How Do We Balance Theory And Practice?

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Saturday, 7.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is. – Yogi Berra

When we start getting better at something, anything, we also start looking around at others and making judgments about whether they’re doing it in the “right” way. This seems to happen with much of human activity. I’ve seen it with swimming, with dancing, and in many areas of business.

It’s takes some effort to stop doing this, particularly if you’re convinced that the way you do something is right – and if you don’t really understand how someone else does something. Take Agile, for example. I’ve listened to an academic rail against Agile – saying that in every instance he’s reviewed the method has been a failure. A listener in the audience stood up and said that those projects weren’t following Agile, they were against everything Agile stood for. This, of course, creates a insoluble problem. If you are a true Agile believer, then if it works, it’s Agile and if it’s doesn’t, it’s not.

The challenge, of course, is how to get across what you mean. If we’re trying to explain something we tend to start with principles. Principles tend to be grounded in something, they tend to apply in certain contexts or more generally across contexts, and they can be useful or beneficial, having utility. A belief in God, for example, will meet these criteria, as will a belief in gravity. The grounds themselves might range from “because he said so” to “try it for yourself and see.”

This can sometimes confuse us. I remember reading a semiotics textbook a long time ago which seemed to come down to “he said this” and “she said that” and I didn’t see how you could trust any of that. As an engineer and science trained individual, where was the evidence that any of these things that were said were true – other than the belief of the writers? Of course, this was before I learned that there was more to life than physical reality and that there is a whole area of living that happens entirely in the mind. But I digress.

Principles can seem theoretic and esoteric and pointless, and some people point to skills as the things that matter. Skills seem to have important elements of their own. There is often a barrier to entry, a training period for example. If you have a skill, you can do something with it, you can contribute in some way by often creating something. And if you’re good, you achieve mastery and are recognised as a master of your skill.

Now, the narrower your focus the easier it is to say if something is useful or not. For example, if you are a joiner and you make nice wardrobes – then success looks like a happy customer. And a nice wardrobe. But what if you’re a teacher? Is success effective delivery of content or is it high test scores from your students? Do you define success based on what you do or on what the results are? After all, you only have control over your process, over what you do. Are you responsible for what happens after that?

I suppose that if the results are not as good as they could be, then you do need to think about it. Is what you’re doing good in an objective sense – do you take the time to review what you’ve done and assess it using a consistent framework? You always have excuses for why something didn’t work or why it’s not performing the way you hoped but if you’re not monitoring yourself and taking corrective action then what else do you expect? All that is, of course, hard and boring work. And you don’t need to do it unless you really want to.

I suppose this is what teachers learn how to do so that they can help their students learn. I might spend some time exploring that in the next few posts.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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