Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Who Needs Theory?

This was the title of a recent OUP webinar I attended.  It was presented by Keith Morrow, the editor of ELT Journal and was about the role of theory in language teaching.  It also addressed the question of how theory contradicts practice in the classroom.  What follows is a summary of this very informative webinar.

What is Theory?

Theory can be defined as 'the fundamental or abstract principles underlying a science or art'.  There are three types of theory:
  1. A supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.  Examples of this type of theory would be the theory of evolution or the theory of relativity.  These are very abstract, very powerful theories put forward by the likes of Darwin and Einstein and not particularly relevant to us as teachers.
  2. A set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based.  An example of this would be music composition theory as proposed by J S Bach.  This kind of theory is less abstract than that of Einstein and is more relevant to us as teachers - applying and developing principles to create a set of beliefs on which we base our classroom practices.
  3. An idea used to account for a situation or to justify a course of action.  An example of this would be the famous fictional detective Miss Marple, saying, 'My theory would be that the murderer got in through the window'.  This is a much more concrete type of theory and is very relevant to us as EFL teachers.  It is about trying to explain individual events and is something which we do for ourselves everyday when we reflect on what has happened in our classrooms. 
What do we ask of theory?

According to Chomsky (1965), when it comes to theory, there are three things we are looking for:
  • Observational adequacy (Miss Marple)
  • Descriptive adequacy  (Bach)
  • Predictive adequacy (Einstein)
What we need to do is to take observations and turn them into principles.

Where does theory come from?

Theory comes from two sources:
  • Rationalism: truth can best be discovered through reason and rational thought.
  • Empiricism: emphasises evidence, especially as discovered through experimentation.  All hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a prior reasoning, intuition or revelation.
Characteristics of theory

Theory is:
    J S Bach
  • General - it aims to discover general or underlying truths.
  • Top down - academics and researchers produce the theory and hand it down to practitioners.
  • Prestigious
  • Disconnected from practice - in her 'Focus on the teacher' article which is to be published in ELT Journal in October this year, Carol Griffiths argues that classroom issues, such as student motivation and classroom management, are the biggest worries for teachers.  Her findings are based on research conducted with teachers in Istanbul.  She writes that what happens in the classroom usually clashes with the theory.  Because theory comes from the top down, there is a disconnect between the theorists and the practitioners.
Why is there this disconnect?
  • Theory usually focuses on 'competence' rather than 'performance' and teachers have to perform.
  • Theory is usually based on introspection or experimentation.  Neither of these are real.  Classrooms are real.
  • Theory aims at capturing general truths.  The classroom is a very specific situation.  Specific situations are very difficult for theory to handle.
Because there is this very real disconnect, many teachers believe that we don't need theory.  After all, linguists are not in the classroom day in and day out.

A way forward

For initial/pre-service teachers' courses:
  • move away from the 'theoretical input model'.
  • make explicit connections between the procedures and techniques used in teaching and the underlying theory.
  • help trainee teachers to 'theorise' for themselves and explore what is happening in their classrooms (what works and what doesn't?).
For in-service teachers' courses:
  • help teachers to bring their implicit theories and underlying principles into the open, to challenge them and to facilitate change.

'It's an important function of theory formation to advance from a naive and unreflecting realism to a more conscious understanding of the principles and concepts underlying one's actions'.
(Stern 1983)

Who needs theory?

So, what is the answer to the question posed in the title of this webinar?


Without theory, experience has no meaning.
Without theory, one has no questions to ask.
Hence, without theory, there is no learning.
William Edwards Deming

Miss Marple

It has to be Miss Marple's type of theory so that we can learn and develop as teachers and, to be valuable, it must come from our work, from our experience and in our context.

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