Theory & Practice in the Same Breath

I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘theory‘ and ‘practice‘ and their relationship lately. For one, I’m currently collaborating with practicing teachers in a course focused on models of instructional tech design. Before we dove in to these models, I invited the teachers to consider what theories or paradigms of learning guide their everyday teaching, and to create a visual metaphor for their paradigm of learning.

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The results ranged from learning-as-journey metaphors to drawing parallels between learning and trail running…during a run, as well as considering the teaching/learning dyad as the back-end of a messy equipment rack. (Feel free to comment on these teachers’ blogs and channels! We’re building our PLNs this semester by contributing our experiences and reflections to the world wide web of education via blogs and channels…like this one.)

Here’s mine from the 2014 DML Ignite talks:

Around the same time, my colleagues Amy Stornaiuolo, Nathan Phillips and I had an article come out in the academic journal called Theory Into Practice. While we were writing the piece, I reflected often about what the little word into meant in the journal’s title, and if the two could every really be divided. My colleague Lara Handsfield (who has written a great book on literacy teaching theory and practice called Literacy Theory as Practice) helpfully uses the phrase “practice and theory interanimate each other.”

As I think about the examples the teachers in our course gave, they often talked theory and practice in the same breath. Our article in the issue is titled Multiplicities in Motion: A Turn to Transliteracies, and in it, we, too, discussed mobilities and literacies theories through a classroom example. Each interanimating the other, if you will. Here’s the article’s abstract:

In an effort to draw attention to the mobile dimensions of meaning making, this article proposes a pedagogy of transliteracies, supporting educators and learners in critically reflecting on how people, media, and things are connected across space and time. Expanding on the New London Group’s (1996) multiliteracies vision of communicative and ideological multiplicities, we articulate the importance of moving from multi– to trans– to highlight the mobile and emergent aspects of meaning making. We work through a classroom example to consider the contours of literacies and learning practices for making meaning on the move. We argue that in a mobile and digitally networked world, a pedagogy of transliteracies draws much needed attention to people and things connecting, relating, and intersecting, and also to how these connections, relations, and intersections occur in unequal ways that support some learners and disenfranchise others.

If theory and practice exist in the same breath, why don’t we just get on with it and “practice”? The influential role of reflection in learning quickly comes to mind. In fact, many of the teachers discussed reflection as a key component of their students’ learning, as well as their own development as a teacher. One teacher talked about realizing that he had created shifts in his teaching since he last thought explicitly about his beliefs on learning, and that he now wanted shift how he communicated and articulated those beliefs now.

handbook coverIn a final project that has had my thoughts swirling around theory and practice, this week I was also en route to accept the 2018 Divergent Award for Excellence in 21st Century Literacies on behalf of my co-editors and the authors of the Handbook of Writing, Literacies, and Education in Digital Cultures. At the event (which is now going to be moved to a virtual conference due to an ice storm which inhibited travel), I was going to speak with doctoral students at the university about writing theoretical frameworks in their dissertation research. I was going to suggest that we shift from thinking of theory ‘as a lens’ in our educational research to thinking of ‘theory as mobilizing agent.’ What did I mean by this? Well, inspired by Kris Gutiérrez’s (2008) description of learning as the organization of imagined yet possible futures, I planned to discuss the implication of approaching theory as not just something that helps us see and explain, but rather as one that helps us imagine and move toward possible futures.

Together, these various projects have me thinking of theory and practice as not just existing in the same breath, but that taking time to breathe in this reflective way is critical if we hope to make intentional moves toward the futures we hope for for each other.

Throughout writing this post I have constantly been reminded of Paulo Freire‘s description of praxis as transformative, reflective action. Especially here, as I reflect as I write about these connections I’m seeing through this metaphor of breathing, I can’t help but think of the quote from Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) where he makes the argument that this reflective theory/practice breath is essential for experiencing full humanity. That it is a humanizing experience. It makes me feel very lucky to work with so many teachers and educational scholars in this way.

For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. ― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p. 72

Featured image: By Sasha Kargaltsev [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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