Teaching: Theory or practice?

I’ve just finished reading a nice little article by Linda Leach, of Massey University, on the engagement (or lack thereof) of tertiary teachers with education theory.  She’s interviewed f tertiary teachers and has identified a number of ways that teachers understand ‘theory’.

First, it’s very clear that ‘theory’ means different things to different people, and with the article comes a plea for educators to be more precise about what they mean when they use the word. She’s considered four different broad interpretations of the word: 1. As the obverse of practice, 2. As a Generalizing or explanatory model, 3. As a body of explanation, and 4. As scientific theory.

What’s clear is that many teachers take the view that theory is the opposite of practice. Since, in teaching, it is clearly the practice that matters (since it’s what the students experience) this leads to the conclusion that  theory is irrelevant and there is no benefit in engaging with it. Leach says "Few of [those] who avoid theory seem to understand theory as either personal or practical"

The fallacy is the implicit assumption that theory and practice are unconnected. (I mean, you don’t have experimental physicists and theoretical physicists working in complete isolation from each other, so why expect that with teaching?) What you believe about student learning will influence the way you teach, whether you formally acknowledge it or not. That’s become clear for me as I think about my teaching practice. I have my own ‘beliefs’, or my own models, call them ‘theories’, of how students learn, and these influence how I teach. Formally looking at teaching ‘theory’, though the Postgraduate Certificate of Education, has helped me to identify what my beliefs and philosophies really are, and how these have changed since I’ve been teaching.

For example, In Pratt’s terminology (1998) I take a ‘Development Perspective’ of teaching – that is, challenging a student’s way of thinking about physics – having him or her try to interpret what they are seeing, reading, etc., and build a model of physical understanding that works. That in turn influences the way I set assignments, for example, and how I organize and run lecture and lab sessions.  But this isn’t where I started from – in the beginning I was much more towards the ‘Transmissive Perspective’ – where I held the body of knowledge and it was my job to pass that to the students. A different belief / theory about teaching and learning, which was accompanied by different practice. Identifying what my internal biases are as a teacher (what theories I hold to) is an important step towards improving my practice.

Theory does influence practice, whether you recognize it or not. So it’s a good idea to have at least a glance at it, from time to time.


Leach, L. (2011). Tertiary teachers and theory avoidance. New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ work. 8(1), 78-89.

Pratt, D. D. (1998). Five perspectives on teaching in adult and higher education. Florida: Krieger.



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