This post was catalysed by a discussion thread on the Global Innovative Language Teachers group (#GILT) on Facebook.
The relationship between theory and practice in education, between research and teaching methods, between abstraction and operation has always interested me. I’m an ideas person and was fortunate enough during the early years of my teaching career to meet and work with researchers such as Ernesto Macaro, I was also an early adopter of learning technologies and this also meant returning to first principles in terms of learning theories in order to design for learning in my classroom. My role in Higher Education has involved facilitating that process with other teachers. The thread on the Facebook group above centred on theories of language acquisition and teaching methods. I wanted to unpack my thoughts on these so I came to my blog.
A theory is not a fact. A theory is a set of hypotheses communicating one’s beliefs and the evidence upon which they are based. Theories exist in order to be challenged, they are vital to move collective thinking on, to enable us to challenge received wisdom and reframe our thinking. Without academics sharing their thinking through theorising we would not have had breakthrough moments in history such as those facilitated through Darwin’s Theory of Evolution or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Theories are part of an ongoing discussion in knowledge creation. They may be based upon observations, empirical research, flashes of inspiration, collaboration, even gut feeling.
Whatever their basis, they will be challenged and we move on. It is vital however that researchers contribute their theories to the academic community, this is the lifeblood of the discipline.
Teaching methods (praxis) attempt to operationalise learning theories, to communicate the abstraction into actionable teaching tips. This may involve reducing theories to soundbites and unfortunately such reductionism often loses much in translation. Commercialisation of the ideas generated in hypothesis creation from theorising also tends to condense and even distort the real academic knowledge creation process, replacing it instead with a set of rules which bring inflexibility into play – a sort of hardening of the arteries of knowledge creation. We saw this with Kolb’s work on learning styles, built upon my Honey and Mumford and then turned into ways of categorising learners which resulted in mistruths and myths which damage the reputation of knowledge creation. The thirst for teaching methods which are based on academic theories becomes vulnerable to exploitation by those who would sell training packages and quick fix “educational solutions”.
So how can we resolve the theory/practice gap? How can we help teachers differentiate between the goldust and the snake oil? I have a few suggestions which have been helpful to me as a practitioner:
- Approach research with a critical spirit. Remember it is borne of its time, it may be part of a wider academic conversation which is ongoing. Theories are not facts. (Even facts have a limited shelf life, at one point the Eiffel Tower was the world’s tallest building!).
- Explore ideas in depth, not just the headlines or the soundbites. Be brave and try out something in your classroom on the basis of your understanding of a hypothesis you have read. Evaluate the experience using action theory, blog about it and share with the wider community. Contribute to knowledge creation.
- Take time to write, read and reflect. We all work in different contexts, what worked this week may not work next week with a different cohort or situation. Writing down what you did and what happened, thinking it over and iterating will help you refine your ideas and may identify further questions to take back to the literature.
- Keep an open mind. Inflexibility is not healthy for both human circulation and knowledge creation. As teachers we work with complex beings, there are no simple solutions.
Which brings me to complexity theory – as examined here by Claire Kramsch – what field of study could be more relevant to the most complex human activity of them all – language learning. Just look out for the next set of rules!