08 January 2006

On experience versus theory

I've just had an email from a student who teaches in a rather unusual setting. S/he is just starting our PGCE course and coping with her (OK, she is female—no great breach of confidentiality, but I can't hack all this gender-neutral stuff in practice) first major assessed work. She has been trying to reconcile her experience and practice with the theory, and it hasn't been working; she realises that she has simply been parroting (how many 't's in 'parroting'? OK, the spell-chequer accepts it!) the received wisdom in the texts, but it has not touched her practice (let alone changed it).

This was my reply, in case any other readers are in the same boat. It starts from the fact that she wrote and explained the problem [necessary commentary in italics]:
You may not realise it, but your note has actually been a really good start to your submission [our course does not have "assigned" assessments, but invites students to "submit" their ideas for credit]. And it clearly shows the strategy which will pay off when you start writing.

In short, trust your experience! If it doesn't match with the theory, that's the theory's problem, not yours. You can address the outcomes by showing how conventional approaches break down in non-standard situations like yours; you demonstrate that you are trying to link the theory and the practice, as required, but we make no assumption that they will always link up seamlessly. Not only that, but PGCE encourages a critical approach; so if you read something in Reece and Walker [one of the recommended texts] and think "chance would be a fine thing", then write about it and explain the issue.

Having said that, we have had some people working in non-standard situations who used that as a standing excuse for not drawing on established good practice; I remember one guy working in the local prison who maintained that nothing on the course applied to him. However, there had been students before (and indeed after) him working there who showed the contrary; I know, because I observed their teaching. The theory is not a matter of faith, to be accepted or rejected wholesale; it's pragmatic, and you are free to test it and apply or reject as befits your practice.

You have already immersed yourself in the outcomes [the course requirements are expressed in term of 'outcomes'; "by the time you have completed this module, you should be able to..."]. So forget them. Write about what you want to say in the first place, and then go back and check off those you have already addressed (probably more than you think). Then go back and deal with those you have not mentioned; you may be able to integrate them with your own narrative, but if you can't, it's OK to settle for second best and write about them separately.

Actually, the "submission proposal" system is intended to enable you to pick up on and discuss these issues at an early stage, and get your tutor's agreement in advance to your strategy. ["Submission Proposal" is course jargon for a learning contract] So it's a good idea to be quite bold with the proposal in future; you may have to negotiate a bit, but if your tutor signs it off, he/she is agreeing that if you deliver what you have promised, it will be awarded credit; and then you will be free of the uncertainty which has been dogging you for a couple of months.

If you trust your experience (and talk about it in class—other people may well benefit from your testing of the ideas, and have their own angles to offer) I'm sure you will find the course much more stimulating and enjoyable. After all, if we are not offering what you need, that's our problem, not yours.

Hope this helps, and all the best with the submission!
Where's the reflection? Actually, it goes back to the bookshelves I have been building. Again. I designed them and worked out the dimensions. I measured twice and cut once. All by the book. But I have learned from prior experience that when it comes to actually erecting them, in a real room, you always have to leave some margin for reality. So I have put them up with a spirit-level and a tri-square, not a ruler. I just could not measure all the bumps and troughs in the real room, so when it came to actual construction I deferred to pragmatism; I pre-cut everything for the first four bays, but the fifth (up to the opposite wall)? I built that on the basis of measurement in situ. OK, this goes back to the experience of the wardrobe a few days ago, but it also relates to my correspondent's concerns; in professional practice (not that my joinery skills aspire to professional standards; even I wouldn't pay me for it) the theory takes us so far, but no further. It is always subject to the vagaries of circumstance. The mark of a professional, however, is whether you have the tools (intellectual as well as practical) to deal with that last, idiosyncratic, bit.


At 11:49 AM , Anonymous Sharon Tringham said...

Thank you for this -it is really helpful. I had emailed you on your learning site about how I was struggling with theorists etc., It is not the last 'idiosyncractic' bit that is giving me the problem!
Sharon Tringham


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