do we need theory? who’s generating it?


May 29, 2012 by Willy Cardoso

At the beginning of my talk yesterday at IATEFL LT & TD Conference in Istanbul, I asked the audience the following questions:

  • Who’s responsible for generating the knowledge base of our profession?
  • Is English Language Teaching a profession? What qualifies it as such?
  • Theory: an unnecessary intrusion?

I’m not going discuss them here thoroughly, not yet. But below are some quotes and stuff I said (paraphrased here) in order to trigger some train of thought.

“The moral authority or pedagogical legitimacy of the goals themselves is not an issue of professional concern. Professionals do their job, they don’t define it” (Schon 1983: 12).

“If education is to become a profession its practitioners must strive to achieve universal consensus about the ends of education and about the techniques necessary for bringing about these ends; all of this being grounded in a demonstrable knowledge base, which also commands universal, rational assent, and housed within institutions whose structure enables the techniques to be efficiently and effectively applied and the results accurately assessed” (Parker, 1997: 12).

Teachers are the in the lowest layer of this ‘knowledge hierarchy’, then how can they validate their bottom-up, highly-contextualized, ‘at-the-chalk-face’ knowledge?

I feel there is an anti-intellectualism in ELT (and education in general). Why?

The apparent aversion to theory is perhaps because it is given, imported, external to teachers’ contexts. What if instead we became better at theorizing ourselves? Instead of teaching theory, we taught theorizing.

“If educators make a distinction between teaching theory as a body of knowledge that inform students’ understanding of the world and the practice of theorizing as a pedagogical activity in which students actually participate, it becomes possible to assert the mutual importance of both practices without one erasing or cancelling out the other” (Henry Giroux)

Teaching and learning are not about convergence onto a pre-existent truth, but a divergence –about broadening what is knowable and doable.

The questions above were aimed mainly at English language teachers, but many of the arguments and questions raised are relevant in the whole of the education ‘industry’.

In true TEFL fashion, discuss in pairs 🙂


4 thoughts on “do we need theory? who’s generating it?

  1. Leo says:

    Hi Willy
    As Naomi said, we’ve discussed it in pairs (or rather small groups) and we’ve agreed that teachers may be avert to theory and have little access to it after their initial pre-service training because
    a) most theoretical articles are written in (not always comprehensible) academic style
    b) they cost money
    I should also add that few attend conferences where theory can be presented in easy-to-digest sound bites. Unfortunately this aversion seems to start early on. I was recently presenting at a student conference in a teacher training colleges and we talked about conferences in general – virtual and regular. Most students have expressed that conference sessions are not relevant (especially plenary sessions) and have little to do with classroom practice.
    A great thought-provoking post – how come only 1 comment?

    • Hi Leo

      Any practice has relations to theory; there’s no teacher creating methodology from scratch. However adapted to the local context and the teacher’s experience, a good amount of any teacher’s knowledge has been socially and culturally constructed before this same teacher even steps into a classroom. When consciously taken onboard, theory empowers the teacher to be more effective in his/her change efforts.

      Whereas, the two reasons you mention above are true, they’re poor excuses in my opinion. As teachers we expect our students to “wise up” and tackle more complicated literature and readings in general, and then we say journal articles are complicated? I don’t buy it. Re: cost, yes they cost money, but CDs and DVDs also cost money, some people buy them and some people copy them illegally, I think you know where I’m getting…

      Re: plenaries having nothing to do with classroom practice, I wholeheartedly agree. On the other hand, ELT conferences are usually rife with workshops.

      thanks for commenting!

  2. CristinaM. says:

    Hi Willy,

    I, too, wondered about this aspect of validation.

    Teachers do step into a classroom (ideally) having had already a comprehensive understanding of learning theories and pedagogy. That makes it difficult to set aside what is known from theory, what is observed through the lens of this background knowledge and what is actually new, genuine in terms of teacher’s input.

    As for whether we need theory or not, I think theory should not be dismissed at all – it definitely gives you an advantage in understanding the process of learning, it makes you reflect on your practice and compare. That is not to say that it should be a monolithic approach but that you move into territories somewhat mapped before and that you can push these boundaries through your unique style.

    As theories of learning and even aspects of pedagogy are at times conflicting I think it is eventually a matter of values and cultural context that push you into favoring one over another.

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