The Relationship Between Theory & Practice in Education

The relationship between teaching theories and practices often results in productive tension.
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The tensions between educational theories and practices -- what critical pedagogue Paulo Freire termed “praxis” -- can either buoy a classroom to great heights, or sink it entirely. Teachers must constantly balance their teaching philosophies against their practical, in-class constraints. Occasionally, the aims of one teacher’s practice may conflict with the aims of the same teacher’s theory. Similarly, the same teacher may find herself pressured to teach a certain way based on her personal philosophy, while also feeling pressured to teach a certain way based on more practical concerns.

1 The Aims of Practice

For the most part, schools operate with the aim of educating students and preparing them for success after school. This simple practical aim can be muddied, however, by institutional pressures. Professor of Education Ira Shor argues district-wide mandates regarding practice such as standardized testing or pre-packaged curricula often conflict with individual teacher’s in-class practice. In order to understand how best to understand the myriad of practical aims for any given school, Shor recommends teachers closely examine institutional markers of these aims such as mission statements, school-wide or statewide educational standards and objectives, as well as unwritten or unspoken practical aims relating to things like passing and failing, student athletes, and community interaction.

2 The Aims of Theory

Similar to the practical aims of schools, the aims of educational theory relate to educating and preparing students. Many different theories, however, propose radically different ways of doing this. In his book “On Critical Pedagogy” educational theorist Henry Giroux surveys a variety of different educational theories, each with different suggestions as to how best to teach students. For example, traditional educational theory in the U.S. suggests that students should learn how to be thoughtful and conscientious citizens of a democratic republic. Some critical educational theory, however, suggests that students should learn how to question all manner of authority, including leaders in a democratic republic, something which seems counter to the traditional aims of education. In “Democracy and Education,” John Dewey recommends teachers find a way to mesh their personal theoretical aims with those of the institution that offers them employment so as to find a happy medium between these two.

3 The Pressures of Practice

Often, unforeseen practical concerns put pressure on teachers and schools and force them away from their conception of what best practices entail. Frequently these practical concerns come in the form of tight school budgets and limited supplies. In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Freire recommends that teachers frequently revisit their practical objectives, focusing more on the end goal, as opposed to the practical means of reaching these goals. He believes that focusing too much on what a teacher lacks practically in terms of money or supplies can blind them to potential alternative teaching routes to the end goals of their teaching.

4 The Pressures of Theory

When a teacher and the school she works at advocate for different educational theories, these theories can often hinder the quality of education in the classroom and the school. For example, a school that buys into the top-down administration of standardized tests is likely going to upset a teacher who wants her students to build knowledge from the bottom-up. Both Giroux and Shor point to this tension as a possible site of educational growth, encouraging teachers and their supervisors to enter into a respectful dialogue about the best educational theories for the school and for the classroom. Often, Giroux and Shor argue, this dialogue can yield a theoretical mishmash of ideas about how best to teach students.

Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.