Theory vs Practice

Theory vs Practice Print E-mail

A theoretician vs a practitioner: an e-mail job interview

Are theory and practice as closely connected as they should be? Can one exist without the other? Do we always use appropriate theories to support practice?
Christopher McMillan, a native English language teacher, recently completed an MSc in Adult Educational studies at Glasgow University, decided he wanted to teach English abroad, and chose Tallinn as his destination. In many ways the e-communication between him and Ene Vasli, Head Teacher of Generum Private School, was a long-distance job interview which began friendly and factually and developed into a discussion about educational theory and practice.

C: With regards to my studies in Adult Education, the theories which most interested me were those fundamentally based around the development of critical consciousness in the learner and which viewed education as a means of improving social justice, in particular the theories of Paulo Freire and Critical Pedagogy. I was also interested in the psychology of education and theories of learning such as self-efficacy and self-actualisation and Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory.  

E: Splendid, but when you teach here, the main idea is practical English. However, we do make use of elements suggested by andragogical theories, e.g. emotions, colours, pictures, etc to appeal to emotional memory and to make the learners active. What I am sceptical about is trying to put the transformative and emancipative objectives of andragogy into practice. The principles were created in the course of missionary and educational work in developing countries with the focus on emancipation. Now our adult language learner is a fully formed person who does not need to be transformed - not by us, anyway!

C: To an extent I agree: to enter a classroom viewing oneself as someone who is going to transform people is naive, arrogant and possibly harmful to the learner; however, I think we both agree that the teacher can have a profound effect on the learner and this could be viewed as transformative.

E: Naturally; so can your friends and colleagues, your children - we all affect and change each other, so it should not be set as a lofty aim in itself.

C: I admit the word itself seems a bit hyperbolic and suggests a blinding flash of profound alteration in someone’s personality but the effect may be subtle or slow-burning. One reason why teachers could have a transforming effect on the learner is that they are seen as the authority figure or a potential role-model.

E: More so in pedagogy...

C: But there is something implicit in the teacher-learner relationship that can have a strong effect on a learner, positive or negative. From the perspective of a learner, I am confident that when learning Estonian, the process and the developing language skills will unquestionably have an effect on my immediate life: I will be able to communicate better and this will influence and improve my interactions and my activities which will allow me to absorb more of the culture, thus making me happier. However, from a teaching perspective, to have the transformation of the learner as either an explicit or implicit aim is foolhardy and hubristic.
E: Could not agree more! For me, adult teaching is a branch of psychology and it is good to know the basics to support yourself and to understand your learner. A naturally empathic, emotionally intelligent adult teacher can do without the formal education in this field, or – hopefully, in your case, will be able to sort out what theories to bring to class and what not.

C: It is interesting that you think of adult teaching as a branch of psychology...

E: I love your discreet and what seems to me very English way: “interesting”:) But what is it then? Communication, interaction, memory, personality, perception, behavioural and thinking patterns, etc, etc - are they not all notions from psychology? We may have a different understanding of what psychology comprises?

C: I see your point. In educational environments both individual and group psychologies need to be appreciated. Although, I am not really sure what psychology theories I consciously take into class, other than a desire to try and understand an individual and then come up with a helpful, effective way of teaching them.

E: Good - I like that! Psychology describes, explains, predicts and helps people, and is therefore practical. In this sense we might say that both andragogy and pedagogy are practical forms of psychology.

C: I agree. Teaching is all about interaction between people and consequently there must be psychosocial dynamics taking place, a whole range of influences.

E:  Anyway, it is not really very important how we label the study of adult education. Sure it helps to look into what is going on, i.e. learning processes and learn how to teach. Nevertheless, everything we do in the classroom should answer the question Why?, and the answer can't only be because “I was taught to do so”. Know your stuff and do the right things in the right way intuitively or (secretly) applying any kind of theories you feel like – what matters is does it assist the learning process?

C: Theory is important but people don’t always conform to theories. It is essential to have an approach, but it has to be flexible to accommodate the distinct personalities, experiences and needs of the learners, surely this should be a chief concern of education? I continue to take bits and pieces from the theories that make sense to me and blend them together into something which will hopefully be useful to me in a variety of circumstances. To enter a class with preconceptions about what will or should happen and be rigid in one's methods and attempt to force one’s teaching philosophy upon the learner for ‘their benefit’ and without proper consideration for who they are, is unfair and could be seen as a form of psychological bullying rather than an active teaching-learning process. As Freire said, we have to begin from where the learner is. Know the learner.

E: True, true. For example, a friend of mine did a course of Russian in some other language school for a whole year, and nobody, including the teacher knew my friend was a doctor! The teachers of our school found it hard to believe! How do you communicate with somebody if you do not know what they do!

C: We should create an atmosphere conducive to communication. You have mentioned in an email that the main method in your school is 'communicative grammar’. The term is relatively new to me, but as I understand, it is a holistic approach incorporating several forms of communication: listening, speaking, writing and reading. It seems to provide a varied and reinforcing way of training. Is there pre-communicative learning and if so, what form does this take?  

E: The myriad of methods there are nowadays! I guess it is the 'communicative' method is truly 'holistic', and they do not teach grammar as such. Anyway, the recent news is that “grammar is out” Hilarious! It may well be out of fashion, and with this term we convey the message that we do teach grammar to achieve reasonably accurate language, but it's done in a communicative way. More specifically, the term denotes communication-oriented grammar (exercises) to bridge the gap between pre-communicative (recognition, drill, gap-filling, transformation) exercises and communicative activities, which would need good speaking skills. In my days – and a lot of adult learners' days we did not really “talk” in FL classes: we read, translated into Estonian, recited poems, retold texts, answered questions, did gap-filling and transformation exercises, did a lot of declination and conjugation. We did not speak in a foreign language without preparation. Even nowadays, when a teacher is too stuck in a textbook, I would call it pre-communicative.
In Generum, our classes are not only about personal catching-up/authentic communication either. I suppose it is just being personal about teaching, trying to practise the language material from class one, selecting the material relevant to the learner, and making the learners communicate as much as possible.

C: It seems to me we have followed a rather interesting path from transformative learning to the psychological nature of education, through to an appreciation of the psychology of the individual in order to fully facilitate their learning.  If we agree that communication is intrinsic to this process, then a potential outcome must be better communicators.

E: Not so sure about that! Sounds too ambitious again...

C: But this does relate to the application of communicative grammar, which is after all about learning to communicate; it also rhymes with Generum's 'slogan' that ‘communication is both the means and the aim of tuition’.

As someone fresh from educational studies, I was and still am curious about the practicality of employing those theories which appeal to me. However, our discussion and my practical experiences teaching functional literacy have demonstrated to me how I swing pendulously from one to the other. Perhaps theory and practice are locked in binary opposition and can’t exist without the other? I think communication, in whatever form, is vital to a meaningful educational experience for all concerned. Our correspondence has been what it discusses: through our communication we have developed a mutual knowledge of each other, exchanged views, influenced thought and shaped opinion, we have learnt something about each other and about ourselves.
For me, this is what education is about.

Do I have the job? :)