Praxis: An Ingrained Habit

by SC

 

“Elaborate upon the relationship between research and practice in education.”

“Action research as a critical social science… As a way of understanding the interplay of theory and practice.”

  • Wilfred Carr and Stephen Kemmis

As information and data becomes more easily available, the institution of education has experienced a considerable shift in its approach towards the discipline of teaching. It could be argued that in today’s climate, statistics and facts have been fetishized and have too much influence, dehumanising an occupation which is predicated and built upon human relationships. ‘Praxis’ is a counter-movement to this rising trend of placing data and quantitative data on a pedestal, as it also stresses the importance of personal experience, pedagogical knowledge and being contextually aware of the environment before implementing teaching practices. As every school, classroom and student is inherently different, it is important to foster a healthy sense of scepticism in order to use research to its fullest extents.

The rise of Neo-Liberalism has drastically altered societies’ and government’s approach to public institutions and services (Wilkins, 2006). Under the influence of this growing school of thought in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, educational decision-making has been increasingly underpinned by economic rationale more than social values (Welch, 2016). However, this focus upon statistics has its foundations in the 18th century with the rise of the French Enlightenment which looked towards science and ‘empirical evidence’ as the answer to all questions; natural or social. Goldacre’s essay titled ‘Building Evidence into Education’ (2013) symbolises Australia’s shift towards this ‘empirical’ and ‘factually sound’ education system, where quantitative data is unquestioned as the only source of ‘truth’. As a medical doctor, Goldacre’s desire to increase the amount of randomised testing in the subject highlights his lack of experience within the classroom; as students are simply not chemical reactions.

This elevation of research and statistics as universal markers of truth in contrast to personal experience, which is often seen as limited and context-specific, was evident in the forum posting of week two, where the concept of critically questioning research was foreign to many of my peers. Lee’s (2016) forum post highlights this passive mentality of blind acceptance, “I tend to straight away read the aims, findings and the conclusion as I rely [on] the researchers to be correct and [I] don’t question their reliability.” Likewise, it was very surreal to have to dismantle the ‘Learning Styles Myth’ with my EDUF4044 group; a piece of pseudo-science which had been so ingrained into ‘popular education theory’ yet was supported by flawed research. It was uncomfortable having to waddle through a theory which was underpinned with conflicting pieces of evidence, further highlighting how dependent I was on research to simply provide me an answer and how I needed to be more critical.

There has been a cultural divide between the researchers and the actual practitioners; I personally experienced this sense of mistrust at both of my practicum schools, with many experienced teachers telling me that theory was purely just abstract knowledge with no practical merit. A big reason for this tension between the two parties is that quantitative research often championed in Evidence Based Policy, tends to portray itself as universally relevant and an unquestionable authority on ‘truth’. But only by removing the empirical filter of objectivity which is often associated with quantitative data, teachers can instead explore the deep structures of privilege which significantly impact the learning abilities of students. A ‘fundamental’ interpretation of the text leaves no room for interpretation and thus approaches the classroom like a complicated mathematic problem, devoid of emotion and without accounting for teacher experience. Teachers are not simply the transmitters of knowledge or educational policies; teachers must use their agency in order to tailor their teaching in a way which is still pragmatically functional. By trying to understand the reasoning behind data instead of blindly applying it, teachers can develop better praxis, using scepticism to comb out research and advice which is inapplicable to their field.

In order to counter this fetishisation or empirical data, action research has been a growing pillar of good praxis. Zeni (1998) calls action research as an effective way to mesh the two perceived worlds of research and practice, advocating for the personal testing of theory and research. Action research places emphasis upon individual experiences and interactions whilst ‘demystifying’ the theortical. Action research also calls for the creation of a ‘communicative place’ shared by all teachers to collectively learn from their peers and their own personal insights and research. Such an environment would effectively combine the best of research and practices. By having multiple teachers implement a certain tactic, this can produce a more accurate indication of whether the research is beneficial or not.

Whilst research and practice are often portrayed as two different categories, usually on the opposite sides of the spectrum, a good teacher dedicated to their craft stands within the intersecting circles of the two venn diagrams. Without research to guide a teacher’s decision, their classrooms would be informed by urban myths, however without physical experience, the research merely stays as hypothetical knowledge. Understanding the inherent links between research and practice, teachers must constantly self-analyse and only from that will they be able to refine their craft, keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t.

Tripp’s (1996) framework of teacher self-analysis also effectively bridges the perceived and real gap between research and practice; requiring teachers to accumulate research to find a ‘critical moment’ that represent something more ‘significant’ than normal. If it is a critical moment, then the teacher will come up with a number of solutions to address the problem. After the brain storm they will then design different steps which will be implemented with the effects studied accordingly. This constant cycle of reflection will help uncover the limitations which may not have been mentioned within research. It will also highlight that whilst research may often exude an air of complete objectivity, every classroom is inherently different and the results will vary accordingly.

However, despite the current climate of education being one which romanticises statistics and numerical data, it is important teachers do not slide in the opposite direction and overestimate the importance of their personal views. This can have a negative effect as teachers may not seek to improve their teaching practice, seeing research and new teaching methods as mere deviations from their routine. Low (2016) writes that whilst it is important to distinguish that research is not universally applicable, neither is personal experience.

As someone who strongly believes that Australia’s education system is heading towards the wrong direction with the focus on standardised testing, I often advocated for the need for teachers to foster student creativity; which will be the most valuable commodity in the ‘human capital’ economy. One statistic which encapsulated this need to ‘modernise’ the standard classroom was Randolph’s (2007) finding that “students on average spend approximately 50% of the instruction time being distracted and only 1% of the school day actively responding.” At the start of my second practicum experience, my goal was to implement teaching and learning strategies which would allow students to contribute and participate in ‘embodied learning’. However, many of the students at my second practicum were disruptive and my hardest challenge was getting them to listen to me instead of breaking out into conversation. I had to drastically alter my teaching strategies; incorporating lessons and activities which would advocate individual work so the students could learn how to work independently. This experience really made me question the universal validity of research and the consequences of blindly accepting research. Whilst Randolph’s research does highlight a fundamental flaws still plaguing Australia’s education system, I personally feel like his results were based in affluent socio-economic environments, speaking as someone who came from a private school. Contextualising Randolph’s research was an important part of developing my praxis as it allowed me to refine my teaching approach to something more suited for the environment. This sentiment was echoed in a lot of my peer’s week one forum post, with many stating that their classrooms would have suffered if they have just blindly implemented educational strategies without second thought.

The word praxis stems from the idea of embodied learning or theory which is actively implemented, and this is only possible with when a teacher is able to balance and incorporate both research and practice into their classroom. Whilst there has tended to be a shift toward viewing empirical data as most form of reliable evidence, an informed teacher must constantly self-reflect to see if such research can be applicable within their context. Only when the veil of ‘objectivity’ is lifted from research will teachers can begin to experiment with their teaching methods accordingly. It also gives them an opportunity to analyse data from a social-historical view and develop better understanding of the reasons for such findings. However it is also important that teachers do not completely abandon research for the reasons stated above and purely rely upon personal experience, because those experiences can also be generalisation within a certain context. Teachers who see and act like research and practice are separate categories with no intrinsic relation are the ones which are most likely to fall into stagnation, unwilling and unable to shape the research to fit their environment. Research and practice are inherently linked in a cyclical dance and a severe tilt towards either direction will have negative consequences for one’s pedagogy and students.