Friday, February 5, 2010
I came up with this term, practical theory, as I was transitioning from a paper and pen classroom to a computer classroom in the mid 1980's. I had begun teaching in 1974 with a couple of years of theory and only a minimum of student teacher practice. Very quickly, theory was hamstrung by the oddities, the anomalies presented to me in the classroom, the practice. After ten years of teaching, I was ready for more theory, so I began my graduate classes in education. I was one of those rare students in the graduate class who had practical experience. In some cases my classmates came straight from college and had no practical experience beyond the student teaching roles. I began developing this concept of practical theory because I was seeing how it was like walking, practical step, theoretical step, practical step, theoretical step and so on. I wasn't sure which started the process in my classroom and had many arguments with colleagues about which comes first, theory or practice. For me it was practical theory.
Practical theory became ever more obvious and present as I began teaching exclusively in a computer room in 1986. I couldn't bring to this class the same practices I had in the non computer room. Everything had changed from a teacher dominated room to a student dominated room. Differentiated instruction became the rule, not the exception. Lessons became projects not daily lessons. Students were much more responsible for their own progress and game plan. So much of what I learned about teaching in the previous 15 years had to be morphed into a new paradigm, a new pedagogy, a new way to teach based neither on theory nor practice alone, but instead on practical theory. In many cases I found myself defending my practice with theory. I had to draw on the philosophers of education to help explain the theory of my practice to others. The theory became the key to unlocking the mysteries of the computer classroom. In fact some of the theorists I used were known but little practiced because of the nature of the non computer classroom. Sure Piaget, Bloom, and Skinner made sense and were important but suddenly I was better understanding Bruner, Gardner, Vygotsky, Schank, and Sternberg. Freire and Dewey became real. I became a better practitioner of putting theory into practice.
Now as I read more about national standards I'm seeing us moving away from the "mile wide, inch deep" conundrum of teaching to a better place called practical theory. Teachers need to change their paradigm and have more conversations about how their practice is going to be defended by which theory. Practical theory is how we will succeed.