From Practical Knowledge To Practical Theory Education Essay

Several developments and worldwide changes have begun to transform the nature of the workplaces and jobs in which they are performed (Nankervis, Compton & Baird 2005; Seel 2002). These developments include the influences of globalization and technological developments as well as political, economical, and social changes that are associated with the amendments of the new industrial systems and competitive markets or what is called ‘Postmodernity’ (Stoll, Fink & Earl 2003; Hargreaves 1994). Postmodernity is defined as “a social condition in which economic, political, organizational, and even personal life comes to be organized around very different principles than those of modernity” (Hargreaves 1994, p. 9). It is characterized by the need of flexibility and responsiveness as reflected in decentralized decision-making, flatter organizational structures, dynamic networks of collaborative responsiveness, and increased personal empowerment.

In education, teacher’s involvement in the change process is considered vital, especially if the change is complex and affects various educational settings over a long period of time (Hargreaves 1994). Teacher’s involvement is to be meaningful and productive when teachers acquire more than new knowledge of pedagogy and curriculum. Teachers are not only technical learners; they are social learners who play an important role in society and for society (Beare 2001; Middleton & Hill 1996). Schooling in the post modern age deals with personal formation, belief construction, developing a world view, culture transmission, and acquiring the useful knowledge and enabling skills (Beare 2001). Teaching is considered a complex task that involves gathering out a set of specific activities, practices, and resources in terms of several educational purposes (Sanders & McCutcheon 1986). Moreover, Sanders and McCutcheon argue that successful teachers should organize these multiple factors so that they are effective in cultivating the learning of a particular group of pupils. The knowledge which is considered useful for teachers in carrying out this task is practical information organized in the form of repertoire, ideas, and strategies that are effective for them in a specific setting.

In the last 2 decades, research on teaching has increasingly focused on the cognitions that underlie teachers’ classroom practices, rather than on their behaviors (Van Driel, Verloop & De Vos 1998). This change in focus was reinforced by developments in cognitive psychology. These developments were based on the fundamental assumption that teachers’ cognitions and actions influence each other, and, likewise, those teachers’ cognitions and their classroom behaviors mutually affect each other. These cognitions are referred to teachers’ practical knowledge that underlies teachers’ actions. The term practical knowledge is drawn from Fenstermacher, who described it as the knowledge of teachers (Husu 1999). Fenstermacher distinguished this type of knowledge from formal knowledge, which he described as knowledge for teachers. Practical knowledge is the knowledge that teachers generate as a result of their experiences as teachers and their reflections on these experiences. This knowledge is anchored in classroom situations; it includes all the practical dilemmas that teachers encounter in carrying out purposeful actions (Munby, Russell & Martin 2001).

Teacher’s Practical Knowledge

Personal knowledge is related to the experiences and ideas that a person draws upon in order to teach and evolve as a teacher, it relates to man’s action and behavior (Back 2002). Beliefs, values, attitudes, biases, and disposition are terms that relate to this personal knowledge. Connelly, Clandinin and He (1997) refer this pre-articulated sense of teaching as personal practical knowledge. For personal knowledge to develop, teachers need time and space to reflect on past practical experiences that inform their perspectives on teaching. Nevertheless, teaching is a dynamic process that is constructed and continuously re-constructed, as teachers frame new experiences into their personal practical knowledge on teaching.

Practical knowledge is at the center of a teacher’s professional practice (Munby, Russsell & Martin 2001). There are four characteristics of practical knowledge. Firstly, practical knowledge is time bound. Secondly, practical knowledge is situation specific and does not translate easily to other, even in similar circumstances. Thirdly, practical knowledge is personally compelling. While information acquired in a professional development seminar might be interesting, it will not cause the teacher to alter practice unless the specific problem addressed is one that teacher is currently facing in the classroom. Finally, practical knowledge is directed toward action. The information is acquired ‘in use’ with the professional giving meaning to the new information even as he/she is deciding the next action to take (Schon 1987).

From a review of studies on teachers’ practical knowledge, the following characteristics are identified: Practical knowledge is personal; each teacher’s practical knowledge is to some extent unique, it is defined and adapted to the classroom situation, it is based on (reflection on) experience. Practical knowledge originates in, and develops through, experiences in teaching, it guides teachers’ practice, and it is connected with the subject that is taught (Munby, Russsell & Martin 2001; Schon 1987; Connelly, Clandinin & He 1997; Driel, Verloop & De Vos 1998)

Practical Knowledge as Theory

Marland (1998) argues that practical knowledge serves some of the functions of theory. He asserts that practical knowledge provides a basis for teachers to describe and explain what they do in classrooms and why. Practical knowledge help teachers to predict how students might react, to decide what is the best response to their reaction, and to generate effective and workable teaching plans and modify them when necessary or possible. Marland adds that practical knowledge serves three standard functions of theory: description, explanation, and prediction.

Practical theories as Sanders and McCutcheon (1986) point out are markedly different from scientific theories. They lack the conceptual precision and generalizability of scientific theories, they have not been formulated in terms of a formal language, so, cannot be subjected to the same rigorous logical tests as scientific theories. Practical theories are the conceptual structures and visions that provide teachers with justification for actions and for teaching activities they choose in order to be effective. They are considered the principles that guide teachers’ appreciations, decisions, and actions.

Teachers Practical Theories

Marland (1998) argues that practical theories of teachers are notions about how to teach. These notions have been crafted by teachers from their own experiences of teaching for the purpose of arranging their particular work settings. Practical theories are therefore personalized and context-specific. They are implicit in origin and derived from the experience of teaching. Sanders and McCutcheon (1986) define practical theories as “the conceptual structures and visions that provide teachers with reasons for acting as they do, and for choosing the teaching activities and curriculum materials they choose in order to be effective” (p. 54).

Practical theories are considered important and of value for teachers because they offer their holders guidelines as to what be most effective in a particular educational context. They are prized by teachers who see them as reliable and best ways to proceed. For this reason, practical theories could be sometimes resistant to change (Marland 1998). Fenstermacher (cited in Husu 1999) asserts that justification can take place when reasoning may show that action is reasonable thing to do, an obvious thing to do, and the only thing to do under the circumstances. Each one of these is considered a contribution to the justification of a rule of practice. The rules are justified because they have proven their worth and have therefore been approved. Teachers think, both explicitly and implicitly, that their rules of practice work. This is why teachers act accordingly. They believe that there is a connection between the rules of practice and their intended outcomes (Husu 1999). Practical theories draw on and integrate knowledge from various domains of practical knowledge, such as, knowledge of self, knowledge of students, knowledge instruction, knowledge of curriculum, and knowledge of context (Elbaz 1983, cited in Reading Module 2).

Practical theories are considered vital to the success of teaching because educational problems encountered by teachers are usually practical problems (Sanders & McCutcheon 1986). These problems cannot be solved by simply discovering or inventing new knowledge or solution. Sanders and McCutcheon (1986) assert that in order to be effective in solving educational problems, solutions must be put in action to fit in the particular circumstances of a specific educational setting. It is important to notice here that practical theories are not always consciously held, despite that teachers may often explicate them. Sometimes, teachers may still act if they are not conscious of the reasons for their actions. In this situation, teachers’ actions themselves may be the only manifestation of what Argyris called their ‘theories-in-use’, which are realized by teachers through reflection on their practice (Sanders & McCutcheon 1986). Teachers in classrooms use more than one theory, some theories could be known to them and some could be not. Whether or not teachers are conscious of their theories of action, all what they enact during their sessions is rational in the sense that it is intended to accomplish some purpose and to produce a desired consequence (Marland & Osborne 1990).

Every teaching practice used by teachers is employed rationally because teachers are engaged in intentional and purposive action to create conditions suitable and facilitate learning (Sanders & McCutcheon 1986). Teachers hold ideas about what is important to achieve and what specific practices they may use to teach in a particular situation. All these ideas as Sanders & McCutcheon assert might be incorporated into a single practical theory of teaching in the teacher’s mind, but more often, theories are used together in sets. These theories are developed by teachers over their whole career by reflecting on what they know of the aims of teaching, through dialogue with, and observation of, other teachers, and by informally observing their students as they talk, write, behave, respond, speak, and engage in other activities throughout the day.

Schon (1987) argues that the capacity to develop these meta-structures of knowledge can be developed through reflective practice. Reflective practice requires that professionals engage in a dialogue with themselves and their environments in which they review the problems that are part of their daily practice. The professional, confronted with a surprise problem, uses intuition and stored knowledge to attempt solutions, with each attempt becoming increasingly closer to an appropriate solution. Throughout this process, the professional is forced to question assumptions about the knowledge base, causing a restructuring of strategies of action and understandings of the phenomena that occurred. Once the solution is reached, each episode of “reflecting in action”, causes the professional to alter practice behavior by adding new information to the store of professional knowledge. This increases the body of expert knowledge and makes it less differentiated, allowing the professional to transfer knowledge across practical situations. Much of the learning that is acquired by teachers in the action context is largely self-validating and self-confirming. Learning essentially occurs in circumstances of hot action where decisions must be made quickly and instinctively, opportunities to reflect and make meaning of the experience are limited. The meaning taken from these experiences tend to be self-validating and self-confirming.

Components of Practical Theories

Literature on teachers’ practical theories depicts most of the components of these theories. However, practical theory does not just consist of components but of links among, or inter-relationships among, the components. These links or relationships among components give the theory its structure or shape and determine how well it fulfils its function. Terms that are commonly appear in the literature in accounts of teachers’ practical theories are as follows: teachers’ values, beliefs, principles, rules, goals, tactics and strategies, normal desirable states and student states, cues, attributes, contextual variables, images, metaphors, and pedagogical content knowledge ( Marland 1998, 2007; Connelly & Clandinin 1988; Marland & Osborne 1990; Connelly, Clandinin & He 1997).

Marland (1998) argues that teachers are keenly aware of how one component influences others. Teachers offer explanations for why they adopt different strategies with different classes at the same year level, why they spend more time with some groups than with others, how their beliefs about student learning affect their choice of principles of teacher behavior and teaching strategies, and how they use the student cues to identify that states of mind of students. Marland adds that the components of practical theories are not isolated, independent, and free-floating units; they are linked together in a quite significant way. The components within a practical theory must complement and support each other because a practical theory is a plan for action. It is directed at achieving some goals. In other words, all components in a specific lesson plan need to work well together in order for the goals of the lesson to be achieved. It is the links between components that give coherence and unity of purpose to a practical theory (Marland 2007). The linkages among components of a theory are like linkages among words in a sentence. To facilitate their communication with each other, the words have to be presented in a particular sequence. This careful sequencing of words would give the set of words a meaning. In a similar fashion, teaching becomes meaningful when teachers can make reference to the interactions among the various components of their theories (Reading Module 3).

Teachers’ Rules

Rules are the clear statements used by teachers in classrooms to indicate to students what represents appropriate conduct or action (Marland 2007). Elbaz uses the term, ‘rule of practice’ and defines it as ” a brief, clearly formulated statement of what to do or how to do in a particular situation frequently encountered in practice” (Elbaz, cited in Connelly & Clandinin 1988, p. 63). Classroom rules are commonly used by teachers to establish patterns of behavior that facilitate a social order and productive working settings, ensure effective use of time, and facilitate turn taking in discussion and purposeful movement by students (Marland 2007).

Rules may have two forms, they could be brief statements or extended description of practice from which a number of related rules may be inferred (Connelly & Clandinin 1988). For example, when the teacher states at the beginning of year to the students that he/she will listen very carefully to them, encourage them to paraphrase, and allow them to express their feelings, opinions, and concerns without judging them. This statement expresses a number of rules, such as, listen carefully, encourage students to paraphrase, allow express of feelings, do not judge. All these rules taken together will form an approach of communication in the classroom that can be expressed in the statement of a principle. They are called as rules because they make reference to what and how of the situation with the purpose being taken for granted (Connelly & Clandinin 1988). Rules may be suggested by the teacher or formulated jointly by the teacher and students. Seeking students input in the formulation of rules will create a democratic atmosphere in the classroom and will encourage students involvement, which increases students understanding and commitment.

Husu (1999) argues that rules are usually justified by teachers because they have proven their worth and have therefore been approved. Teachers think implicitly and explicitly that the rules of practice used in classrooms work effectively. And because they work, teachers act accordingly. This type of reasoning would justify a connection between the rules of practice and their intended outcomes in classrooms. They are justified because they have met the standards of the smooth practical action held by the teacher. Rules of practice are socially constructed; they emerge from years of experience in school settings. It is a way teachers found to be effective in solving problematic situations. They set a strong organizational power to often chaotic practices in the classroom.

Teachers’ Metaphors

Marland (2007) argues that teachers sometimes refer to teaching as mothering, coaching, or gardening, each one of these descriptions draws attention to some similarities between teaching and other activities. This drawing attention to similarities between two things is what a metaphor does. Analysis of these metaphors about teaching reveals much about the ways teachers think about teaching and how they conceptualize important aspects of their work and how they believe classrooms function best. Teacher’s behavior in classrooms is usually consistent with the metaphors used in their talks about teaching. For this reason, metaphors used by teachers are considered as providing valuable insights into their practical theories.

Metaphor is a component of personal practical knowledge. It can be identified when listening to the teacher’s speech (Connelly & Clandinin 1988). It gives imaginative expression to this knowledge that makes it possible for a person to explore hidden intellectual avenues contained in a metaphor’s frame (Connelly, Clandinin & He 1997). A single metaphor can be used to describe how teachers view their work in the classroom. It can be used to convey key aspects of the teacher’s view of teaching and learning (Korthagen & Lagerwerf 2001), covering such components as goals, tactics, strategies, values, and student states.

Implications of Teachers’ Practical Theories

Marland (1998) argues that a successful change in the teaching perspectives requires developing a commitment to adopt new values and beliefs. This difficult and time-consuming activity is considered critical because values and beliefs are central to teachers’ notions about teaching. Values and beliefs are considered the key components of the moral frameworks that teachers hold, which also influence their decision-making about teaching. This moral framework motivates and gives purpose and direction to thinking about teaching. Teacher educators that intend to make the shift need to value practical knowledge about teaching that student teachers develop within their courses. They also need to value the processes such as those inherent in critical thinking and reflection that contribute to the acquisition and revision of practical knowledge and theories. Accepting these values would make teachers educators review their beliefs about student teachers, how they learn to teach, the role of the teacher educator, and the nature of knowledge.

Alignment with the view that teaching is shaped by the practical theories of teachers requires that teacher education assist student teachers to develop practical theories that are personally meaningful and relevant to the contexts in which they practice. This goal emphasizes the importance of valuing personal autonomy, critical thinking, and diversity of teaching styles. This goal also requires careful attention to the strategies used in teacher education to ensure that they are effective in promoting personal and context-specific practical theories to the pre-service teachers. The strategies selected should be influenced by the nature of the subject for which the teacher educator has responsibility.

Besides deciding the appropriate strategies, educators should try to induce through their courses the states of students in order to facilitate goal attainment. Students need to be inquiry-oriented and self-evaluative, to take initiatives and to be creative, and to show preparedness to be reflective and open to other possibilities in order to build their own practical theories. Moreover, educators here play an important role in facilitating students’ states by rewarding initiative, commending self-analysis, supporting flexibility and generating alternatives, building self-esteem of students, and encourage risk taking. It is imperative for teacher educators to reflect on the principles which they build into their actions to ensure that they reflect the values, beliefs, strategies, and student states that facilitate student teacher theory-building. Teacher educators need to ensure that they know enough about the student teachers they are working with in order to be able to fine-tune other features of their practical theories, such as strategies, principles, student states and goals, and to personalize these in the interests of maximizing benefits for student teachers (Marland 1998).


This paper presented an overview of teachers’ practical theories. Practical theories are considered vital to the success of teaching because educational problems encountered by teachers are usually practical problems (Sanders & McCutcheon 1986). Practical theories are notions about how to teach, these notions have been crafted by teachers from their own experiences of teaching for arranging their particular work settings. Practical theory does not just consist of components but of links among, or inter-relationships among, the components. These links or relationships among components give the theory its structure or shape and determine how well it fulfils its function. They serve as the background to much of the teachers’ decision-making and action, and hence constitute what has been termed the culture of teaching.


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