Theory Meets Practice

I’ve been thinking recently about the difference between the principles of an idea and how that idea functions in the classroom; the difference between theory and practice. Conversations about education, especially those in popular media, tend to make broad generalizations on principle without ground-truthing to figure out how an idea plays out with real live teachers and students.

The principles of personalized learning, that one-size-fits-all education does not meet the needs of every student, are undoubtedly true. But in practice, that idea often functions to put students in front of computers for long periods of time, creating lifeless classroom where learning is reduced to spreadsheets and joy is sucked from the room.

The principles of Understanding by Design are useful to organize purposeful curriculum. But in practice, that idea often functions to require teachers to write an objective or enduring understanding on the board, without actually engaging with backwards design or creating a more meaningfully sequenced curriculum.

The principles of constructivism, that students must create their own meaning of new ideas, communicate something true about human cognition. But in practice, that idea often functions to ask students to figure everything out themselves and withhold necessary supports in the name of inquiry, a pedagogy that exacerbates inequities by hurting previously low-performing students the most.

The principles of mindset research, that growth or fixed mindsets have a large influence on future learning, are sound. But in practice, that idea often functions to reduce mindset thinking to platitudes about praising effort rather than ability, platitudes that are often hollow and certainly insufficient to the challenging task of changing mindsets.

These are just a few examples; I could go on. My point is that I have worked to practice this type of thinking; when I hear an idea in education, I try to stay just as curious about the broader principles as about how it functions in classrooms with the imperfections of teachers and the fickle nature of learning.

18 thoughts on “Theory Meets Practice

  1. checkyourworkt

    Yes and yes, and yes. The challenge for me is how to remain curious and cognizant of the benefits of the theory. As my career has progressed I find that I think more and more like “those” teachers. You know the one who tend to wait out new programs, and just keep doing the same ole thing. I’d like to believe that I can cull classroom-useful nuggets out of any idea, but sometimes I can’t help but feel jaded.

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      Yea that’s a challenge. One perspective I’ve tried to maintain is that new ideas add a new tool to my toolbox. As Dylan Wiliam says, everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. So I have to figure out how new tools work for me, where they fit best and where they don’t, use it as I like, and go from there. I’ll never throw everything out the window for the newest fad, but I will try to make use of it to some degree.

      Reply
  2. Michael Pershan

    I try to stay just as curious about the broader principles as about how it functions in classrooms with the imperfections of teachers and the fickle nature of learning.

    A great line!

    Part of the problem, to my mind, is that we only write about the broader principles; how stuff actually functions in classrooms is undertheorized.

    I think that part of this problem is the way writing about teaching is dominated by those outside the classroom. Not that teacher-writers avoid this problem, but knowing how stuff functions in the classroom — without starry-eyed idealism about the broader principles — could be our special contribution.

    Unfortunately, it’s hard to know how many people are interested in reading this kind of writing, because basically no one publishes it. Maybe education is doomed to focus on the broader principles?

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      I agree with your point that education writing is dominated by those outside the classroom. That makes thing inevitably hard. I think there’s also the challenge of how catchy truisms and slogans spread quickly (I think of Twitter here). I do think there’s potential. I’m also curious about the outlets. Blogging seems to pale in comparison to a few outlets (I’m thinking of Edutopia as one good example) that are huge but also biased toward the eye-popping quick fix.

      What would effective dissemination of “this is how it actually played out in my classroom, it was more complicated than most would like to think, here’s what I think would be useful for other teachers to know” type stuff look like?

      Reply
      1. Steve Clarke

        It seems like there is already a lot of this content on #mtbos. A good first step might be to pull all of that together in an organized, searchable format. (A huge task, I know. But something like that might eventually be able to approach an Edutopia-level of dissemination.)

        Reply
  3. Dan Kearney

    So, perhaps to sum up…”There is no magic bullet.” Dan

    On Fri, Jun 16, 2017 at 11:26 AM, Five Twelve Thirteen wrote:

    > dkane47 posted: “I’ve been thinking recently about the difference between > the principles of an idea and how that idea functions in the classroom; the > difference between theory and practice. Conversations about education, > especially those in popular media, tend to make bro” >

    Reply
  4. Steve Clarke

    In order to avoid the pitfalls that you mention, teachers need to be able to explore different approaches to implementing the principles, and to adapt or develop approaches that work well for their particular groups of students. This takes time and the trust and support of administrators. Without these, even the most enthusiastic teacher will struggle to integrate new ideas into their classroom practices.

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      Yup. So important that teachers have the autonomy to figure out what works for their students. Nothing works everywhere; there is no perfect pedagogy.

      Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      Ooh I like this question. I always think of Henri Picciotto’s thoughts on eclecticism, which you can read here: http://blog.mathedpage.org/2016/08/eclectic.html

      My strategy is to gather as many viable pedagogical tools as I can and use them with a critical eye to what works for me and my students. That way, I have different strategies to meet different goals, but I’m never getting stuck within one paradigm that limits what I can do. Everything I named above has influenced me, in different ways that come out on different days. But I want to avoid being dogmatic about any individual idea or strategy and mix and match to meet my needs.

      Reply
      1. Xavier

        Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts. I will read Mr. Picciotto’s posts. I agree with you that teachers must not have a limiting view of pedagogy and they have to take the best outhere. But I think one can have clear thoughts about what’s she’s line of mindset. I don’t know if I explain: for discarting pedagogical theories you have to have some kind of “discrimination technique” (aka admission function). I was wondering what’s yours.

        Reply
        1. dkane47 Post author

          Got it. I’m not sure I have one, that sounds like something useful to think about. The closest would just be what works in the classroom with my students, but that sounds kindof fluffy.

          Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      I had an attitude when I first started teaching that it was almost always a good idea to answer student questions by saying “try to figure that out” and putting things back on them. I ended up kindof dogmatic about it. And reflecting on those experiences, I think they were inequitable in that stronger students were successful and weaker students just felt more alienated.

      Do students make sense of new ideas based on what they already know? Do they construct their own meanings that are often divergent from what we would like as teachers? Absolutely. I’m not sure exactly how that plays out pedagogically, but my initial attempts weren’t very effective.

      Reply
      1. Steve Clarke

        tl;dr: I try really hard not to just give answers, but I ask lots and lots of questions. This is my alternative to just saying, “Try to figure it out.” My point is that this process can be customized to provide the appropriate amount of guidance for each student, thus addressing the equability issue. Of course the practicality of this approach depends on a lot of variables like class size, range of skill levels within the class, length of class, and pace of curriculum.

        Details: I’ve always tried to ask the kind of questions that I think are part of the problem solving process for me. If they tell me they are “stuck” or don’t understand a problem, I will ask them to explain to me the specific difficulty — i.e., they don’t understand what the problem is asking, there is a word they don’t know, they don’t see how to put the numbers into an equation, etc. Or I might just ask “What have you tried so far, and what makes you think it’s not working?” Sometimes it takes a lot of prompting before the difficulty is pinpointed because they are not used to this kind of thinking. But the effort is worth it because eventually (hopefully sooner rather than later) they will develop the habit of asking these questions of themselves automatically when they encounter difficulty. Once the difficulty is pinpointed, I try to ask them questions to get them thinking about how they might deal with it. Examples: “Is there a way you could find out the meaning of that word?”; “Does this seem similar to any problems that you have already learned how to do? What did the equations look like for those problems?”; “How is it different from this other problem that you just solved successfully?”; “What is the problem asking you to find? Can you use that information to define a variable?” Again, lots of work on my part, but once a few students develop the habit of asking themselves these questions that will help spread the practice to the rest of the class. It can also be emphasized by students or teachers “thinking aloud” when presenting a problem to the class. When it becomes a running joke — i.e., they grumble that they they already know what I’m going to ask them when they ask for help — then I know we are making progress towards them developing the skill to do this independently.

        Reply
        1. dkane47 Post author

          This is really interesting. Jim Doherty argued some time ago that this is an important skill — he referenced a student saying that they could hear his questions in their head during exams. It definitely seems useful. That said, my concern is with using it as a dogmatic approach to all student confusion. What you’re doing is clearly really deliberate and purposeful. I’ve seen it used much more haphazardly, leaving the same students frustrated day after day.

          Reply
          1. Steve Clarke

            I can definitely see how that could happen. The teacher needs to get to know each student so they can know what type of question helps that particular student the most and also be able to gauge that student’s frustration level at any given moment. Sometimes it really is best to just show the student an example and save the questioning for another day. It’s difficult to know students this well when class sizes grow much beyond 20-25 students. And in classes of any size it’s critical to build and maintain a classroom culture that values and supports this kind of dialog and includes a commitment to make it work for *all* students.

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