Personal and public theories, not just practices

The name of this blog was inspired by an article written by Griffiths and Tann in 1992, Using Reflective Practice to Link Personal and Public Theories.

This extract from opening paragraph could easily have been written in more recent times:

‘…ministers believe…trainee teachers could learn on the job… without the risk of infection by …fancy theories’.

The idea seems to be that trainee teachers don’t have theories unless given them by universities, and that qualified teachers, if they have theories, are able to tell which theories are useful, and which merely ‘fancy’.

Both these ideas seem like common sense. But all the beginner teachers I work with arrive with personal theories, with varying degrees of awareness of them. To help them develop their practice, they need to explore their preconceptions about teaching and learning, and make them more explicit. If they don’t do this, one common consequence is that they have trouble acting on their mentor’s advice.

This means that when recruiting, I look out for those prepared to respond to advice from a mentor with the question ‘why is it better to do that?’ . The question ‘how do I do that?’is useful, but not enough.

I do think experienced teachers are often better at telling when a theory is useful than beginners. Sometimes this is because they are reading research or conducting their own. Sometimes this is because they can relate research easily to their more extensive experience. When working with new teachers, though, we have to find ways to enable THEM to think critically about teaching and learning. They need some new ideas to think with, or their growth will be stunted.

The article by Griffiths and Tann explains this. They argue, as have many others, that the divide between theory and practice is just ‘assumed’. They argue that actions are underpinned by personal theories. If these remain unchallenged by critically considering public theories, the development of the teacher will be limited.

They claim that if we, as teachers, do not engage critically with public theories, (based on research rather than just personal experience), there is a problem. We limit the growth of our professional judgement, and the ‘effectiveness of our professional thinking’. Professional thinking informs our practice. If we want better practice, we need better thinking.

So the next time your trainee teacher ( or less experienced colleague) says ‘why?’, but you don’t have time to explain just then, what else could you do?


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