stephanie jones

Theory or Practice? What do teachers need? What do teachers want?

In critical literacy, language, professional development resources, stephanie jones, teacher education on June 21, 2007 at 2:29 am

What is the age-old theory/practice divide really about? Can one exist without the other? Are there ways that we can integrate theory and practice in sophisticated and yet practical ways in teacher education?

Teachers are often over-worked, over-burdened with managerial tasks (especially in today’s age of Accountability), and very tired at the end of the day after being with a room full of students. This doesn’t create the most optimal condition, perhaps, for critical reflection and deep thinking about how theory informed their practice throughout the day. However, every teacher is working across her day informed by theory.  Perhaps a question we could ask is whether or not she has had access to readings, discussions, and/or activities throughout her education that do at least three things: 1) recognize and engage personal and scholarly theories of the world/societal structures 2) engage theories of learning, and 3) recognize and engage in theory-building through teacher research.  Perhaps if some – or all three – of these kinds of experiences are in place, teachers might begin to question and critique the “theory/practice divide” as something that positions them on the consuming end of knowledge and information rather than as producers of knowledge and – dare I say it – theory.

I know far too many deeply engaged, intellectual teachers working with young children to be speaking of this myself. I would love to hear from some readers:

-How do you read the theory/practice divide?

-What have you found helpful in your own education (either formal or informal)?

-Who benefits from the theory/practice divide?

-Who is disadvantaged in the ongoing presentation of this divide?

-What are teacher educators, professional developers, and researchers to do?

-What are teachers, principals, families, and students to do?

-Who are the other players in this theory/research divide?

  1. There is a power in group inquiry, which is why it is fundamental that teachers meet with other teachers to discuss readings, theories and practice. Without such dialogue, where will we go? How will we imagine greater possibilities in our classrooms? How will we understand what we have already seen in these same classrooms? Every time I talk to another or other teachers about a question or idea I have, I walk away with an expanded understanding of what happened, could happen, will happen in my classroom. Thinking about the power of talk among other teachers, about both theoretical and practical issues, makes me realize that teaching in isolation is not only lonely, but can actually stunt professional growth. Posing open ended questions to colleagues is just as important as posing them to our students. They position us as agents in our own practice. Unfortunately the time to talk (not be talked at) is not always offered to us as a priority within all schools, within the system. But I have found it to be an essential, and engaging part of being a teacher, making theoretical conversations worth seeking out, even among groups of educators meeting outside of my school. I wonder if the scarcity of such conversations doesn’t disadvantage teachers by keeping them in the role of ‘workers’ rather than creative thinkers.

  2. thanks for these comments motleymusings…

    How do you find and/or make spaces outside of your school to engage in such powerful dialogue? And how might schools do a better job of positioning teachers “as agents in our own practice” rather than as consumers of the “talk” that someone else presents?

    I believe that your “wondering” whether the scarcity of such conversations doesn’t disadvantage teachers is an important one. It seems to me that some schools have been corporatized to the point that it may be a goal in and of itself to have “workers” rather than creative thinkers who will constantly push on and reshape the boundaries of the box called school. The latter couldn’t possibly be good for creating consistent “products”, right? It’s impossible to control minds and bodies all the time though, so what happens to the teachers who do position themselves as creative intellectuals engaged in deep, complex inquiry in and about the classroom? Who are the principals helping to support and sustain such activity and how are they doing that today?

    On another note, I would love to hear your motleymusings on teacher preparation and how we might better prepare/position teachers to be the kind of creative thinker you write about.


  3. I have been lucky to have met some dedicated educators who are passionate about the connections between theory and practice. But most of all they are committed to seeing children for who they are, and this has been inspiring. Through these teachers, I discovered groups that meet on weekends, or summers, to stop, sit down and discuss. It is this slowness that is so precious, and somehow lost in the mad rush to push students toward the benchmark standards in schools. Some of these groups are ETN (Elementary Teachers Network in NYC), Prospect Center (in Vermont), and more recently the NYC Writing Project. Because so much of this talk goes on outside of my school, I have often felt like I work in two worlds. One in the school with the kids (practice) and one outside of school with other educators (theory). I think that when administrators carve out time within the school day or schedule for teachers to meet and discuss, teachers can begin to take on the role of agents. For this to happen, these conversation must be valued in the schools by the same administratioin. What’s valued becomes part of the school culture, doesn’t it? I don’t know, though, maybe it also has to come from a desire on the teacher’s part. I worked in a school where the principal provided opportunities to be part of study groups, and few teachers showed up. Do all teachers want to be agents, or have they internalized the role of worker from the start, and can’t or won’t imagine the role of creative professional? It is difficult to become an agent in our practice, when we are handed curriculum that has been designed outside of our classrooms. But maybe some teachers feel safety in that given factor. If you are an active participant and the outcome doesn’t match what you have envisioned, you have to take partial responsibility. Are some teachers afraid of this form of responsibility? I wonder if the schools developed more team-teaching classes, if the separation between theory and practice talk would be bridged more easily within the schools. So much of teaching is in isolation, and an envisioning of theory with particular students in mind. If teachers shared students would this help increase the professional dialogue in schools? I don’t know the answer to the question. But it does seem that this is a hurdle that must be overcome inorder to break the mold in which schools are stuck right now. No amount of testing kids will improve schools if there is not dialogue at these same schools’ foundation. Talk can’t happen from afar and trickle down to the classrooms. It has to start in the schools with the teachers. Is it for a lack of energy that teachers can’t do more? I hear so many teachers say they are exhausted. And I too have felt the effects of this profession on my energy level. Would, though, more engaging conversations with colleagues combat this loss of energy? Hmmm…

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