Praxis: Bringing theory and practice to learning

A brain with legs attached - symbolising praxis

What is praxis? In my role as a teacher educator I hear about a tension between theory and practice. When both come together, we can unlock the power of praxis for learning. When discussing their time in teacher education many teachers express that in University they learned about abstract theories which they perceive as far removed from the concrete practice of teaching which was mastered in school placements. The implication often is that the theory side of education isn’t much use…

This series of posts was developed into my book ‘The Thinking Teacher‘. Read more on these ideas in the book.

Theory and teaching

I have always thought theory to be really important to me as a teacher. I remember around half way through my PGCE coming across a copy of a book subtitled ‘research based classroom strategies’ (Croll & Hastings, 1990). Finally here was a book that wasn’t just telling me what to do as a teacher. It was helping me to shape a framework of thinking about learning in which my practice could develop.

Having a theoretical framework for thinking about teaching and learning is as important as having an answer to the question: ‘why do you want to be a teacher?‘. That question invites you to articulate your moral purpose, a theoretical framework is the place to articulate your intellectual purpose. It shapes the thinking you do, the decisions you make, and the paths your learners take. Of course this framework can change. I would argue that is essential that at least continues to be refined influenced by reading, thinking, and experience.

What about experience?

And there is the thing; your theoretical framework influences your practice, but your experience in the classroom also continues to shape your framework; the two are not separate. In fact, the Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire used a different term to describe this unity between theory and practice: praxis (Freire, 1970).

Praxis

Praxis could be summed up as ‘informed action‘, it is the process of taking action in practice whilst acting within a theoretical framework of thought. In this concept theory and practice are as one; for Freire’s revolutionary politics did not make a distinction between the importance of thinking differently and the importance of making a concrete change in the world. In praxis, abstract theorising is only useful so long as it informs concrete action. Likewise action must be informed by deep thinking and justification. Only in this way did Freire see ‘the oppressed’ finding their own, new way to intellectual and social freedom, rather than simply repeating the mistakes of their ‘oppressors’.

Praxis in practice

You shouldn’t ‘do’ and then ‘reflect’ on it later, rather make sure every action has an informed basis, whilst you put every valuable thought into action. A teacher involved in bringing theory to practice could consider their actions when planning, then again when reflecting. A teacher immersed in praxis would bring their theoretical thoughts to every decision as they make it. They adapt their actions in a classroom to ensure they continue to encourage the learning their students are undertaking. It situates the learning as a conversation between learner and teacher rather than as a teacher carrying out their plans which were crafted in the hypothetical world of being ‘good in theory’.

Teaching is a complex business of both practical action and intellectual consideration. So often I think we define these two facets as distinct when we would do well to heed Freire’s call to ‘informed action’.

For more on the powerful idea of praxis, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ is a must read.

More reading on praxis:

Croll, P. and Hastings, N. (1990). Effective primary teaching: research-based classroom strategies. Letts.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Penguin.

 

Image: CC BY NC Emilio Garcia

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9 thoughts on “Praxis: Bringing theory and practice to learning”

  1. Thank you for this! I used Freire’s ideas in 2002 as an Art Animator within a community but mostly worked with adults. The ‘informed action’ resulted in community members of a low SES suburb taking control of their ‘oppressed’ life situation. their story is now part of Australia’s audiovisual heritage online: http://aso.gov.au/titles/tv/compass-saving-claymore/clip1/

    I learned heaps and took some of the ideas to classrooms – believing andragogy (how adults learn) has a place in pedagogical environments, sometimes!!

    Freire’s use of visual arts (or other creative arts) can be used as part of the ‘praxis’ thinking. How wonderful for students to be making pictures of spelling words before learning them; making pictures or musical sounds while creating a narrative; telling stories about Mathematical facts to help sequential memory!

    Robert

    1. Thanks Rob, that brings a whole other slant to the background of these ideas. I hadn’t thought about the visual side or the praxis of artists. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  2. Really interesting, thank you.

    I’m certainly going to look into how this is working in practice at the primary school mentioned in London.

    It reminded me of my PGCE practice… when I was reading theory, getting excited about it, relating it to my practice and reflecting on it in weekly reflections that we were required to do… and occasionally actually implementing an idea I’d read about into my practice. Then as a full time teacher I rapidly stopped thinking about practice for one simple reason – not enough time. It’s only now on maternity leave I have enough time and distance from constant pressures to meet different targets that I can think about theory again. Education where there is time and emphasis on thinking intelligently about what you’re doing and why would be an incredible thing.

  3. Thank you, really interesting article. The Rossendale School publication highlights how workable and effective an informed approach can be. As a student teacher it’s brought further clarity to how I can link theory and practice. This has also provided a useful reference and case study for my current assignment!

  4. I believe “abstract theorising is only useful so long as it informs concrete action” is the most potent message in learning theories

  5. Very helpful…in terms of thinking and planing and mostly in acting out our plans and what’s in our minds as we struggle to connect theory and practice. It always reminds me of my roles as a teacher in the classroom. Preparation of LP’s and the activities given can sometimes put pressure on our learners while we ignore the fact that we need to bridge the gaps between our plans and the actions we take to achieve our learning goals. Our learning theories are the basis of our teaching actions, for we take up actions we beleieve in through the theories we have acquired.

  6. I believe that reflection has to be ongoing in order to grow as an effective teacher… “flow” must become natural in order to continuously improve classroom teaching based on teaching experiences… Encouragement of student suggestions may also assist in this growth…

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