22 December 2009

'ELT in Japan', Issue 1, Article: Breaking down the 'theory vs. practice' distinction

Breaking down the 'theory vs. practice' distinction
by Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan

What separates 'academic theory' from 'effective practice' in language teaching is this: the academic tries to make things explicit in the form of 'airtight' arguments conforming to the requirements and readership expectations of the genres accepted for publication (e.g., the research report). .

This means however that the academic presents 'theory' in rather formulaic discourse away from the classroom. Often it is more like theory about theory--meta-theory. Academic discourse is often sold as 'objective science or 'substantiated knowledge', but often it only presents the outward appearance of objectivity (indeed, most science is actually dogmatic arguments supported by selective evidence).

Academic prose, even in the form of the 'research report' often presents overgeneralized theories which are uncritically accepted as 'objective' only because the formal trappings of academic genres have been met faithfully. Little or no research results from current second language acquisition research, for example, actually generalizes to real language teaching and learning worldwide. However, the theories or meta-theories put into service of turning such evidence and results into truth assertions are built on the assumption that they are generalizable. Hence generalizability is actually a begged question at most academic publications about 'ELT' and 'SLA'. .

On the other hand, teachers' 'theories of practice' arise while performing in classrooms where students are effectively learning. Effective teachers must build up their body of guiding theory from their past experiences both teaching and learning a language--as well as from their formal professional training and career development activities. It also takes patience, creativity and commitment. It is a set of bootstrap learning processes whereby the more one knows the more one is able to learn and improve. Teachers' theories (although often never made explicit in the form of 'airtight arguments' in academic genres) often apply in real schools and classrooms in ways far too inter-related and complex to be decontextualized and presented in academic discourse. It is a shame of academic discourse that often the concepts, processes and actions that are the most difficult to describe and explain are the very ones ignored by academics (because of their need to put things into airtight arguments that satisfy fellow academics, such as editors and article reviewers).

Teachers should still present their knowledge in formal outlets like articles and conference presentations, but, when they do so, we must realize we get only 'snapshots' and partial static insights from what it is they actually do when they teach in real learning situations. Perhaps the best people to make sense of this incomplete information and integrate it into existing mental schema for language teaching and learning, though, are practicing teachers.

I'm not arguing those who theorize and write can't or don't teach. What I am saying, though, is that once we engage in the 'academic discourse' language game, we have to realize the limitations--and hopefully push the conventions (especially if we become editors). And a note of warning: playing the research and discourse games of the academic can actually seriously detract from our teaching!

Labels: practice, theories in practice, theories of practice, theory

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