Teaching and Learning Forum 96 [ Contents ]

Making theory relevant

Jane Pearce and Christopher Crouch
WA School of Visual Arts
Edith Cowan University


There is an almost universal suspicion of theory among students (and practitioners) of practical disciplines. Our particular experiences, of university teaching in education and the visual arts, provide numerous examples of resistance from students to the idea that theory should form an element of their degree qualification. We shall argue that, far from being irrelevant to these practical disciplines, the ability to theorise is central to what it is to be a practitioner. We would suggest that these observations, whilst drawn from the visual arts and in education, hold good for all practical disciplines. By practical disciplines we mean those disciplines which require students to apply their knowledge within a defined culture. We think this encompasses all disciplines.

Common student objections rest on the notion that the theory content of their university courses is irrelevant. It is, as they see it, disconnected from their main concerns as fledgling practitioners, and prevents them from engaging with practice which is, they believe, what they are 'really' there to learn about. Learning 'theory' also requires the development and deployment of skills which are difficult, alien, or simply absent from students' portfolios, and requires the discussion of issues which appear unconnected with their practice, in language which is incomprehensible to them.

Since theory courses are devised by the people who teach them, then teachers of theory have only themselves to blame for having engendered such a degree of resentment amongst their students. Many art theory courses have either become little more than relaxed meanderings through the portfolios of great artists from the Renaissance onwards, or intense and complex debates in which the internal contradictions of contemporary aesthetic philosophy are paraded half digested in front of the student body. Education students, too, are subjected to lecture programs enumerating past theories about educational processes which appear to provide no assistance whatsoever for the student teacher faced daily with the complex interactions of a contemporary classroom. Courses like these betray a lack of a sense of urgency and a signal failure to address actual needs; imagine, if you dare, a degree in dentistry with a theory component consisting of a blow by blow account of the history of dental instruments.

It does not follow however that because students resent theory courses they do not themselves theorise. Whenever students raise questions about the validity or significance of a particular practice they are theorising, whether they are aware of it or not. To identify issues for further examination, to select concerns to focus on, and to define personal aims is to theorise. It is noteworthy that questions like these arise out of the demands of practice, and hence carry with them a legitimacy for students. So if students do find themselves using theory to inform and develop their practice, why do they find theory courses disconnected from their interests?

Teachers will often answer that this is to do with timing: a first year student may be engaging in practice which requires access to a particular aspect of theory which isn't covered until year three, or the theoretical content of a course may only become relevant to an individual's practice three or thirty three years after the course is over. In fairness to this response, it is not unusual for students in their end of course evaluations to make the point that they only realised the value of theory components with hindsight. But until such moments of revelation occur, what is the student in search of a theory supposed to do? And while teachers may be hopeful that it will all turn out right in the end, that the penny will drop, what of those students for whom theory forever remains a time-consuming and counter-productive irrelevance?

It's time to do two things: to attempt definitions of theory and practice, and to look more closely at what happens when students actually begin to need access to theory.

Our definitions of theory and practice are straightforward, and drawn from traditional and uncontroversial sources. By 'theory' we mean what is already known about a discipline, and by practice we mean what is done when we act within the context of the discipline. What requires discussion, and is more interesting and relevant to the case in point, is the nature of the relationship between these concepts. In our view, one cannot exist without the other, for where do theories come from if not from experience of practice, and how can practice develop without the practitioner first being able to extrapolate theories from practice? The first step in the process of knowledge is perception; contact with the things of the external world. The second step is a rearrangement or a reconstruction of this information. This implies judgement and inference; to theorise is an activity that takes us from passive observation to active reconstruction. This activity stems from our bringing about changes in things and then observing the result of those changes that we ourselves have instigated.

Our experience as practitioners and as teachers exemplifies the indissoluble links which exist between theory and practice, and for our students too the links become apparent as soon as the demands of practice become urgent. It is at this point that students' need for theory, and their interest in theorising, take a quantum leap. When students reach the limits of their existing skills, knowledge, experience and understanding, they (we hope) will ask: "Where do I go from here?". There are several ways to an answer. The easy way is to fall back on what is already personally known, and use an old solution to solve a new problem. We have all encountered students for whom this is the sole strategy available and we have all as teachers wondered what to do about it. More optimistically, there are also students who will look beyond what they already know, and research new possibilities. This may be done either by experimenting, or by looking to what others may already know about his or her practical problem: in other words, the student will look to theory for some assistance. Once embarked on this action, there are numerous paths for the student to take. He or she can look to answers from peers; from teachers; from other practitioners (for example within a mentoring system); from books.

Are we alone in having encountered students whose mothers were the fount of all knowledge regarding this or that practice? How easily accessible the necessary information is depends on numerous factors: the kind of course the student is studying (eg well-resourced, modular, integrated), the role which the teacher has adopted (dispenser of knowledge or enabler and facilitator), whether collaboration or competition amongst students is encouraged, whether students have regular, organised access to supportive and well-informed practitioners, and so on. But even with ready access to relevant theory, students cannot make use of the knowledge available to them without also being able to exercise numerous high-order intellectual skills. These are the ability to analyse the original problem, to identify and select relevant theories, to gain access to the information needed, and then to apply their knowledge appropriately to the practical context which first presented the challenge. Furthermore, if real answers are to be found, and real progress is to be made, there will always be the test; the results must be analysed; the pudding must be eaten. To really make progress the student must go on to reflect and make judgements about whether the found answer was, after all, the right one.

Using theory requires engagement in the particular process described above. It is important make a distinction between knowing about theory and theorising; between the gathering of theoretical information and being able to use it.

To be fair to teachers of theory, it is probably the case that their aims in designing courses have been at least to provide students with the means to research other views and solutions to practical problems. Clearly this is an important element in the education of a practitioner. The question is, why do teachers of theory need to do more? Apart from the anxiety that student feedback about your theory course might be unfavourable, does it matter that you haven't also given students opportunities to develop the practical reasoning skills necessary to apply their knowledge and integrate theory and practice? Can't you assume that as intelligent people they will eventually develop those skills of application and integration? And while they're still students, isn't it the job of teachers of practice to make the links for their students? Well, yes it does matter, and no you can't, and no it isn't necessarily someone else's job.

A student who uses theoretical processes integrated with practice is inevitably moving his or her practice forward. This involves identifying and analysing a problem; comparing this problem with other similar situations; researching other views and solutions; making judgements about appropriate action; acting; and reflecting on the outcomes. For this student, faced with the demands of practice and finding answers through theorising, the relevance of theory is undisputed. Why can't theory courses ensure that all students become adept at integrating theory and practice? What kind of course could facilitate the development of theorising skills?

While a full exposition of various curricular models is beyond the scope of this paper, from our defined position some general principles can be extrapolated:

  1. Knowledge about theories is of limited value unless the ability to theorise is there also.

  2. Theory taught in isolation from practice means the two tend to exist in parallel, without ever connecting.

  3. The more skills are acquired the more necessary theory (or the ability to theorise) becomes.

  4. Reflection allows theory to enrich skills.
These follow from the above. Two further points now need discussion:
  1. Theorising as an individual has its limits, especially when applied to practice.

  2. To practice as a professional is to engage in a form of social communication dependent upon theorising.
Students studying practical courses are preparing to become professionals. Surely a course of professional education ought to produce students who are fully equipped to behave like a professional by the end of it. Clearly it is not feasible for a student to have acquired all possible knowledge in their chosen discipline. So what is involved in being a professional?

There are clear expectations enshrined in the notion of what it is to be a professional. One is that the professional is not fixed in his or her practice but continues to develop, assimilating new ideas, research, new practices. Another is that professionals exercise judgement about the directions which their practice might take, and for example don't unthinkingly adopt innovations for the sake of being seen to be forward-looking. Another expectation is that professionals form a group with other professionals in the same discipline, and come together formally and informally to identify exemplars and establish paradigms for good practice. How as teachers can we prepare students to operate effectively within the professional culture which will ultimately be theirs? What is the relationship between professional practice and being able to theorise?

Students studying a course of professional education need to be encouraged to operate like professionals from the start. Evidently, the professional behaviours just described have much in common with the program for theorising proposed earlier. In other words, some of what we understand to be professional behaviour involves the ability to use theory. Would students find theory so irrelevant if they understood its central place in professional life, and were able to use it all the time to inform their practice?

Theory locates practice with the individual, within a professional group and within a wider culture, be it social, intellectual, or historical. The individual's practice cannot make sense either to the individual or to other members of the culture in which he or she operates unless it can be objectified. This process of objectification involves the positioning of ideas and practice within (or without) the paradigms that have been historically agreed. Communicators need to know the identity, aims and aspirations of their audience; even mould breakers need to know which mould they are breaking. Just as students aspire to become members of a group of professionals, so they also aspire to operate in relation to a culture. To locate one's relationship with a culture is to begin to understand that culture, to contribute to that culture and to enrich it. This further generates the need for objectification and relocation through theory. Thus the student of theory becomes a more accomplished practitioner and, furthermore, contributes to the growth and relevance of theoretical knowledge.

In conclusion, we propose that the more the debate is pursued, the clearer it becomes that the theory/practice divide is seen to be what it actually is all along: an illusory one.

Please cite as: Pearce, J. and Crouch, C. (1996). Making theory relevant. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Teaching and Learning Within and Across Disciplines, p125-128. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1996. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1996/pearce.html


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