• Allan J. Mucerino

TRANSLATING THEORY INTO PRACTICE, OR VICE VERSA?

Updated: Mar 22, 2018

Known as a thoughtful politician who did his homework, Fritz Mondale, chairing a Senate select committee on equal educational opportunity, shared his frustration with educational research when he said, "I had hoped to find research to support or to conclusively oppose my belief that quality integrated education is the most promising approach. For every study that contains a recommendation, there is another, equally well documented study, challenging the conclusions of the first...No one seems to agree with anyone else's approach. But more distressing: no one seems to know what works."


My current class, Methods of Collection and Analysis of Assessment Data, is composed of a variety of education leaders, from principals to directors, specialists in early childhood education, special education and curriculum and instruction. There are teachers in the class too, making it the perfect education discussion cocktail. Our discussions, revolving around data, lead us to the longstanding educational conundrum described by Senator Mondale above: What works best? And…by extension, should educators translate theory into practice or vice versa?


Since John Dewey first raised the question in his 1904 essay, The Relation of Theory to Practice in Education, the relationship of theory and practice remains among the most enduring debates in education. Studying how we use the terms "theory" and "practice" leads many educators to conclude that the terms refer to separate and mutually exclusive enterprises. This position is also common in teacher education, where teacher educators find that teachers tend to teach as they were taught, and not how theories in teacher education prepare them to teach, further contributing to the view that educational theory and practice are essentially incompatible with one another.

Historically, many scholars have treated the subject as a philosophical debate and have written extensively on it. Some have concluded that theory and practice are construed as an antinomy rather than a simple dichotomy.

That’s where we begin our discussion. We ask the question whether there is a real or apparent mutual incompatibility of two laws? Is it an epistemological antinomy? Or is educational theory and educational practice merely a semantic ambiguity prone to conceptual confusion? So……we grapple to reconcile the two dualistic terms. Whether we are teachers deciding how to present an idea or assess a concept or superintendents or board members entrusted with the fiduciary responsibility of defending our spending habits, we are tasked daily as educators to make wise choices – the stakes have never been higher. What most educators have turned to are meta-analyses. The research literature is often obscure and overwhelming and often produces contradictory results, as Senator Mondale so eloquently stated. Meta-analysis is a collection of systematic techniques for resolving apparent contradictions in research findings by translating results from different studies to a common metric using statistical procedures to investigate relations among the characteristics of the research study and its findings.


Gene Glass is credited with first using the term "meta-analysis" in 1976 to refer to a philosophy, not a statistical technique. Glass argued that literature review should be as systematic as primary research and should interpret the results of individual studies in the context of distributions of findings, partially determined by study characteristics and partially random. Since that time, meta-analysis has become a widely accepted research tool, encompassing a family of procedures used in a variety of disciplines. It has become a household term in education since 2009, when John Hattie published Visible Learning, updated in 2015. He synthesized hundreds of thousands of studies related to student achievement. He showed that teachers can make a difference despite other circumstances that may impede learning. His meta-analysis identified the impact of 195 effects. Visible Learning has also made the term ‘hinge point’ common in the education vernacular. The hinge point he found was 0.40. It is the average effect size of all the interventions he studied. All practices are compared to this hinge point. For example, Direct Instruction (DI) is a high leverage strategy. DI is designed to maximize academic learning time through a highly structured environment focused on high on-task behavior. Its roots are in behaviorism. Behavioral theorists emphasize chunking (deconstructing behaviors and skills for step-by-step mastery). Behaviorists value modeling desired behavior and using feedback and reinforcement to guide students toward desired goals. Constructivist theory, on the other hand, gives students more control over their learning. Teachers are facilitators in this model.

Hattie found practices translated from constructivism to be low leverage strategies. However, we all have observed or been directly engaged in student-centered, problem-based learning environments that were highly successful. Many education leaders currently are revisiting Progressivism and student-centered learning models.

Visible Learning validated the great work of great teachers and encouraged many other teachers to reflect on their practices and reconsider some of those that crowded or fell well short of the hinge point. It also validated the decisions of district and school leaders and school boards that invested millions into programs based on successful practices. It also illuminated poor decisions made by those entrusted with the fiduciary responsibility to spend precious school district revenues wisely. But what it has mostly done is broken ground on courageous conversations and meaningful discussions on best practices, the foundation of collegial conversations conducted in a high functioning professional practice model school. In school districts where learning is a constant, not a variable, structural and contextual supports promote teacher learning, and subsequently improve student outcomes by improving professional practice. But that is not most schools or most school districts. While there is general agreement that teachers are only as effective as the systems in which they work and that collective efficacy is more important that individual efficacy, professional practice models remain theoretically isolated from the mainstream. Why? Because what Senator Mondale said almost 50 years ago still rings true today, “...No one seems to agree with anyone else's approach. But more distressing: no one seems to know what works."

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