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.


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