Theory and Practice
Theory and practice are two different words; there is a tendency to think of them as separate unconnected words. Whether they are unconnected or whether there is a direct linear relationship between them is a matter of debate. In a profession like teaching, it raises profound questions. The lacuna that characterize teaching methods in the present context have initiated research to study the relation between theory and practice.
If we look at learning theories as bases for educational activities, we can perceive a continuous process from theory to practice. The process begins with theoretical principles. The principles help to devise teaching methods and techniques. Teachers apply the methods to various subjects while they teach in the classrooms. Hence, “Teachers are the last link in this chain and bear the ultimate responsibility for implementing theory,” ( Newby, 2003). Newby continues to say that teachers have a capacity to play a key role in the process of filtering the theories. Some aspects of this filtering are positive and productive ( Newby, 2003). Newby’s statement implies that theories as they exist cannot be directly used in the classroom. The theory-practice interface is a filtering process. Each theory consists of certain principles and elements which have practical applications. The teachers filter the key elements, modify them and implement them in the teaching-learning process. Theory comes first, followed by practice. This explanation sounds logical and convincing. However, there is another side to the coin that takes into account the implications for practice if too much faith is put on theory ( Schon, 1991). According to Schon, “The simple existence of theory as a construct (irrespective of its validity) separates it from practice. ( Schon, 1991).
There are scholars who share the views of Schon. They think of theory and practice as two unconnected terms. We associate theories with scientific research, with scholarly activities and systematic studies that are conducted in laboratories. Lindgren says, “ The term ‘theories of learning’ has a formidable sound to it. It may connote research with mice and monkeys,” ( Lindgren, 1959). Teachers and practitioners think in a similar way. They cannot digest the idea of treating children as mice and monkeys. Theories are the result of laboratory experiments and unsuitable for implementing on children. Teachers believe that their theoretical knowledge seldom serves their purpose while teaching. The teacher in the classroom knows what to do and how to teach, which techniques and teaching aids to use in a given classroom situation. Teachers trust and rely on their teaching experience. Newby supports this view. He states, “The appeal of traditional structures might outweigh a desire to embrace innovative measures and make learning more effective,” ( Newby, 2003).
The latter part of Newby’s statement implies that innovative measures can make learning effective. Even as Newby justifies the attitude of teachers, he is indirectly revealing the idea that innovation is effective. Innovation cannot take place without research. Teachers trust the traditional and well-established pedagogy; they are not against change. The change and innovation can be brought about through research.
There is another angle to the debate which is triggered off by Newby’s statement. Teachers trust the old methods because they are practical and useful. They judge a method on the basis of its utility in day-to-day teaching. “If something in educational scholarship and research doesn’t directly tell you what to do or how to do it, then it’s not useful or worthwhile, ( Walker and Soltis, 1997). This criterion of usefulness suggests that all research activity and theories are worthless and unnecessary. While discussing the relationship between theory and practice, Walker and Soltis have noted that once in a while, a research finding will come out that’s useful, but for the most part it’s just ivory tower, armchair talk (Walker and Soltis, 1997). They points out that “in most cases, it is just a common sense finding that most teachers have been using anyway,” (Walker and Soltis, 1997).
What Walker and Soltis say, cannot be denied. Let us take the example of Maslow’s theory of Hierarchy of Needs. It puts physiological needs at the base of the triangle and self-realization at the apex. The educational implication is that if a child is hungry, he cannot concentrate on learning or engage in intellectual activities. We have to admit that this is no great revelation and it is not a “million dollar research program” as Walker and Soltis call it. At the same time, a teacher who has knowledge of Maslow’s theory knows the direction in which the goals of life will proceed, and he can handle the curriculum in a better way. The teacher who is aware of the ‘Critical Age Hypothesis’ in language acquisition, will take the best advantage of children belonging to a particular age-group to teach language. The theory of Constructivism is extremely useful in understanding how knowledge is acquired. Regular lessons can be planned on the basis of constructivism.
Henry Lindgren opines, “Unfortunately, our ability to relegate learning theories to the laboratory, and thereby to divorce them from the everyday give and take of the classrooms, has enabled us to dissociate ourselves from any awareness of the part played by theory in our educational practices. Most of us are inclined to direct the discussion to more practical aspects of the teaching situation,” ( Lindgren, 1959). Teachers are the mediators between theory and practice. It is their responsibility to “bring theoreticians down to earth from their ivory tower existence by making modifications which enable a theory to be implemented,” (Newby, 2003).
Lindgren, H. (1959). Learning Theory and Teaching Practice. Retrieved 4 November 2014, from http://www.ascd.org/ascd/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_195903_lindgren.pdf
Newby, D. (2003). Mediating between theory and practice in the context of different learning cultures and languages. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Pub.
Schön, D. (1991). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Walker, D., & Soltis, J. (1997). Curriculum and aims. New York: Teachers College Press.