The practical theory or theory for action
The relationship between practical knowledge and practical theory. One of the earliest studies of the practical knowledge of teachers was conducted by Elbaz, F (1983). Her study of one teacher’s practical knowledge resulted in her forming the view that this teachers’ knowledge comprised five main categories or domains of knowledge – knowledge of self, knowledge of students, knowledge of instruction, knowledge of curriculum and knowledge of the milieu or context.
Some modifications have been made to this categorization, most notably by Shulman (1986), but Elbaz’s overview of practical knowledge will suffice to make the point I wish to make here, which is that none of these domains of practical knowledge of itself provides a sufficient basis for successful action in the classroom. Instead, what the teacher has to do (and what, no doubt, Elbaz’s teacher did do) is to integrate them into a coherent framework so that separate pieces of practical knowledge can be interrelated
to provide a reliable and suitable basis for performing the role of the teacher. That framework is the teacher’s practical theory. In other words, a practical theory or theory for action draws on and integrates knowledge from various domains of practical knowledge. It provides a basis for planning lessons for and teaching a topic, series of lessons or subject to a particular group of students in a particular context. Refer again to the history lessons on World War 1 outlined in the Introduction to the course.
That teacher had a practical theory for teaching a specific history topic which drew on her knowledge of students, instructional processes, curriculum goals, the resources available in that particular context and, no doubt, her own strengths and limitations. The experience of teaching and being taught provides a rich source of knowledge which teachers make use of in the classroom. This knowledge has been referred to as the craft knowledge of teachers and also as practical knowledge because it is knowledge which has been derived from, and shapes, practice.
It is therefore a very useful form of knowledge because teachers know that it offers a reliable basis for the planning and conduct of classroom events. In addition, of course, teachers possess many other kinds of knowledge – knowledge of subject matter, knowledge of curriculum, knowledge of self and knowledge of human development and of other kinds of educational theory to name just a few. Teaching is a complex activity, and the practical knowledge which teachers hold is also very complex and serves a number of critical functions.
It provides teachers with a basis for describing what they do and explaining why they do it; it allows teachers to predict how students will react and what is likely to happen in lessons; it provides a reliable basis for planning effective learning experiences; and it enables teachers to vary their approaches to suit particular classes and particular circumstances. These functions of describing, explaining and predicting are also some of the functions which are served by theories.
For these reasons, the practical knowledge of teachers has also been referred to as practical theory. Teachers are also the principal architects of their own professional development. In other words, teachers are responsible for their own growth as teachers. It is a responsibility that cannot be devolved to others. Neither can change be mandated. A direction to change usually results in reluctant compliance at best and more often in outright rejection and hostility.
Generally speaking, a reputation for good teaching is very largely the result of a teacher’s own efforts though, of course, supportive colleagues, supervisors and institutional policies often play an important part. Nevertheless, if a teacher is not prepared to make a commitment to seeking improvements to teaching, there is little likelihood that such changes can be effected. Thus, changes to the theories that account for practice can only be effected by the holders of the theory.