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There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge. . . observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them; experimentation verifies the result of that combination.
Denis Diderot

In Finland, teachers need a Master’s to teach professionally. Temping as a teacher is a possibility even without a degree, but if you apply for a job and there are two candidates, one with Master’s and one without, the one with the degree must be hired.

This is why teacher training is a university undertaking. And since teaching is something where books only get you so far without any experience, the training has a lot of written and spoken reflection tasks.

You get to (or have to, depending on your point of view) reflect on your own experiences as a pupil, your experiences in practical teacher training, your experiences after such fascinating courses as Planning And Evaluation (where you do get to plan and evaluate, by the way – just not with live pupils but with your peers), and after the whole shebang you do a roundup reflection of the whole teacher training process.

When I did the training, it became somewhat of a frustrated joke that all you really need to do to pass the courses is to write five pages of blah, blah, blah about what you did and how it made you feel. However, there was a lot of work besides the reflections, though. Why is it that the reflections felt like (and for so many teacher trainees, still remain) the epitome of uselessness?

The big picture

One reason for the frustration, at least to me, was the thought of “what’s this all worth?”

As a teacher trainee, you’re super busy with your homework, exams, planning your trainee lessons, not to mention your life around school. During our school years, we’ve gotten used to homework and exams – we know what they’re about and why they’re useful. Planning lessons is also homework, in a sense, because the plans are reviewed by the supervising teacher before the lesson. Furthermore, anyone who has ever taught a lesson in their life understands the significance of having some kind of a plan in place.

Compared to that, the reflections seemed out of context. They seemed like useless introspection. They didn’t really seem to have any connection whatsoever to what teaching is actually about.

That’s because at least during my years as a teacher trainee, no-one explained the big picture.

Because teaching is something you learn by doing, you have to gain experience to learn. However, because teaching is also something that is widely researched, there is a world of information about the ins and outs of most aspects of teaching.

Experiential learning is a bridge between the practical and the theoretical, and reflection is a key part of that process. It’s also a natural process that we constantly use, unconsciously, to create our theories of what life and the world are all about.

If someone had explained reflection to me in these terms when I started my teacher training, I probably would have had far less frustration during my studies. Fortunately, I found drama education as my minor, and learned about the cycle of experiential learning through those studies.

What does theory have to do with real life?

One of the most persistent misconceptions about sciences in general is that theories have nothing to do with real life. The logical extension of that opinion is that if you do not work as a researcher, you don’t need to know about the theory and new findings that take place in your field.

Let me ask you this: let’s say you look outside and notice that there is a lot of white stuff on the ground. You glance at the thermometer and see it’s below zero centigrade (or between 20 and 30 °F). Do you wear your sandals and a t-shirt? Unless you’re trying to prove a point or show off how gutsy you are, the answer is probably no. Instead, you wear a few layers of clothing, a coat, maybe woolly socks, a hat and mittens. Why is that?

You have a theory in your mind about “winter”. The white stuff might or might not be snow, which is a phenomenon that mostly occurs when it’s cold. The thermometer displays the temperature outside in a theoretical manner – there’s a scale from cold to hot, and the thermometer evaluates the temperature and gives you an estimate in terms of that scale.

Furthermore, you know that your body temperature is around 36°C or 97°F, and that the colder air outside will lower your body temperature, wreaking havoc on your health, unless you insulate your body. You know that by wearing layers and fluffy materials such as wool, the air trapped between the fibers will insulate the body, keeping you warm.

That’s all theory. You might not be aware of all that knowledge, but it’s there. It’s something children have to learn. And it’s pretty complicated, if you look at it all written out.

What I just did there is reflection and analysis all wrapped up into one. For this tiny experience – deciding what to wear when it’s winter – it’s pretty simple to roll them up, since it’s often a conscious process.

Ever ran off to the bus stop and noticed midway through that you’re freezing? Chances are, you were unaware of the weather outside until it was too late. In that case, you made unconscious choices without considering all the aspects of the situation.

Or maybe you were fully conscious that yes, it’s freezing out there, but the woolly longies and bobble hat just don’t go with my outfit and I’ll only be outside as I’m walking to or from the bus stop. In that case, you were aware of the situation and decided that one choice – your outfit – had to be prioritised over another – your traveling comfort.

There’s theory back there.

Experiential learning and theory

The experiential learning cycle has four active stages.

1. Action, resulting in Experience

2. Reflection

3. Analysis

4. New Action modified by the findings, resulting in New Experience

…followed by reflection, followed by analysis… You see why it is called a cycle. I decided to call the first and fourth steps Action instead of mere Experience, because you can only control your actions. Controlling your experience is only done by controlling actions. Whatever happens, you can only receive the experience.

If you tend to reject the experience, that’s actually a New Action. When you experience something, you might unconsciously reflect and analyse it based on your theory of life, and then decide that you will take the action of rejecting the experience.

Suppose you have a theory of life that tall, black-haired people are unpleasant. If you meet a new person that’s tall and black-haired, they might end up being the most wonderful, loving and pleasant person you have ever met. Chances are, though, that you will not change your theory – you’ll just deduce that this individual is wonderful and pleasant, and other tall, black-haired people are still unpleasant.

This is how the cycle goes:

1. Experience:

The tall, black-haired one does something wonderful

2. Reflection:

Huh, I felt really good and happy when that happened. I never expected them to do something that wonderful.

3. Analysis

According to the theory of Tall, Black-Haired People, this is not characteristic of the group. This is unlike my previous experiences of the group. However, my theory of Friends suggests that this is characteristic of that group. I will therefore continue to classify this person primarily as a Friend and as an anomaly in the Tall, Black-Haired People category.

4. New Action

Treating the tall, black-haired one in a more friendly manner.

If the process is unconscious, it could take anything between a few seconds and several days. If you bring the process into the conscious mind, writing things down or speaking them out loud, it will take a few more minutes. However, it will bring to light possible flaws in your thinking and give you a more objective – dare I say it, theoretical? – view on your thoughts and knowledge.

What are your thoughts and experiences on the experiential learning cycle? Does my explanation of theory make you want to scream in despair? You’re welcome to reflect and ruminate in the comments. 🙂 If you want more, go ahead and subscribe! Lovely of you to pop by – keep catching your own insightings!

Love,

Sari

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