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…
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 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