Podcast: Learning from Theory, Learning From Practice (with Dave Weller)

Subscribe on Android

Everyone learns from their experiences in the classroom, and if you’re listening to this, you’ve probably learned from theory too. What are the differences and similarities between the two? Ross and Dave Weller discuss the differences between theory and practice in teacher development and the most effective was to learn from theory and learn from practice.

Listen to "The Finnish Experiment" on the 99% Invisible Podcast

Check out Dave Weller's Barefoot TEFL Teacher Blog


Transcription - Learning From Theory and Learning From Practice [with Dave Weller]


Ross Thorburn:  Hi everyone, welcome to the podcast. No Tracy today, but instead we have Mr. Dave Weller.

Dave Weller:  Hurrah! I have to say hurrah. It's become my tradition.

Ross:  Great to see you again. Thanks for coming on the podcast. What do you want to talk about today?

Dave:  One thing I've been thinking of a lot recently is the difference between theory versus practice in teacher development. There's that classic quote from that baseball dude, Yogi Berra, saying that, "In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice."

In practice there is...


Dave:  ... which is really nice. It got me thinking about have I used theory or practice? Which one have I used more to develop myself over the years? What is the difference? Why are they different? Is there a better one or is there a worse one? What are the best methods of learning theory or the best methods of learning through practice?

Ross:  Awesome. The three questions we're going to try and answer today are, what's the difference between theory and practice in teacher development?

Dave:  How teachers can learn from theory?

Ross:  And three, how can teachers learn from practice?


What's the Difference Between Theory and Practice in Teacher Development?

Ross:  Again, I remember when I was doing my diploma a few years ago and reading about what teacher development should be, like reflection, team teaching, peer observations and all this kind of bottom‑up stuff. What I found in the place that I was working was it was a complete opposite. It was just top‑down observations and teacher workshops.

Largely, pretty much everywhere I've worked, pretty much everywhere I've heard about, there is that huge difference between the theory and practice in teacher development. Why do you think that happens?

Dave:  It's just the different management style. Again, essentially, they're doing the same thing. They're recognizing patterns in what they've seen work before in teacher development. That's been quite charitable. It could just be that's the way they've always done it. No one's actually bothered to put in the thought or the time to test that out, to see if it actually is true.

Ross:  Another thing with those things is it's probably what is easiest to implement. I've found before, a previous company trying to implement much more bottom‑up ideas for teacher training. It just seemed to be too abstract for senior managers to understand.

For them, it was like bums on seats in the training. They could see that. They could understand what it was, but if it was a teacher peer observing someone else or doing an online teacher training course, those senior managers couldn't see that and couldn't understand what it was.

Dave:  My personal belief is that if you have a bunch of newer teachers, say, first and second‑year teachers, normally top‑down is more effective because they don't know what they need to develop so they need that quite directive input. Go and read a chapter on this, teaching listening, or teach how to do an error correction.

OK, great. Then they can try that again, that side that we talked about earlier. Once you get to those teachers, the majority of teachers in your school, they've been there a while, they're very self‑directive. They end up resenting that top‑down approach. They want to take things new directions.

Their passions or their interests in teaching naturally develop from their time in the classroom. In which case, those are the guys you give free rein to go, "You develop, however, you like. Just come in to chat with me once a month about what you've been doing. We can bounce ideas off of each other. Of course, in the meantime, I'm here for input and ideas."

Ross:  That's interesting because you're almost dividing their quality control and development as two separate things. That's often one of the problems that we have with observations in teacher development. We lump these two different things into the same category.

From a business point of view as a school, you have your students and you've promised them a minimum level of service from these teachers. If you're the manager and you're responsible for quality control, then your job is to get teachers to be able to deliver that quality of service. That's not optional.

If you work there, your job is to get to that level. My job as a manager is to make sure that you get to that level. Once you're beyond that, it's a lot more open‑ended, isn't it? That's when it can open up.

Dave:  Exactly.

Ross:  Who knows where that could lead to? It could lead to you doing a podcast regularly. What have you learned from doing this one, in your development? Has it been helpful for you?

Dave:  Yes, absolutely. Incredibly.

Ross:  In some ways it means I have more conversations like this one. Maybe, you and I would normally talk about this in a bar, but I don't think we go down the rabbit hole quite as much as we do when there's a microphone recording. You're right. You wouldn't put this in someone's action plan, would you? Record it and make a podcast.

Dave:  [laughs] As iTunes gets flooded with podcasts in the next year.



How can teachers learn from theory?

Ross:  Let's talk about then how teachers can learn from theory.

Dave:  Sure. There's not as many ways as [inaudible 05:17] . I do think that some of these will overlap when we talk about how people learn from practice, as well. Again, it's normally seen as a slightly more buoyant one. It's typical, pick up a book, or read this, read that.

I also think learning from theories is something as simple as talking to your colleagues after work, when you go for dinner with them after a long day or you find out what they worked. Find out if there's an idea behind it, or it was just something they were trying.

It doesn't need to be an established theory. It can be, "Oh, I tried this." "Why did you try that?" "I don't really know." For engagement purposes, I think that the delivery channel is really important.

Oftentimes, authors can be quite dry. That's a bit of a barrier to people, to picking up a book and reading through it. Whereas, if you have a YouTube channel, like a short snippet video or a podcast even, where you can multitask while you're doing that almost. You commute to work, you can get three good ideas to try in class that day.

Ross:  There's something very interesting about how so much of our profession is about grading your language, so that you can have people who are learning a language understand you.

There seems to be a massive disconnect between our ability to do that as teachers and authors' abilities to put across ideas about teaching in language that's simple and accessible to all the English teachers in the world. Especially, when you take into the fact that most of the English teachers out there in the world are not native speakers.

To quote or paraphrase Charles Bukowski, he says, "An academic is someone who takes a simple idea and makes it complicated. An artist is someone who takes a complicated idea and makes it simple." We need to be a lot better in this industry of becoming artists, as opposed to academics.

Dave:  I would fully agree, absolutely. I've read those same books, and guilty of reading through a page and stopping. I have no idea what I've just read.

Ross:  Yes, what did that say? [laughs]

Dave:  That's actually something I try and do on my website, barefootteflteacher.com. When I sat down to write it, I thought, "Well, who am I writing all this for?" I thought, I'm going to write this for first or third‑year teachers. Therefore, I'll keep the language simpler.

I'm not going to name‑drop every single concept or idea. I'm going to try and break it down, and, basically, explain it like I'm five, using simple words, diagrams, visual aids. It's something I hope you're doing very well with this podcast as well, actually, opening these ideas, concepts, and theories to a wider world as well.

Ross:  What do you do running the Diploma in TESOL to help teachers apply theories more easily?

Dave:  Well, that's something that, hopefully, the tutorials will take care of because I always ask the students on the course to not think of it in modules. We have 10 modules. I say, "Don't think of it like a module." You start learning and then finish, then start something else and finish it. I say, "Try and think of as layers or threads running throughout."

As I mentioned, we do a teacher test to start with. We do a video lesson which is observed. We pull out several points to work on based on the examination criteria, "That's OK. Pick one lesson a week. That's your experimental class. Try one of these. Do a bit of research on that aspect."

Say it's error correction, learn all the different types, where the pros and cons to using that, and test it out. That will carry on throughout the rest of the course with all the other criteria.

Ross:  Of course, with that Dave, anyone could do that, right? You don't have to be on a teacher training course to do that.

Dave:  Shhh! [laughs]

Ross:  You could even film your own class, observe it, and figure out what things you're bad at, and you could do all those things yourself. I love that idea, by the way, of having an experimental class. I think that's such a cool idea. What do you think?

Dave:  The learners aren't quite so happy about that. [laughs]

Ross:  What are the ethics of it? Actually, I listened to a podcast the other day. They were talking about how, in Finland, they wanted to run an experiment on universal basic income.

They had to change the Constitution because the Constitution says everyone gets treated equally. As soon as you run an experiment, you're no longer treating people equally. We can play that quote for you.

Man 1:  All the constitutions of democratic countries in the world, they say that you have to treat people equally.

Man 2:  By definition, if you're running experiments, you're not treating people equally...

Ross:  ...because they, the people who are part of the experiments, are not being treated equally.

Dave:  The ethics of it, as long as you're not doing something completely bonkers, doing something where it doesn't have much value, it's, in the long‑term, benefit for those learners in your class.

Otherwise, every time you get a new teacher you're doing the ethic...You shouldn't let them teach until they're a wonderful teacher, because every teacher is constantly learning.


How can teachers learn from practice?

Ross:  Let's talk about learning from practice.

Dave:  Sure. This is the one that everyone naturally does [laughs] because you have no choice. When you're a new teacher, it's survival mode. You end up, hopefully, just responding to the learners. You try and carry out your lesson plan.

When the class finishes and the adrenaline [laughs] gets out of your system, you can hopefully reflect and go, "What went well and what didn't go well?" You do a little bit more of what did go well and a little bit less of what didn't. Over time, you learn from practice.

After that survival period of, maybe, three to six months, you can start thinking a little bit more objectivity about what you're doing and spot the patterns. In the meantime, I'm sure most people have sympathetic colleagues that you can rush into the classroom at break time and go, "Ahh! Help."


Dave:  They go, "Try this, try that." You get lots of useful suggestions, but I think there's no substitute from practice except to keep practicing, keep trying new things.

Ross:  There's a huge danger with that, though. I'll give you an example. I did this as well, in my first year. A colleague was recently telling me about this idea that you start off teaching and everyone has problems with managing students' behavior.

For a lot of people, the thing that they do is they go, "OK, I'm going to be angry. I'm going to be there's going to be really strong discipline. There's going to be lots of punishment in my class." Their practice leads them down this road, which for me is really going in completely the wrong direction from what the theory would actually tell you to do.

There is obviously a danger or you could learn, for example, I don't know. I tried giving instructions in English. I find that the students couldn't understand. What I learned from that is I'm going to give all instructions for all activities in the students' first language. Have you seen that?

Dave:  I have, and I would argue, that's just a growing stage. Hopefully, people don't become fossilized in that theory. If you continue to develop, you will discover that that does not work for a long time, or there are better ways to approach it. As a developmental stage, we've got no problem with that.

Obviously, if that works better than something they were doing previously, where they had simply no control in the classroom, it was a riot. They went in a little bit too strict, but the students were able to sit down and learn something as a result. That's still better than the first thing.

We can't expect people to become perfect immediately. You're going to make mistakes. You're going to learn bad theories. I remember giving a workshop on learning styles.


Dave:  Along the way, you will make mistakes. You will learn incorrect theories or theories that have become outdated. They do stick in your mind.


Talking the talk and walking the walk

Dave:  I still think there's this idea about theoretical knowledge, which you have in your head. It's not being applied. Then you have this huge body of tacit knowledge, or the knowledge you gained through experience in the classroom. I really feel that's more valuable, that idea of when you speak to someone, they can talk the talk, but they can't walk the walk.

Ross:  I almost think it's surprising that we find that surprising, like if you take a different context...

Dave:  I'm surprised you think that way.

Ross:  [laughs] Say, you talk about football. You could be an expert on football and know so much about it. You could have watched thousands and thousands of games. You could be a commentator. You could be very, very respected. You could even be a manager, but you might not actually be able to kick a football.

We, for some reason, assume in teaching the crossover between knowledge and skill is very, very small. Just by reading about something or being able to talk about something, you'll be able to apply that skill.

Dave:  In some cases, that's fine. The best boxers in the world have coaches who aren't the best boxers in the world, but they have the knack.

Ross:  The same as football, all these things.

Dave:  They have a knack of being able to pass on knowledge and break down technique and do that, which is fine, but they still, again, have a minimum level of that ability, as well.

Ross:  Dave, thanks very much for coming on. For anyone that's interested, where can they find you online?

Dave:  Thanks for having me, Ross. It's a pleasure as always. If you want to find out more, you can visit my blog at www.barefootteflteacher.com.

Ross:  Wonderful. Thanks again.

Dave:  Welcome.