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The Tao of Praxis

Last week, I started reading The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff to my daughter as part of her bedtime regimen. I bought this book years ago after a colleague recommended it to me when he learned I was interested in Taoism. Since then I have embraced much of its philosophy, but I stop short of calling myself a Taoist. I didn't realize until now that Taoism has deeply affected my attitudes and beliefs towards English language teaching and scholarship, especially concerning the concept of praxis. Below are some examples.


The passage above comes from Chapter 3: Spelling Tuesday, page 26. It's not a subtle attack on academics, specifically those whose goals are to get published to be accepted among an elite circle of scholars. This is particularly striking to me because, at this point in my life, I would like to gain acceptance among this elite circle, which I perhaps naively equate to tenured professors. However, I strive to make my life's work beneficial to English language teachers (ELTs) in a practical and political sense. If I write "pompous and pretentious papers," I assume that I'm not going to reach many ELTs. And if I succeed in reaching some of them, I'm not sure if my papers will affect their teaching or their professional identity.

Here's another longer excerpt:
 
There's a lot more to unpack here. First, I admit that the earlier passage has primed my emotions with a certain and perhaps unfair disdain for my career aspirations. I cannot set aside my emotions, my bias, while reading the next passage.

Accessibility

The first paragraph of the second passage points out how academic writing and discourse can exclude others because of its jargon. Although I could dismiss this paragraph as pandering to the anti-intellectual masses, I argue that theoretical discourse does not appeal to many educators, who rightly identify themselves as intellectual. I see this is the problem with education research. We have two tiers of intellectuals: the lower tier teaches while the upper tier theorize about teaching. The lower tier have a captive audience and often witness the results of their efforts, which the upper tier can accept as good teaching (hopefully because of following evidence and good theory) or they can accept as luck (e.g., the students are already motivated and intelligent). However, most teachers are not the captive audience for most researchers in TESOL or applied linguistics. Their audience is themselves for the most part.

My career goal is to strengthen the connection between English language teachers and those who research their contexts from the classroom to the global level. One way to do this is to make research more accessible and more meaningful for practitioners. This is why I read and contribute to ELT Research Bites, a blog that presents research in a form that's easier to digest for teachers. However, I believe our field needs to do more than this. We need more researchers presenting the practical implications of their work in a way that most teachers can get excited about. We also need more teachers who are invested in their professional development by opening a dialogue with researchers. Since it seems our field is becoming saturated with ELTs and ELT reseachers, our profession should encourage and reward this dialogue for the purposes of professional development and improving English language learning.

Evidence

The second paragraph illustrates a bigger issue in the theory-practice divide, and it takes the side of the practitioner. In most cases, teaching experience is more important than theoretical knowledge because there is not enough data, not enough evidence on how to teach certain individuals in certain contexts with teachers with certain dispositions. However, there are some areas of study that have consistent evidence across individual learners and learning contexts. I'm thinking specifically about studies in cognitive psychology on learning. However, most language learning studies do not appeal to practitioners because their practical implications are too general.

As a researcher, I can dismiss this second paragraph as promoting anecdotal evidence as data. However if you tell a teacher that the plural of anecdote is not data, you're not taking into consideration that teaching involves just as much skill as it does knowledge. I like to think of comparing teachers to another more highly paid group of professionals--doctors. Doctors are highly educated and can apply their specific knowledge on patients or are often more "patient" than students. For example, if a doctor is in a situation in which they must apply a high degree of skill and knowledge, the patient is usually unconscious. The doctor can make complex decisions with little or no distractions unlike the teacher who must also make complex decisions (but admittedly under less stressful circumstances) with many distractions. The teacher's decisions may be more complex because they interact with many more students than the doctor does patients at one time.

This is where teacher dispositions must be considered because we there is no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching like there is no one-size-fits-all approach to learning. For example, some teachers are better at commanding authority in the room because of their disposition (and perhaps body type). Other teachers are better at patience and wait time (waiting for a student to form an answer to a question). Other teachers are have a better capacity for sincere praise while others' high energy (e.g., the bubbly personality) is sufficient enough to motivate students to work hard. Certain types of students respond better to certain types of teachers and that is very difficult to duplicate or replicate in studies.

What's Praxis?

Incidentally, I read one of Geoff Jordan's blog posts on IATEFL 2017 and he provided an explanation of the term that I haven't heard before:
“Praxis” is the bringing together of theory and practice, which comes from Marx, who said “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. An example is Julio Camarota’s workshops in prisons. The prisoners decided that education was the Number 1 reason they were in prison. So they petitioned for education in prison and they got it. That’s praxis.
I didn't know this term came from Marx. I accepted it as a TESOL buzzword I picked up at a conference back in 2006, at the same time I was reading in depth about Taoism. In this sense, I was primed to accept praxis and now it's the foundation of my philosophy as a TESOL professional.

For the past couple years, I have held a position that enabled me to thrive in praxis. I helped connect ESL teachers, most of who were already well-experienced and very competent, connect their practice with theory. I hope that this philosophy enables me to help transform our profession in to a more cohesive whole of teachers and researchers.

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