I heard the phrase “experience rich, theory poor” on a podcast interview between New Yorker editor David Remnick and writer Malcolm Gladwell. The phrase immediately triggered memories of my returning to graduate school in the early 1970s after being a high school history teacher and a school district administrator in the Washington,D.C. schools for 16 years.
That phrase captured my thoughts about the coursework I took the first year on organizational theory, the politics of education,and the history of education. I had gained enormous and varied experiences in teaching history to mostly black high school students in Cleveland (OH) and the District of Columbia. I knew chapter and verse of how classrooms operated, what happened in schools on a daily basis, and the strengths and weaknesses of admired and trusted colleagues. I had accumulated rich experiences in running a school-based teacher education program and then a district-wide staff development program. If my professors and peers asked me what I knew about schooling in big cities, I had stories and specific cases that I could easily draw from to illustrate point after point about the nature of teaching and administering in big city schools.
What became clear to me that first year of graduate school as I digested assigned readings, listened to professors lecture, and heard seminar discussions is that stories and pithy examples unembedded in theoretical frameworks left an experienced practitioner such as myself unable to go beyond the stories I would tell. I lacked the language of theory, conceptual frameworks, analysis, and generalizations. Without knowing theories that helped me make sense of my experiences, I drew conclusions, advanced generalizations, and made predictions about improving schools often saying: this is what works in these schools and districts because I was there and know from first-hand experience.
Such statements fell flat with my professors. In two years of coursework, I learned the importance of having conceptual frameworks to help me make sense of what I experienced. For me, then, connecting theories to my work as a teacher and administrator gave me a new vocabulary but also a deeper understanding of an institution in which I had worked for many years. Those theories equipped me with different perspectives on not only how classrooms, schools, and districts worked but also their contexts and what I could do about the mistakes I had made and failures I had experienced. The theories I learned and then later used made graduate school and the Ph.D enormously worthwhile when I served as a superintendent for seven years.
But I was also wrong.
Yes, the phrase “experience rich and theory poor” applied to me in graduate school. But in the years during my superintendency and, subsequently as a university researcher for two decades I came to see that I, like the teachers and principals I worked with, had theories deeply embedded in what I did but could not articulate those causal concepts rooted in my beliefs, desires, and intentions. Sure, I lacked the language but I was rich in both experience and theory but just didn’t know it.
Parsing the theory buried in, say a teacher’s practice, can happen when actual classroom actions are looked at closely. Consider the common teacher practice of giving re-takes of tests (see my recent post).
Here is what middle school teacher Baptiste Delvalle does with his students:
Here’s how I explain it to my students. If you’re asked to meet a deadline in a future job, and you’re late or have poor-quality work, you might get fired. If you’re in a relationship and don’t show up to the dates, you might get dumped. If you cross the road without looking, and a car comes zooming by, you don’t get a second chance. I prefer that they get a bad grade and learn to give it their best shot on the first try, rather than to hear years from now that they’re still struggling.
Delvalle’s beliefs in how the “real” world works–you do this and that happens–leads him to tell students ” you don’t get a second chance” in taking a test because that is not how life is outside school walls. You do the best you can first time out.
I do not know where his theory of action about “real” life comes from, but it seems to be a mix of observations he accumulated growing up from which he learned lessons, parental teachings, reflections on real-life experiences, possible religious beliefs, and other factors. Delvalle’s practice of prohibiting re-taking tests, then, has buried within it a theory of action about how the world works. It is tacit theory embedded in the practice.
Now consider Lisa Westman’s practice of permitting re-tests for students. A veteran of 15 years in classrooms, Westman sees the same world that Delvalle sees but interprets it differently.
In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.
Westman argues that students should be able to re-take tests as a way for students to achieve mastery of content and skills since most formal written, oral, or real-life tests in life can be re-taken until they are passed.
In Westman’s practice of students’ re-taking tests, lies her theory of action. Like Delvalle, I do not know the beliefs and values nor the experiences she had with her family, growing up, and teaching but it is clear that she sees “real” life differently than Delvalle. For her, preparing students for life means that they will make mistakes; failures will occur. Students equipped with knowledge, skills, and values will figure out what to do and how to do something better. Thus, buried within the practice is the tacit theory that students can correct mistakes and experience both success and failure in subsequent tasks by re-taking tests.
These teachers are both rich in experience and theory—-more tacit than explicit—-but theory no less. Dredging up the implicit theory buried in practical decisions teachers and administrators make is surely hard work but revealing to those practitioners who dig away.