The myth of a theory-practice gap in education

The myth of a theory-practice gap in education

When researchers and academics talk about a theory-practice gap in education, including language teaching, what they are usually referring to is a gap between their beliefs concerning how teachers should teach, and how teachers actually do teach. Most would argue that their beliefs are founded on research/evidence/facts, and might prefer to describe the gap as actually being between what we know (the royal ‘we’ that some academics use to imply that ‘we’ who do research in the social sciences actually do agree) and how teachers teach. But, of course, research and theory are not the same thing. Research findings and ‘evidence’ aren’t even the same thing; evidence requires extrapolation (evidence for/that/of…) and is an early, often unnoticed, stage of theorising. And when one attempts to move beyond this stage to come up with a theory of learning, or teaching, or any aspect of either that may impact on classroom practice, further extrapolation and conjecture are required, such that all theories are influenced – to greater or lesser degrees – by the biases, opinions, beliefs and interests of the theoriser; and academics are no more immune to this influence than the rest of us.1

Interestingly, one thing that research on teacher cognition has established beyond reasonable doubt (e.g., Borg, 2006; Woods, 1996) is that all teachers also have theories, either explicit, espousable ones, or the implicit “theories in use” that govern our actions (Argyris & Schön, 1974). We have theories of learning, theories of teaching, theories of the relationship between these, and everything in between. These theories may be useful, they may be harmful, they may be informed by research and be enhanced as a result, or misinformed by it and unhelpful as a result. On the other hand, teacher theory may be informed by other sources (most often personal experience and the norms of their community of practice), which can also be either useful or not. But practitioners always have theories – in this sense, at least in teaching, there is no practice that is not underpinned by theory.

Thus, the notion of a theory-practice gap is a myth, because what is actually being invoked is a difference between what we might call ‘academic theory’ and ‘practitioner theory’, and that is a very different type of gap – an “opinion gap”, to borrow Rixon’s (1979) term.

I suspect that, at this point, some academics would concede and argue that this might be true, but that their opinions are better informed than those of teachers. However, this – critically – depends on judgement with regard to the validity of research – how one links together research with theory and practice. The relationship might be described as follows:

  1. Research shows a positive correlation between X and Y.
  2. Therefore, X improves Y.
  3. Therefore, you (teachers) should do more X (to improve Y).

But at every point in this process, the judgement itself could be faulty, meaning that the final recommendation may not lead to an improvement. Let’s take a simple example from research in the field of vocabulary learning:

  1. Research has found that under certain (mainly experimental) conditions, when learners learn items of vocabulary in lexical sets (e.g., days of the week, colours, items of clothing, etc.), they retain fewer of the items than when they learn unrelated items of vocabulary (see Nation, 2000; Tinkham, 1993).
  2. This leads to the seemingly reasonable theory that teaching unrelated lexical items together improves learning over teaching lexical sets.
  3. Therefore, it might be concluded that teachers should not teach vocabulary in lexical sets.

However, 1 does not provide sufficient evidence that 2 is necessarily always true, and 3 does not necessarily follow from 2. Here’s why, in this specific case:

It’s useful to group languaging resources (lexis, grammar, exponents, etc.) thematically within a curriculum. Doing so enables teachers to create appropriate contexts for meaningful language use. And this meaningful language use can enable learners to take away much more than a set of words – the ability to function with language in specific situations. Take the almost obligatory unit in nearly every lower intermediate coursebook on food and drink. Not only might there be several lexical sets presented in this unit (e.g., food items, cooking implements, cooking verbs), but there are also (hopefully) several useful tasks/activities in which learners might try ordering food in a restaurant, write an interesting recipe, or tell each other about their favourite dishes (for all of these, each learner will need elements from the lexical sets). There are also likely to be opportunities to learn specific grammatical or discourse features that are more frequently used in certain food-related contexts (e.g., quantifiers and adverbial sequencers in recipes). Learners are also likely to engage with the language not just functionally, but emotively (e.g., when talking about what they like), and there is plenty of research that supports the importance of this (see Hiver et al., 2021). Thus, while it’s possible (inevitable, even) that learners may have difficulty retaining all the items in the lexical set in this unit, it’s also possible that learning will occur in a much wider range of usefully related areas. 2 Learner intrinsic motivation for further learning may also increase as a result of their engagement with the activities. This is part of a bigger picture that any researcher who has zoomed in too far into one area of learning on a cognitive level may fail to see, such that following their recommendations may actually have a net-negative impact on learning.

This is just one of many examples where research appears to offer a logical conclusion for how we should teach, and yet in doing so, it overlooks—or contradicts—other important principles for how we should teach, which themselves may also be informed by research.

Being informed is also not only a matter of knowledge about research, it’s also a matter of understanding of contexts of practice. And almost every teacher is better informed about their own context of practice than the researchers, academics and teacher educators who seek to influence them.

Practitioner theory is also informed by research

There are plenty of academics who advocate teacher research, especially action research (e.g., Edwards & Burns, 2016; Pine, 2008), and from personal experience of doing and facilitating it, my opinion is that it can be of immense, transformative value for those practitioners who find it useful. But most of us are also aware of effective practitioners (however we understand this term) who don’t engage in any apparent formal research, and even a small number who do, but still don’t seem to teach very well! In this post, I’m not talking about this kind of teacher research.

Teachers, like all professionals, have an extensive, integrated knowledge base underpinning their practice. This knowledge base, or aspects of it, have been variously described as Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Shulman, 1987), Personal Practical Knowledge (Connelly et al., 1997), Knowing-in-Action (Schön, 1983) or the Wisdom of Practice (Shulman, 2007). All of these theories recognise that this knowledge base is informed primarily by experience in one’s own classroom. And while teachers vary in their effectiveness, I would like to argue that those who teach most effectively are—no less than academic researchers—capable of collecting, analysing and acting upon data collected in their classroom (Anderson, 2019; Jackson, 2021). In other words, they conduct research on a daily basis, even if the particular procedures involved do not conform to standardised beliefs among academics about how research should be conducted and disseminated. This data is most often collected during a process commonly known as formative assessment.

Assessment for teacher learning

Formative assessment is often paraphrased as assessment for learning (Wiliam, 2011). Most of us are aware of what this means with regard to the learning of our students – we carry out assessment in order to know what learning has occurred, and therefore what we need to do next: Do I need to reteach a point, a lesson, or even a unit? Should I take a ‘diversion’ to teach something I hadn’t originally intended to cover? Can I proceed as planned, or even skip something I was planning to do?

But we often overlook how formative assessment impacts upon the learning of teachers. Every time I notice what learners have learnt in a lesson or unit of study, I also learn something important about what has or hasn’t ‘worked’ in my classroom. Over time, providing it is accompanied by critical reflection (Anderson, 2019, 2020; Liu, 2015), this learning builds up into a more solid awareness concerning the efficacy of approaches, strategies and techniques: For example, technique A usually seems to be effective but is rather boring; technique B is always fun, but time consuming; technique C is fast, fun, and seems to be effective, but not for all the learners, etc.

Granted, on an individual level, the data collected may be unreliable, and is never conclusive, and granted, there may be little systematic analysis of this data. But as it builds up over days, weeks, months and years, this awareness develops into an intuitive understanding of what works in one’s own classroom that is arguably much deeper, more connected and more contextualised than any piece of academic research could ever be. And it has the highest level of ecological validity, because it is longitudinal research conducted under real classroom conditions as part of one’s normal day-to-day practice (rather than research conditions, such as laboratory studies or random control trials).

In this sense, effective teachers are also effective researchers.

Conclusion

In this post, I am not arguing against the usefulness of academic research for teachers. I believe that it can be of great use for them, providing they have the time, opportunity and support required to access it (see Sandy Millin’s reflections on this issue). I am arguing the following:

  1. Academics aren’t the only source of theory, and the theories they produce are neither neutral not necessarily valid to the practice of any given teacher who might have access to them.
  2. Practitioner theory, if based on appropriate personal research, is potentially the most relevant and valid theory for a practitioner’s context.
  3. Formative assessment, if it contributes to a teacher’s knowledge base, is an often underacknowledged type of research that may be of critical value to teacher effectiveness.
  4. There is no theory-practice divide, just a difference between the beliefs of practitioners in two very different communities of practice: academics and teachers.    

Notes

1. My use of pronouns in this blog post varies somewhat. At times I’m implying that I’m a teacher, and at others, a researcher. I’ve decided to leave this in, as part of my personal identity uncertainty!

2. Interestingly Tinkham’s later work (1997) lends support to ‘thematic clustering’, although continues to caution against the teaching of lexical sets.

References

Anderson, J. (2019). In search of reflection-in-action: An exploratory study of the interactive reflection of four experienced teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 86, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2019.102879

Anderson, J. (2020). Reflection: Key concepts in ELT. ELT Journal, 74(4), 480-483. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccaa039

Argyris, C., & Schön, D. A. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. Jossey-Bass.

Borg, S. (2006). Teacher cognition and language education: Research and practice. Continuum.

Connelly, F. M., Clandinin, D. J., & He, M. F. (1997). Teachers’ personal practical knowledge on the professional knowledge landscape. Teaching and Teacher Education, 13(7), 665-674. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0742-051X(97)00014-0

Edwards, E., & Burns, A. (2016). Language teacher action research: Achieving sustainability. ELT Journal, 70(1), 6-15. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccv060

Hiver, P., Al-Hoorie, A. H., Vitta, J. P., Wu, J. (2021). Engagement in language learning: A systematic review of 20 years of research methods and definitions. Language Teaching Research. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1177/13621688211001289

Jackson, D. O. (2021). Language teacher noticing in tasks. Multilingual Matters.

Liu, K. (2015). Critical reflection as a framework for transformative learning in teacher education. Educational Review, 67(2), 135-157. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00131911.2013.839546

Millin, S. (2021, September 12). The research-practice gap. Sandy Millin. https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2021/09/12/the-research-practice-gap/

Nation, P. (2000). Learning vocabulary in lexical sets: Dangers and guidelines. TESOL Journal, 9(2), 6-10. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1949-3533.2000.tb00239.x

Pine, G. J. (2008). Teacher action research: Building knowledge democracies. Sage.

Rixon, S. (1979). The ‘Information Gap’ and the ‘Opinion Gap’—Ensuring that Communication Games are Communicative. ELT Journal, 33(2), 104-106.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1-22.

Shulman, L. S. (2007). Practical wisdom in the service of professional practice. Educational researcher, 36(9), 560-563. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X07313150

Tinkham, T. (1993). The effect of semantic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. System, 21(3), 371-380.

Tinkham, T. (1997). The effects of semantic and thematic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. Second Language Research 13(2), 138–163.

Wiliam, D. (2011). What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37(1), 3-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.stueduc.2011.03.001

Woods, D. (1996). Teacher cognition in language teaching. Cambridge University Press.

5 thoughts on “The myth of a theory-practice gap in education

  1. Interesting thoughts in this blog, Jason. This so-called gap has been hanging around for a long time, possibly contributing to the space getting wider and wider. Context gets a good rap here and I remember how, during my MA decades ago, we were encouraged to defend our observations in light of our teaching contexts. As the context changes, so a teacher or trainer needs to adapt their ideas and even beliefs. What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks Judie for your thoughts. Yes I agree, and would even go so far as to say that these ideas, theories, beliefs all evolve with us, both across spatial contexts (i.e., different jobs within or between countries) and temporal contexts (students and schools change too). All of this is of course contingent on us learning from these experiences, primarily through reflection. The following much repeated illustration is expressed well by Penny Ur (1996, p. 317): “It has been said that teachers who have been teaching for twenty years may be divided into two categories: those with twenty years’ experience and those with one year’s experience repeated twenty times.” [Ur, P. (1996). A course in language teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge University Press.]

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Jason. I have forwarded this post to many as I think it resonates in various teaching contexts. I think your comments are extremely useful to validate the practice of teachers, many of whom, despite a wealth of experience and ‘success’, suffer from imposter syndrome – a point discussed at CETA. I think often this lack of faith in one’s practice evolves from studying in an academic context with great worship of the gods of research.
    and little acknowledgement and value being placed on informal, personal, contextualised reflective practice.

    Liked by 1 person

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