Theorizing Down

In this brilliant talk at KOTESOL from 2013, Dick Allwright explains:

Theorizing down for me…means looking for what I would call a ‘livable understanding’. What the scientists are supposed to do is come up with a statable explanation…I’m saying what it makes more sense to do, in practice, is to theorize down in the sense of looking for understandings that you can live, that help you live even if you can’t tell people exactly what it is you’ve understood.

I don’t actually have a lot to say here except that *geez Louise* does Allwright eloquently describe the whole point, for me personally, of reflecting – both intellectually and emotionally – on teaching/training experiences! And the whole point of studying, reading ELT blogs and books and articles. And of connecting with a PLN in person and online. And of writing this blog. Every post. This post.

It’s the final bit, the “even if you can’t tell people exactly what it is you’ve understood” that is the truly priceless recognition that makes this different and makes this very special to me. I’m not kidding in the slightest when I say this makes me want to hug him. I mean REALLY hug him big. Why?

Because this is Allwright setting to rights, for me, so much of what generates a good deal of tension, and confusion, and disappointment around the so-called ‘theory-practice divide’ from a teacher’s perspective. The very idea of a ‘divide’ tends to connote a horizontal chasm that therefore requires the problematization of movement ‘over’ and ‘across’. But that’s all wrong. The real issue is with ‘up’ and ‘down’!

And this is Allwright assuaging my anxiety about being so often disappointingly inarticulate around what I thought I understood through experience and reflection.

And maybe even various means of reflection I use need not come in for the occasional caustic self-doubt that they do because they don’t always conform to X or Y set of recommendations/requirements.

There’s more, maybe a lot more on the list of what this does for me that I’ll have to sit with a while before I can write it here.

“Theorizing down” – damn that’s a good referent for…this thing! My thing. Maybe your thing too, for your reasons. Your deeper focus on teaching and learning work in the lab of your own heart and mind. Whatever words are used to describe it, it’s something I know I’ve always tried to be good at and want to be better at. This is why I really appreciate Dick Allwright’s fascinating and very, very heartful work on “understanding classroom life” and I’m excited to continue exploring it.

On that ‘appreciation’ note, I recall that I ended my first ‘Research Bite’ here with this (fixed up a little bit):

By letting the description of Ann’s practice ‘speak for itself’, this study accords with Dick Allwright’s view of practitioners as “people trying to reach locally helpful understandings, not new knowledge” and inspires, in me, appreciation of research which actually serves practitioners (especially me!) in that effort.

Maybe a couple other connections before I wrap it up:

  • Perhaps this supports questioning required/formalized reflection on initial teacher training courses – it should be voluntary and more flexible in how it can be performed.
  • Perhaps, if they would like to help ‘close the theory-practice’ divide, more researchers who are focused on teachers (even – especially! – the more hip/woke ones who do work on reflection, etc.) should be *very mindful* of how the language they use can strike teachers as being ‘talked down’ to. This is not a good kind of ‘down’. And they should more often recognize, acknowledge, and maybe even explore (though leaving this part up to teachers will probably be just fine, too – maybe, just maybe, you’re not “needed”) this profound truth: teachers are NOT interested, (all the meanings of that word) in producing the same type of knowledge that you are.
*all apologies from this yank for turning Allwright’s Ss into Zs here.

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