A Gulf between Theory and Practice? A Little Aristotle to the Rescue

ImageWARNING-page0001I have been reading some article on education lately.  I find it interesting how in a lot of the readings theory seems to be treated like a dirty word, according to some authors diabolically opposed to practice. (I will explore those arguments in a later post.)

I think part of the problem is that we can tend to think of theory and practice in either or terms.  This compartmentalising of knowledge seems to be a very modern way of thinking.  Historically, for example, when you went to university there was one course of study, philosophy (or literally love of knowledge) which had a much wider scope than philosophy does today.  Today each part of knowledge has been compartmentalised and at university you can choose from literally hundreds of specialisations.  Everything seems to get compartmentalised.

That is arguably necessary and a logical cultural reaction when you look at the amount of knowledge to be found on the internet compared to the amount of information/knowledge readily available, even one hundred years ago.  But I have a hard time finding a logical defence for the compartmentalising of theory and practice that allows one to make the jump to the statement that there is a gulf between theory and practice. (Writers like Stephan Ball argue that the creation of a conceptual divide between theory and knowledge is a right wing discourse to undermine education and to insert a new narrative, a business commodity narrative of its purpose and process.  I’m always up for a well-argued conspiracy theory. )

It is a well-established argument that in the classical thought of Aristotle’s time, there was a much greater unity between theory and practice. Like peoples thoughts lived in the middle of the venn diagram and in the modern world we have made an exodus to the wings of the diagram.  (I think of Erwin Schrödinger’s – the guy with the cat – book Nature and the Greeks and Alasdair MacIntyre’s  book After Virtue as important exploration on this idea.  I will explore those individually in later posts.)

I have been working to flesh out my understanding of Aristotle’s three part classification of knowledge as a way to find a unity or common function for practice and theory.  Aristotle’s three classifications of knowledge are: the theoretical, the productive and the practical.  This can serve as a useful vehicle to explore the so called chasm between theory and knowledge.

IMG_9897654The theoretical: contemplative thought for thoughts sake.  In the teacher’s practice this could be Gardner’s multiple intelligence, Kohlberg’s stages of moral development…  The big ideas dumped in your head during teachers college.

IMG_9905The productive: to make something.  One may put some creativity into it but it fits to a predesigned plan.  Like all those portraits painted of the queen, each artist puts their own style into it but at the end of the day they all look like the queen.  In the classroom this can be seen in writing lessons plans and then delivering the lesson.  Each teacher will do this differently but at the end of the day they are all structured to fit the curriculum expectations.

IMG_9907The practical: here is where the unity comes; the unity I suggest is missing in our modern thought which allows the talking heads to describe a chasm between theory and practice.  First of all, forget the definition of practical that you already know.  Aristotle did not mean to act in a logical and efficient fashion, as we would tend to define the word today.  In the classical sense he meant a process where one steps back and forth between the theoretical and the productive.  One begins in the theoretical, considers the ultimate goal and then devises a course of action.  One then steps to the productive and begins to carry out the plan.  One then steps back to the theoretical and reconsiders the course of action, possibly changing ones action plan and possibly, even changing the goal that one is setting out to reach.  In teacher speak this is called action research.

I am sitting in Darjeeling right now and my mother-in-law has a poster on the wall from Sai Baba, a Hindu Guru.  The quote on the poster is relevant here, it says “action without knowledge is foolish / Knowledge without action is useless.”  That quote could be paraphrased to say that action (or the productive) and knowledge (or the theoretical) need to be unified in ones practice in order to act wisely (or effectively).

In the process of fleshing out my own understanding of Aristotle three part classification of knowledge I used the following two sources: “What is Praxis”  http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-praxis.htm  and “action research”  http://infed.org/mobi/action-research/  both by Mark K. Smith on the Informal online Encyclopedia of Informal Education (INFED).  I would highly recommend reading anything on INFED by Smith.  To make sense of his explanations I put them into a chart – it might help you out too.

  Telos (goal) What it is Form of reasoning How it looks in the classroom
Theoretical “the attainment of knowledge for its own sake.” “the mulling over of facts and ideas that a person already has.” contemplative The big ideas we got put in our heads in teacher’s college like Gardner’s multiple intelligence or Kohlberg’s theory of ethical development.


The creation of a specific product. There is a plan or goal.  There is some creativity in how this is carried out, ie. Not all cooks make Sheppard’s pie the same. “poietike: making action” Writing and carrying out a lesson plan.  Two teachers are working towards the same curriculum expectations but no two teachers will write an identical lesson plan or carry out the same lesson.
Practical “Practical wisdom and knowledge” “As we think about what we want to achieve, we alter the way we might achieve that.  As we think about the way we might go about something, we change what we might aim at.  There is a continual interplay between ends and means” Praxis: “informed committed action.” You get this nagging sense that there is something just not quite right with the way we conceptualise or utilize lessons plans.  So you draw up a list of different possibilities for lesson plans.  You then start experimenting with alternative lesson plan structures.  Generally called action research.


The Power of Stories

ImageSome years ago I was teaching in a small First Nations community in Northern Canada.  This community had no road to it and so the only way in or out was to fly.  It was during our time there that swine flu made the global headlines.  Early into this calculated panic, I received a notice in my classroom one morning just before lunch.  It went something to the effect that I was to inform the students that school would be canceled after lunch and that all teachers were to be at the local band hall by one o’clock for an important meeting to discuss how the community was going to prepare for the impending outbreak of swine flu. 

When I got to the band hall for 1 o’clock I sat there through a frenzy while we were told to volunteer for jobs that would be essential when the epidemic hit.  People who had their licence to operate heavy machinery were asked to sign up to dig the mass graves.  People would be needed to go around town and shoot the dogs since people would be too sick to take care of them.  Others would be needed to go through town and collect the corpses.  It was suggested that I be on a committee to request body bags be sent up by the federal government.  After the allocation of jobs, a message system was devised where a piece of green paper in your window meant everyone was fine.  Yellow paper meant there was at least one person in the house who was sick.  Red paper in the window meant that someone had died and their body needed to be taken away.

I sat there swinging back and forth between the emotions of shock, disbelief and humour.  From my calculations, the fact that we were flying into the community on 25 year old airplanes in minus 50 degree Celsius weather and landing on gravel strip runways, was much more of a concern than was the remote possibility that swine flu would cause an epidemic that would wipe out a portion of the community.  A few years earlier I had been living in Asia when SARS “swept” through and no one I knew even got a head cold.  What were the people of the community thinking?  How could they get so carried away with irrational fears?Image

As per the native tradition, in a community meeting everyone has their chance to speak and say all they have to say.  Therefore meetings can go on for hours and often well into the late evening.  As the meeting continued people took turns speaking of their concerns.

Towards the end, an elder who I had never seen before or after, was brought forward in his wheel chair and was given the microphone.  His words were translated into English, mostly for the benefit of the teachers in the room, who were largely from outside of the community.  He began by speaking of his early childhood living semi nomadically on the land and of the days during WWI when Spanish flu had come through the communities.  He began to speak of his vague memories from the time of early childhood when so many of the people he knew had succumbed to the flu and passed away.  I sat there and listened and watched the room, I could feel myself straining to understand the roots of the narrative.  The story was not unheard of by me but I had only heard it as background or context to other stories.  In contrast to me, I came to notice, the community members sat there nodding in agreement moments before an important point was made.  They had all heard this story before and knew what the next point was going to be. 

It was then that I understood the panic and the sense that this flu emanating out of Mexico really could be impending up on the shore of a frozen lake in the Canadian sub-arcticThe community members were coming into this meeting with a different narrative than I.  I was raised in the narrative of the wonders of science that can control and concur nature.  The community members I was among share some of that narrative and they are also members of a different narrative, a narrative of which the Spanish flu is only one chapter and a later chapter at that.  It is a chapter that had its start in 1492 with first contact of Europeans to the Americas.  Though first contact that far up north came centuries later, the proto contact period where European disease spread from tribe to tribe was the foundation of this narrative that was the fuel to the panic of that meeting.

ImageThis is one particularly poignant example of the power of narrative.  It raises questions that I find myself coming back to again and again as an international teacher.  You have great power to influence and shape narratives.  The subtle but influential undercurrents that sculpt the ways we understand and interact with our world.  To be honest, I had found that meeting in the band hall, humourus, I was sure the community was overreacting in the extreme.  Had the elder never asked to speak I would never of had the ah ha moment and I probably would be telling this story differently, about the community that was out of touch.   What other times, having taught in Thailand, India and Myanmar, have I missed the narrative?  Laughed or brushed of a comment.  What does that do to the students, competing narratives, one emanating from home, one from the classroom? 

This could be a good place to collect more stories of divergent or unseen narratives.  We all know they are there, but how often do we see them?  Feel free to post your stories.

My Favourite Metaphor

ImageThis is not an original metaphor.  I don’t remember where or when I first heard it nor do I know who first came up with it, but it has become a favorite.  I introduced it through the first week of school and come back to it again and again through the year.

It is a metaphor of an iceberg.  The iceberg we see is huge, majestic and foreboding, all at the same time.  That iceberg that we see, is only 12 % of the iceberg that is there.  The other 88% is resting silently and hidden under the water.  (The science behind it is explained well here.  http://www.bsharp.org/physics/icebergs)

This image of an iceberg becomes a metaphor when you think of it as an idea, a thought or an argument.  The portion above the surface is the obvious part, but the majority is hidden, the depth of it is not obviously visible.  When a student offers me an abviose answer I often just ask, what’s below the surface? or, think deeper.  It becomes our own little key word to trigger a habit of looking beyond the obvious for the underlying assumptions.  It has obvious implications for TOK but I use it in grade 5 and grade 2.