Teaching Practitioners about Theory and Practice: A Proposal to Recover Aristotle in Teacher Education.

Author:McDonough, Graham P.


Discussion of theory-practice relationships is an important part of teaching and teacher education. It is especially germane in response to the inevitable concerns that practitioners (1) express when they perceive a gap between the two and pronounce: "That is alright in theory, but irrelevant in practice." This disconnection between many pre-service teachers' and teacher educators' goals for high quality university course experiences stems from incongruence between pre-service teachers' focus on learning the technical skills required to transmit knowledge competently while efficiently managing the behaviors of the students in their charge and teacher educators' focus on teaching theoretical knowledge and critical skills. This disconnection also stems from candidates' genuine concern to satisfy their primary and immediate needs for professional safety, confidence, and competence in a conventional contemporary school setting. Technical skill is therefore initially parallel to "survival skill" for the candidate with anxieties about the experience of beginning teaching, and presumably it later on evolves into a kind of de-professionalized mindless servitude to "procedural efficiency" for those in-service teachers who unfortunately continue to see their assignment in merely technical terms. (2) As Virginia Richardson (1996) observes, practitioners are more predisposed toward acquiring and practicing procedural, managerial, and social skills that exhibit at least superficial competence (and which they have seen their own teachers demonstrate) than they are with understanding pedagogical and foundational theory.

Teacher education literature shows that this theory-practice gap endures in pre-service teachers' mindsets largely due to the intractability of practitioners' beliefs regarding theory, several shortcomings in theory itself and how it is presented to non-theorists, and the ascendancy of a technical-rational paradigm. Through no fault of their own, many candidates begin their professional preparation unaware of and ill-prepared to appreciate the proper scope and role of educational theory and its place in teacher training and the profession generally. These misconceptions are accompanied by narrow views about their own role in receiving, responding to, and using educational theory to inform their practice. In the short term these misconceptions constitute a barrier to teacher candidates' learning about theories' underlying practices. Because the habit of ignoring the beliefs and values that ground practices develops early on, the longer term effect is a limitation of in-service professionals' abilities to respond adequately to new needs of students because they are accustomed to implementing practices without considering the complex moral, social, and intellectual consequences of their pedagogy. While candidates have a responsibility to inform themselves about what educational theory is and what it can do, teacher educators who design teacher education programs have the greater obligation to provide opportunities for candidates to perform this task. Given the importance of making theory-practice relationships clear and relevant to pre-service candidates, how should teacher educators and educational theorists respond?

Teacher educators require a theoretically and practically helpful model for situating their work. "Theoretically helpful" here refers to "a rigorous and defensible framework," and "practically helpful" means "an approach to theory that understands and appreciates its role in informing practice." In this article, I provide such a model for making theory-practice relationships clear and of heuristic value to pre-service teachers and teacher educators. First, I contend that theorists and practitioners need to move beyond the current perceptual deficiencies that maintain the theory-practice gap, and I therefore begin this article by exposing those deficiencies as common theoretical obstructions which occlude candidates' understanding of theory and practice relationships. Second, I introduce Aristotle's systematic classification of actions and their accompanying rationalities as a suitable replacement for the current theoretical models that preclude candidates from seeing theory-practice relationships clearly. Third, I make a case for why the praxis-phronesis pairing within Aristotle's model should be regarded as the primary descriptive feature of what it means to be a professional who works at the intersection of theory and practice. Finally, I examine implications of adopting this model in teacher education programs.

Explaining Deficiencies in Current Perceptions

In this section I discuss a thorough, but non-exhaustive, review of the theory-practice discussion in recent teacher education literature. It reveals that pre-service candidates' positivistic biases toward only learning about theory that directly relates to the technical craft of teaching are at the root of many of the salient problems teacher educators face when working with teacher candidates. My argument here is two-fold. First, I contend that these deficiencies in current perceptions of pre-service teacher candidates stem from the pervasive influence of positivist assumptions attached to technical rational paradigms that are deeply engrained in our western culture, most pertinently in the effects institutional schooling has had upon candidates. Second, I propose that teacher educators have not yet found a robust theoretical framework with which to help themselves and pre-service candidates see past positivism's pervasiveness and limitations.

The common misconception teacher candidates carry is that theory is "good" when it is "relevant" to conventional practice, where the criterion for "relevance" lies in theory's potential as a pedagogical intervention (Deng 2004), so candidates typically see researchers (3) in the role of producing the theoretical knowledge that should be easily translatable into practice (Gravani, 2008, p. 655). Therefore, candidates evaluate a theory's "goodness" by its immediate applicability to their own classroom practices (Kennedy 1999). Moreover, candidates seem to be less concerned with using educational research to improve student learning and more focused on finding expedient, routine means of performing one's job by minimizing effort and maximizing available resources (Nuthall, 2004, p. 275).

In addition, candidates "bring to teacher preparation a set of beliefs and assumptions about how children learn, about what curriculum should contain, and about how teaching is approached, which were developed through [an] 'apprenticeship of observation' associated with many years of their school experience as students" (Deng, 2004, p. 147; cf. Lortie, 1975; also see Korthagen, 2007, p. 304). Feelings, former similar experiences, values, role conceptions, needs or concerns, and routines play a significant role in teachers' evaluation of theory (Korthagen & Kessels, 1999, pp. 8-9), and, rather than letting research on teaching and learning be their guide, they tend to invest heavily in conformity to "what works" in their local context (Korthagen & Kessels, 1999, p. 5). Whatever does not match their preconceptions about conventional practice will be dismissed as "fanciful" (Confrey, 1987, pp. 390-392).

The implication of the above research literature is that pre-service candidates are guided by positivist ideology at very early stages of their program, and positivism is the perceptual stumbling block that divides theory from practice for them. That is, these studies show that pre-service candidates are poised to see theory as relevant only as long as it is effective in the classroom and reduces teachers' workloads. The underlying assumption is that teaching is a profession that is technically-oriented and its educational theoretical foundation can be isolated and measured according to scientific methods and assessed based on its practical results.

To be fair, responsibility for dissolving this theory-practice gap cannot be pinned solely on teacher candidates and in-service teachers. Mary Kennedy's commentary is instructive for revealing the difficulties in communicating to candidates the relationship between research findings and the tasks of professional educators. She suggests that a lack of "persuasive, compelling, and authoritative results" provided to practitioners and "the incomprehensible presentation of research findings to teachers" (Kennedy, 1997, p. 4) are also responsible for sustaining this problem. Harold Entwistle observes also that some theory can be faulted for having serious shortcomings, like being "unacceptably utopian" (2001, p. 20), too individualistic when learning is social (p. 21), ignoring the bureaucratic context of schools (pp. 21-22), and so generally overlooking the reality of compromise (p. 22) that is a feature of institutionalized education. His example of the "utopian" failing, for one instance, takes aim at liberal philosophy and criticizes its presentation of "the perfect learner--essentially innocent, insatiably curious and intrinsically motivated" as one of that ideology's "metaphysical fiction[s]...

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