Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Student consulting dictionary and writing on notebook

On theories, practice, and opportunism in Foreign Language Education

“If it doesn’t work in practice, then it’s not good theory”

Julian Edge

Or at least that’s what one of my doctoral supervisors used to say. The tension between theory and practice is, I think, one of the most common complaints I come across in teacher discourse (pay being by far the commonest). I have repeatedly made the point that such thinking is unhelpful, and that that it may be more productive to view theory and practice as complementary to each other. In this perspective, theory is best seen as a refined abstraction of what happens in the classroom.

In this article, I argued for inverting the perceived relation between theory and practice: rather than apply whatever (capital T) Theory is passed on top-down from the Ivory Tower to the classrooms, it may be more fruitful – I suggested – for teachers to be empowered to generate their own, locally relevant, (small-t) theories. It is not exactly a paradigm-shattering suggestion: similar points have been made, more compellingly and with more eloquence, by Adrian Holliday, Braj Kumaravadivelu and Julian Edge. However, it is something I feel strongly about, especially with regard to (foreign language) education in Greece.

What I want to do in this post, however, is approach this topic from a different tack, and argue against what I think might be some serious misconceptions about the ‘practice first’ argument.

In a recent discussion, a teacher asked for advice on a problem he was having: Apparently, his Director of Studies or Department Head insisted that students not be assigned vocabulary homework in preparation for the next class session. The teacher disagreed with this recommendation, and claimed that:

But, I say it is better to look at [vocabulary] before coming to the class to have something in their mind.. If they don`t find the meaning of [the words], How can they say their meanings and know??? Then, they don`t enjoy the class and they are puzzled and bored. I know that they can know and find the meaning from context or other things. I can not accept [the supervisor’s] way.

In my response, I suggested that the teacher should take a closer look at the knowledge statements he made (e.g., “[the students] are puzzled and bored”) and examine what evidence he had in support of these statements. I felt that the best way to approach such a problem would be a small-scale investigation in the teacher’s class, which would endeavour to find out if prior vocabulary knowledge did indeed make a difference in his students’ learning experience.  I expected that such an enquiry might corroborate the teacher’s conviction, or perhaps it might reveal a difference between what he and his students considered effective. Either way, it would lead to increased awareness of his students’ needs and preferences, which I felt to be a requisite to informed practice.

The teacher replied that:

They [presumably the people he reported to?] think they are doing right but I don`t believe that. […] I think my way is better… [The students] are ready in class by having a pre-study.

This seemed to conclude the discussion to his satisfaction, and I was left with the impression that his original ‘request for advice’ only served as a ploy for validating his pre-conceptions with ‘expert’ opinion.

I think it should be clear that when arguing for the primacy of teacher knowledge over theory, this is not what I mean at all. “It works for me” may be a useful starting point, as is any knowledge that teachers embody. However, in order to challenge whatever received knowledge is passed on by research and the powers-that-be, such locally-relevant knowledge needs to satisfy three more conditions.

  1. First, such methodological preference should be empirically grounded: that is, it must stem from rigorous observation of practice, and the links between the emerging teacher theory and the evidence that supports it must be transparent. What I have in mind is small-scale action research projects, which involve identifying a problem, trying out a solution, collecting whatever data in whatever form is appropriate (be that classroom observation, journal entries, tests or informal discussions with anyone involved), and evaluating the effectiveness of the solution.
  2. The second condition is that, just like capital-T Theory, small-t theories must be provisional: they are only in place until a more useful theory can be generated. It follows that there is a need for teachers to actively challenge their own knowledge: one needs to be on the lookout for evidence that disrupts, rather than confirms, whatever one happens to believe. When such evidence cannot be found, the theory is robust; when it is found, the theory can be refined. In the discussion quoted above, “I think my way is better” should be the prompt of theory generation, not a conclusion.
  3. Last, such a theory must be centred on the students: what seems very odd to me about the exchange quoted above is that the problem was framed as a difference in opinion between the teacher and the people he reported to, but no reference was made to the people who were to be affected the most. In fact, my suggestion that the teacher turn to the learners for an answer did not seem to register. Such an attitude is regrettably common, but I don’t think it is necessary to spell out why it is both practically short-sighted and ethically unacceptable.

To sum up, it is my strong belief that the teaching profession is best served by conceptualisations of theory that are closely connected to practice, derive from it and loop back into it. Such locally-relevant theory needs to be informed by evidence, committed to change and serve the students’ needs. When these conditions are not met, claims about the primacy of teacher knowledge seem little more than a thinly veiled excuse for opportunistic methodology.

Image Credit: The Leaf Project @ Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0






4 responses to “On theories, practice, and opportunism in Foreign Language Education”

  1. Mariam Attia avatar

    Thank you, Achilleas, for this thought-provoking post. I have a special interest in this area, and reading your post made me think of the key role that teacher education can play in helping teachers understand the value and processes of theorizing one’s practice.

    1. Achilleas avatar

      You are always very kind, Mariam. There is a danger, I think, that by asking teachers to theorise, we just legitimise an ‘anything goes’ attitude. Ultimately, such an attitude would be a prescriptivist’s best argument, which is why it needs to be avoided.

  2. Mariam Attia avatar

    .. and congratulations on your new website. Very good choice of colors and design :-)

    1. Achilleas avatar

      I’m still rather ambivalent about it. I think it’s not as snappy as the previous one, but it seems to be more relaxing when one’s reading large texts.

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