Theory vs practice

Who takes precedence, the theoretician or practitioner?

It's all good in theory, but...

My previous blog prompted a number of interesting comments. I like comments: they're useful feedback for me, and they let me know that somebody actually reads this stuff. So a quick thank you to everyone who reads, and especially to those who leave even a little comment.

I was particularly impressed by something Tracy brought up, and I thought it worth exploring. In her comment, Tracy asks me: How much experience do you have of working with Thai management day in and day out? I only ask this as some of your ideas are great in theory, but simply wouldn't work in reality.

Tracy's point is well taken. After all, who am I to make suggestions for teachers when I have not been in their shoes? But actually I take Tracy's question to be directed not specifically only at me, but at the broader community of authors and 'experts', and so it taps into the great Theory versus Practice schism. Pitting academics against classroom practitioners, the theory-practice debate poses penetrating questions like:

Who really knows the answers to the questions about education - the teachers who are in the classrooms, or the 'experts' working quietly in the halls of academia?

Who takes precedence, the theoretician or practitioner?

Should teachers follow the theory espoused in formal literature, or is it just nonsense that is irrelevant to the lived experience of busy teachers?

So, let's explore Tracy's comment by having the classroom teacher slug it out against the theoretician.

Round 1

Teacher: "I'm busy all day. I have up to 50 children around me at a time, sometimes more. They are demanding and often unruly. During class I have to give my full attention to the lesson and the students, and during my out-of-class time I'm marking, preparing and building up steam for the next lesson. I don't have time to read academic monographs about post-test findings, z-scores, or the value of a universal grammar.

I need to figure out what is going to make 5/4 interested in grammar, and how to manage that group of students at the back of the room in 4/9 who can't seem to take anything seriously. I need to understand why the system is treating me the way it is, and what my role is in a school which takes science and maths more seriously than language. I need to find out whether the children I'm teaching will ever be interested in English, or if I'm just wasting my time and energy. I want to know why I feel like my students ignore me but attend to the lessons of other teachers.

If there is any literature to shine light on this, I don't have access to it, and what there is doesn't speak to me and my immediate problems."

Round 2

Professor: "Teachers can feel the problems they face in the classrooms are insurmountable and overwhelming, and may feel that their problems are specific only to themselves. In fact, many teachers experience very similar challenges, and the same overarching questions apply to all classrooms.

By taking a step back from the emotional tangle of the classroom, a researcher is able to look for patterns and identify solutions that may apply across all teachers. These theories can then be handed back to the teachers to apply in their classrooms.

We can look at teachers who have overcome the challenges and try to spot ways in which their success can be transferred to other teachers who haven't. Academic literature has forged great developments in the way we educate: John Dewey changed the way the teacher is thought of as a professional; Friedrich Fröbel wrote of the value of games in learning; Jean Piaget studied the stages of children's development; Lev Vygotsky identified how interaction leads to learning; Stephen Krashen is famous for his insights into the nature of language acquisition. Academics like these have made the job of teaching what it is today, and where would we be without them?"

Round 3

Teacher: "That's sounds reasonable: in theory. Do these theories cross all cultures, all classrooms, all teachers? Are you sure they are relevant to me in my daily work as a teacher? These ideas are simply presented to teachers as prescriptions in training programs but the reality of the classroom is a far cry from such idealistic verbosity."

Professor: (chews on pipe reflectively) "Well, as Widdowson argues in his ELTJ article in 1984, irrespective of how pressing the immediate problems they are facing, teachers' techniques are all based on some principle which is accountable to theory."
Teacher: "What you seem to fail to understand is ..." (Fade out)

Is there a winner?
Let's leave those two at it.

Ironically perhaps, there is quite a large literature on link (or lack thereof) between theory and practice. Have a look at what Alan Maley says in support of Tracy's comment  and the subsequent responses from renowned authors like Penny Ur and Jim Scrivener 

I wonder, though, if theory and practice can really function without one another: classrooms are the focus of research (and theory), which can in turn inform teachers' classroom practice.

In the end, the fact that teachers like you and Tracy are reading the blogs on this site implies there may be value in finding out what other professionals think and say about classroom practice. That seems to me like a sensible way developing as a professional. The academic community may offer a service like this. Someone writes, and teachers read. Whether the teacher-reader should (or can, or wants to) follow the suggestions of the writer is not a given.

I would argue that whether the content leads to immediate uptake by the teacher in the form of solutions or ideas is irrelevant - instead, as teachers read, they can start to draw connections, reflect on their own classrooms from a new perspective, and thus potentially strengthen their practice.

Last word, if you are looking for even more interesting reading related to our work in the classroom, try the Humanising Language Teaching magazine for teachers where Maley's critique of the value of research for teachers was published. It's free and includes pertinent articles and research, loads of ideas, classroom tips, and even a few jokes!

Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TEFL Course in Bangkok.



Yet another well written and thought provoking article.

I will try to put my spin on an answer to your question, I will start off a little theoretical and based on “evidence” before I bring it back to the specific application of in the classroom in Thailand.

While there do not appear to be any secrets to success in any industry or occupation, evidence shows two factors are consistently and positively correlated with higher wages (and therefore we can assume productivity), these factors are education (theory) and experience (practice). We can assume firms in competitive industries do not give higher wages strictly because one has a number of degrees or years of experience, if anyone believes this to be true then he or she knows the secret to gaining wealth, start a company in a labor intensive industry, hire less educated and younger workers than your competition and as your costs will be lower than your competition you can undercut everyone else on price and watch the money roll in. As this never happens, we can assume wages are related (on average) to productivity.

Whether it is in management, computer programming, accounting, marketing, or teaching, the evidence would seem to indicate both are important, equally? I think it really depends on individual situations, but I have seen no evidence showing having more education and understanding more theory makes a person become a less effective teacher. Sure, I and everyone else know at least one great teacher without a degree and someone with a PhD who is completely lost in the classroom, but on average incomes are higher and we can get better jobs as we get both more education and more experience.

Of course, the theory needs to be relevant. Having a PhD in linguistics probably does little to help out in teaching English to a class of fifty 6 year olds, but I suspect having a PhD in early childhood education (and a few years teaching experience) would be useful.

People who are successful, in teaching or in any other field, generally are life-long learners and are constantly trying to seek information which leads to professional improvement, both theoretical and from practice. With education and theory, we can learn from the experiences of teachers around the world, if we only rely on our own personal experiences we have much more limited information to draw upon.

So my answer, is not either or, but both in combination. If you want to be a good teacher, get a solid education and make a habit of reading up on teaching theory, and use these ideas to guide and learn from your personal experience. If you understand the theory, you are more likely to understand why a technique worked in a particular situation and will not assume it will work in every situation.

Just my take on the topic.

An interesting and thought provoking topic which should be of interest to all professional educators.

By Jack, Where I can live the dream (1 week, 1 day ago)

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