do not expect it.

Dean Dudley
This means making a lot of surprise decisions during your classes. Monotony in routine and outcome will dull their learning initiative. Every chance possible, a teacher should challenge their students understanding of the studied phenomena. Just when they think they mastered a skill or understanding of a concept, present another way of in which the concept may be viewed. This way, your usefulness to them as an educator will remain intact, while they will continually want to learn more.

Sun Tzu
The formation and procedure used by the military should not be divulged beforehand.

Dean Dudley
Learning has no constant form, just as water has no constant shape. Effective teachers adapt what they have to teach to the students that they are faced with. Therefore, without letting them think they are any different to other students you have taught you must assess each of them on their strengths and weaknesses. Then decide on your teaching strategies based upon what plays out in the class.

Sun Tzu
The one who figures on victory at headquarters before even doing battle is the one who has the most strategic factors on his side. The one with the most strategic factors on his side wins. Observing the matter in this way, I see who will win and who will lose.

Dean Dudley
When your teaching strategies are deep and encompass all five constants of pedagogy, the students, the learning environment, the curriculum, the teacher and the organisation(s) governing the learning, then you and your students will gain greatly by your teaching. Much teaching strategy prevails over little teaching strategy, so those with no strategy can only fail. Therefore it is said that effective teachers plan first, then teach, while poor teachers teach first, then seek to plan.

Acknowledgement: The Art of War used in this chapter was translated by Thomas Cleary in 1988.
About the Author: Dr Dean Dudley is a Churchill Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Charles Sturt University. He completed his PhD and M.Ed (Research) at the University of Wollongong. Dean has worked as a teacher in several schools in the Western suburbs of Sydney .Prior to entering the teaching profession, Dean studied at the Royal Military College, Duntroon and was a soldier in the Australian Army.

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Joey Feith is the founder of ThePhysicalEducator.com. He currently teaches elementary physical education at St. George’s School of Montreal in Quebec, Canada.

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