Ideas to Blend Theory and Practice

Investigating Theories

    • Cross-Theories Comparisons -- a Matrix
    • Theorist Role Playing to Share Understanding
    • Practicing Theoretical Analysis on Learning Materials
    • Praxis "Informed Action" and Theoretical Frameworks

Theory and


    • a. Living Theories
    • b. Surfacing Assumptions
    • c. Surfacing Assumptions Activity

Professional Research

  • What works Clearinghouse
  • Google Scholar

1) Online or Classroom Activities for Thinking about Theories:

Shared by Margaret Riel

a. Cross-Theories Comparisons -- a Matrix

For each of the theories that you read about answer the following questions and share your answers with others. When you are finished, think about your own theory of learning... how do you answer each of these questions for your own evolving theory of learning.

For each theory consider the following five questions. Some suggestions are offered but you are free to insert others.

1) What counts as knowledge? (facts, information, processes, dispositions, skills, relationships, rules, self-knowledge, expertise, performances)

2) What is the process of learning? (remembering, generation, production, creation, innovation, construction, incorporation, rule application)

3) What is the role of the teacher? (Expert, telling, presenting, explaining, showing, guiding, facilitation, demonstration, reading, task master, evaluator, coach, cheerleader)

4) What is the role of the learner ? (passive reception, repeating, reformulating, applying, creating, informing, producing, directing, independent, collaborating)

5) How is learning evaluated? (content testing, process testing, demonstrations, exhibitions, self-evaluation, group evaluations, holistic)

b. Theorist Role Playing to Share Understanding

This idea comes from a colleague of mine, Bill Moseley. Students each select a theorist, assumes the identity and comes to class prepared to have a debate with a panel of other leading theorist actors about the nature of knowledge, how learning should be organized, schools change, or the establishment of new assessment procedures. The instructor can give students a set of questions for the debate. It might be a debate on a current change in school policy, the implementation of a reform, or a decision to adopt a program school-wide. One might suggest that the theorists' actors debate the value of action research. Which theorists would embrace it, which would reject it. This can be done in a virtual setting by students signing in or developing an avatar with the image of the theorist that they are playing in the intellectual drama.

c. Practicing Theoretical Analysis on Learning Materials

If your students have the opportunity to attend the exhibit hall of a conference, specifically a technology conference, have them engage the people at the booth in theoretical discussions about their products. Asking salespeople what theory of learning is embedded in their product can be the start of some really informative discussions. Students can bring back artifacts, brochures and materials and lead the class in a discussion about which learning theory is embedded in the educational materials.

  • What learning theories informed the development of this tool?
  • What is the theory of learning that is prevalent in the way the tool is designed?

Students often need help with this but we find the conversations at the conference and in the classroom are very enlightening. If a conference is not available, each person in the class make chose one teaching tool they use and describe it to others in terms of the theories of learning that have been explored. Or a set of educational products can be collected and presented to the students asking them to detail the theory of learning that is embedded in the assumptions about how students learn from them.

d. Praxis "Informed Action" and Theoretical Frameworks

Have the students Read Oliver Quinlan's Blog entry on Praxis and how it can inform teaching. This resource is from a teacher's point of view about the value of creating a theoretical framework for making informed decisions about actions in action research. Also, read the discussion and then use it to engage in your own group in a discussion about praxis.

e. Finding theoretical and empirical research for the literature review.

Social networks like and make it easier to connect to many of the authors to find copies of articles your students might want to read. In both platforms, action researchers can request reprints and if authors are legally able, they will often send a copy of the article sought.

For more advice on how to help students write literature reviews, see action research tutorial 4, specifically the resources.

2. Resources for Thinking about What Influences Learning, Theory and Practice

Linda Purrington

a. Living Theories

McNiff and Whitehead (2010), discuss living theory as follows:

"Offering explanations is the ground for creating your own theory of practice....Your theory of practice is not static; it is living, part of your life...Your living theory or practice is your explanation of why you are doing things the way you are. You are making your practice problematic by questioning taken-for-granted assumptions (yours and others), and by questioning whether you are living your values in your practice. You are stating reasons for action in terms of your values, and showing how you can justify your action in terms of what you believe is a right way of living. You can then go on to show the potential significance of your living theory for wider social and political debates. Your living theory is created from within your work and represents your best thinking. It is always developing because you are always in a process of development" (p. 47)

In order to spark thinking about mental models, mental maps, different kinds of learning (single, double, and triple/transformational), theories of action (espoused theory and theory in action), and barriers to personal and organizational learning, I invite students to read, think about, and discuss a number of books and articles. The purpose of these readings is to discover the importance of continuously surfacing and challenging the beliefs, values, and assumptions that underlie our actions as action researchers in order to engage in transformational learning and new ways of being.

  • Adams, M. (2009). Change your questions, change your life: 10 powerful tools for life and work. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Highlight Quote: "Question thinking is a system of tools for transforming thinking, action, and results through skillful question asking--questions we ask ourselves as well as those we ask others" (p. 26)

  • Costa, A., Kalaheo, H. & Lipton, L. (2001). Holonomy: paradox and promise. ( need to finish reference citation)

Highlight Quote: "A holonomous system captures the promise of stability, growth and learning. However,because all life forces are simultaneously independent and interdependent, self-assertive and integrative,whole unto themselves yet always a part of systems larger than themselves—holonomy also presents a paradox. This article presents holonomy, the paradox and the promise, as the fountainhead of continuous human growth and intellectual development. Its purpose is to identify and describe both the dynamic tensions inherent in the paradox, as well as the systemic resources necessary for its resolution" (p.?).

  • Dweck, C. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Highlight Quote: "Mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them. Just by knowing about the two mindsets (fixed and growth), you can start thinking and reacting in new ways" (p. 46

  • Knight, J. (1998). Do schools have learning disabilities? Focus on Exceptional Children, 30(9), 1-14.

Highlight Quote: "The fact that teachers learn and implement research-validated practices at a disappointing rate is the premise for the observation that organizations may fail to learn because they are structured or cultured in ways that inhibit organizational learning" (p. ?).

  • Lindsey, Roberts & Campbelljones. (2005). The culturally proficient school: An implementation guide for school leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Chapter Seven: Leading in a Culture of Learning and Transformational Change

Highlight Quote: " In single loop learning, an individual does not question the appropriateness or rightness of an action or the assumptions from whit it derives; the single change made is in the manner in which an individual performs the action. In double loop learning, an individual questions the assumptions or frames of reference from which the action emerged: the two levels of change are reshaping ways of thinking and learning to do different things. The triple loop pattern of learning adds another level of learning by engaging an individual in examining his or her perception of who he or she is and what his or her role or purpose is, and transforming that self-image into new ways of seeing himself or herself and his or her purpose" (p. 148)

Highlight Quote: "Our starting point is Argyris and Schön’s (1974) argument that people have mental maps with regard to how to act in situations. This involves the way they plan, implement and review their actions. Furthermore, they assert that it is these maps that guide people’s actions rather than the theories they explicitly espouse. What is more, fewer people are aware of the maps or theories they do use (Argyris, 1980). One way of making sense of this is to say that there is split between theory and action. However, Argyris and Schön suggest that two theories of action are involved".

Highlight Quote: "The act of reflecting-on-action enables us to spend time exploring why we acted as we did, what was happening in a group and so on. In so doing we develop sets of questions and ideas about our activities and practice".

Surfacing Assumptions

Surfacing and challenging assumptions are an important and ongoing aspect of action research. James, Milenkiewicz, & Bucknam (2008) communicate,

It is a natural human foible to assume that we know and understand any context or circumstance in which we find ourselves, whether we base that assumption on verifiable data or not (presumption, arrogance). Indeed, if people could not assume that their understanding was correct, they would spend all of their time verifying evidence and never move forward on projects. On the other hand, to base a research project on an assumption is to base its reasoning on unsure ground from the very beginning. For this reason, it is necessary to become conscious of what is an assumption and what is not. Finally, as with cultural proficiency issues, assuming we know something about the lives of other individuals without checking those assumptions before we make decisions creates a presumption and may be perceived as arrogant—the third definition above” (p.51).

c. Surfacing Assumptions Activity

The following Surfacing Assumptions activity was authored by James, A., Milenkiewicz, M. & Bucknam, A. (2008, pp. 50-52). For this activity, action researchers beginning to identify a focus for their study and a direction for their first cycle are invited to create a document and begin with a table with four columns.

In column one, list thoughts and beliefs about the proposed issue or topic. In the second column, describe the qualitative evidence that supports the statement in the first column. In the third column, list the quantitative evidence that supports the statement in the first column. In the fourth column, consider the strength of all evidence and rate the information on a scale of 1-10 to determine if it builds a convincing case for the truth or validity of the statements.

Table 1: Questions on Assumptions Template

Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4

What you know Qualitative data Quantitative data Rate on a scale of 1-10

or think you know available to verify available to verify where 10 constitutes a

about your topic this knowledge this knowledge convincing argument and

1 is pure assumption

A rating of 8-10 suggests strong evidence for statement. This is an unlikely choice for future research. A rating of 0-4 indicates little or no evidence for statement. You will need to conduct a basic search of the literature before you can decide if you want to pursue this statement further. A rating of 5-7 may suggest this issue is an adequate choice for a first round of inquiry, as you would base research on some knowledge but need additional proof for verification.

3. Learning how to Use Professional Research

Jennifer Robins

Action Research is taught in the Library Science Master's Program. Students are almost all certified teachers, so they have been exposed to learning theories in their undergrad years. We introduce them to search theories like Kulthau's Information Search Process, which explores the emotional side of searching for information. In the action research class we teach them to use the What Works Clearinghouse, to explore research related to their question and to see how research is evaluated.

For example, the Accelerated Reader program is popular in schools. Students can visit the clearinghouse to determine if that program lives up to claims made about it before considering it for adoption.

Searching the internet for research is more effective when you start with Google Scholar rather than google. is a social networking site for scientists and researchers to share papers, ask and answer questions, and find collaborators.

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