Stephen Louw

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 has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


'Bottom line: academic research into education isn't at all a waste of time, it's just not going to help you with the 50 screaming 12 year olds'

That's exactly it, Johnathan. I assume you forgot the 'not' part.

I had one member on Facebook accuse me of showing off and proclaiming to be a better teacher than me.

A. I'm not in competition with any other teachers. My job is my responsibility. As is any other teacher's. We're teachers - not teenagers.

B. That was the opposite of what I was trying to do. I was highlighting my qualifications to show that even though I have all this experience and all these qualifications; I am 'NOT' qualified to to be doing this job. If you wanna career where your can be braggadocious, it most definitely ain't in teaching.

By Martin Foot, Nonthaburi (8th May 2018)

I like this post a lot. I've studied education at a university level years ago, taught in the US for 2 years and 1.5 years here in Bangkok...and I JUST started a TEFL course (don't even get me started, other than to say while I had a nice two week vacation in China at the agencies expense the Chinese government F*cked me despite having the minimum 2 years experience) and there are indeed valid arguments for both. My take is this: (most, but NOT ALL) academic research into education is really more suited for the macro, not micro aspects of teaching.

To put it another way: it's not pointless academic masturbation for people to get PhDs and publish on the subject, nor should school districts or even governments completely ignore them. People like the aforementioned Dewey DID help revolutionize the field, and their contributions should not be overlooked. However: these contributions largely only trickle down to teachers over time, and are rarely universal, even the best ones. We spent an hour on Noam Chompsky today, for example, on theories that I'd never apply in any classroom, much less in Thailand. More importantly is that word, theories. In my TEFL course today (designed for complete beginners, I had to sit through a farang whose been here a year lecture and answer questions, sometimes incorrectly today).

The the trainer then came back and discussed Noam Chomsky for half an hour...a man I greatly respect and was a major component of a class at NYU (summer make up class)...on philosophy. NOTHING presented was stupid...but never presented was useful in any way to teaching English in Thailand. And before you dismiss me as just criticizing a sh*tty ESL course: I majored in education at Columbia...90% of it didn't help me teach at all, much less abroad.
But some of the work of those Columbia professors could influence education policy in American school districts, who knows?

Bottom line: academic research into education isn't at all a waste of time, it's just going to help you with the 50 screaming 12 year olds.

By Johnathan, Bangkok (9th April 2018)

I'm not really sure how much a highly professional can help in your average Thai school. I don't know how a highly professional would find themselves working intimately within a school here considering how much they'd cost to hire. Even as a hypothetical it doesn't seem to be in any way plausible.

I'm a fully qualified teacher from the UK. I've done my extra studies and qualifications, but I don't know how much I could bring to the table here when it comes to your average Thai schools.

I first came to Thailand when I'd just finished university. I didn't have any money so decided on a working holiday teaching English. I had a friend from home who got me a job at a private school in Bangkok. My plan was to only teach a year then go home. I did nearly two years and decided I'd like to further my career in teaching and live in Thailand. During my time teaching at this private school I'd teach on average 18-22 periods a week. I taught class sizes that ranged from 35-50. I taught in hot classes with old air cons. I taught students of all levels and backgrounds. It was hard work but highly enjoyable.

I went back home and did my PGCE. I started as an assistant and then began teaching formally. I taught back in Liverpool for three years and decided my CV was now strong enough to get myself a good job at an international school in Thailand. I applied early and had a few offers after quite a few interviews. I decided on the job that offered me the best money and the best benefits.

I've now been at the same international school for four years. I have some very qualified and very competent bosses. I teach class sizes of around 16-22 kids. The school seems to have a bottomless pit of money when it comes to resources. I ask for something and I get it. An air con breaks? I'm moved to another class. My students are awesome. Smart, diligent, hard-working, well-behaved.......I could go on. Everything I was taught after university is geared pretty much towards my teaching environment now. My bosses' knowledge is pretty much perfectly geared towards the environment we are in now.

If my old Thai school called me, offered me a job as academic manager with a better salary and better benefits than now, I'd absolutely say no. I'd be honest and say there's nothing I can do for you. I'm not qualified. I don't really no anyone who is. Offer the job to one of the teachers there who does their job well and has lots of experience. They're far more qualified than me in this context. It would be pointless paying me a ton of cash to have my hands tied by budget restraints etc. You need experience from someone from or in this environment.

My friend still works at the school. He's some kind of head teacher. He really is the best person to be in that position. I've told him to get qualified. He told me if he did he wouldn't remain at his current school. He'd do what I did. There lies the cycle of teachers getting more qualified and leaving.

I don't know if any universities out there offer any qualifications in teaching hot, over sized classes with kids of all mixed ability etc. I very much doubt so. Therefore, you play the hand you're dealt. Schools do the best with what they've got.

What I will say about my old Thai school is the kids seemed more creative. They were left to their own devices a lot more which meant they could have fun being kids. My kids now are almost too perfect. It can be stuffy at times. I sometimes wish my kids now would act up a little bit more. They seem to spend their whole lives studying. I sometimes worry I'll get into trouble when I tell them not to worry so much and just enjoy themselves.

By Martin Foot, Nonthaburi (3rd April 2018)

Regarding Steve L.’s research relevance to teaching discourse—it almost seems like a source of endless discussion, which is not to bad mouth it. One can see that there will always be a conflict between research and practice, whether small or large (conflict). That being said, this writer/teacher wants to focus not on what cannot be accomplished, and instead on what can be accomplished. Is that not a slightly better use of language ?(thanks to Steve for that reference to the language of teaching magazine). Some workers have suggested that a better mindset (for teachers) is to learn more about learning instead of learning more about teaching. Do students not learn in a multitude of ways? Also, while not to do away with research, are all of the data of research useful if they do not consider the teacher as an evaluator if her/his effect in teaching—and therefore ultimately responsible for her/his effect on her/his students’ achievement? Naturally, this writer/teacher thinks that everyone in a school needs to work together towards the attainment of every student’s achievement, and not just of teaching “ good students’. Comments are welcome.

By Pete Slavchenko, Nonthaburi (24th March 2018)

I did not find the questions posed very helpful. When I was struggling in classrooms in Thailand I would not have thought about distinctions between theoreticians and practitioners. I was too caught up in the immediate problems. I don't think dichotomies -eg. follow what is espoused or ignore it as irrelevant nonsense- add much value.

By David Burrows, UK (20th March 2018)


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 (10th March 2018)

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