Balancing Theory and Practice in Teaching
Anik Bay, Graduate Programme in Environmental Studies
Volume 9 Number 2 (December 1999)

It is not unusual for students to demand less theory and more practice, as well as course content that is relevant to their lives and affects them personally. Graduate students are especially sympathetic to such demands since they also face the dilemma of justifying and ensuring the relevance of their own theoretical work. As teachers, how do graduate students demonstrate the value of theoretical knowledge? How do we balance our own commitment to providing a sound theoretical foundation with our students' needs for practical experience and action?

These questions have particular relevance at this time. Declining enrolments, student demands for a relevant, "real" business-world education, and government attacks on curriculum deemed not useful to a pro-corporate agenda, have resulted in an increase in cooperative academic-practical educational programs. New proposals at the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) include a GIS (geographical information systems) certification programme and strengthening links with the Schulich School of Business.

The issue of how to define practical skills is a subject of much discussion. When I first brought the question to the attention of my colleagues in the Faculty of Environmental Studies, I had conceived of "practical skills" as ranging from "technical knowledge," such as computing, to what I call "life-learning", the application of classroom learning to the critical examination of our own lives. I had also thought of practical learning as taking advantage of the countless learning opportunities afforded by the City of Toronto, such as working with NGOs, visiting naturalized areas, going to the zoo, and observing urban and suburban living.

Sherilyn MacGregor, a PhD candidate in FES, rightly makes finer distinctions within the large, "grab-bag" category of "practical skills." She observes that the term "practical skills" is often used as a euphemism for "job training." If by practical skills people mean computer, design, and accounting skills, then she does not see teaching them to be her role as a university educator. If, however, practical skills means reading critically, writing well, and expressing oneself persuasively using rhetoric, then she is committed to their development. She describes her classroom "as a place for the development not of practical skills but of 'citizenship skills': thinking critically, being responsible to the common good, participating thoughtfully in public discourse, and standing up against oppression and injustice (among others)."

I think Ms. MacGregor is right. The challenge is to educate students to become responsible, thoughtful citizens, able to express themselves persuasively and in an informed way, and ready to stand up for change when they see the need. Good citizenship requires both an awareness of, and an ability to use and apply, analytical tools such as critical theory. It also includes "real-world" knowledge of what is happening in one's own community. When we broaden the term "practical" to include "citizenship" skills, we allow a place within education for theoretical or abstract learning and for "life-learning" to co-exist.

How are graduate students to promote the greater ties between theory and practice that would lead to better citizenship? Following are some of the classroom strategies my graduate students colleagues have developed. One thing many TAs try to do is to blend academics and activism by sharing their own experiences; for example, what brought them to FES, and how are they living out their environmental commitment. TAs can also encourage students to share their own experiences as a regular classroom activity. This sharing validates extra-curricular involvement, as well as models active participation in social and political events.

Many TAs try to relate theoretical knowledge to real-life situations by asking students to search for relevant and current material from popular media. These provocative cases can then be used to analyze issues, media involvement, and positions held by various stakeholders, or to illustrate environmental trends and problems. The exercise also ensures that students are paying attention to current political and social events.

Course directors who are graduate students have greater scope for pedagogical experimentation. Barbara Cassidy, another PhD candidate in FES, has designed a course to introduce non-aboriginal students to aboriginal ways of life and thinking. Giving Western students the opportunity to experience non-Western practices is crucial. This approach expands students' horizons, and affords them a critical perspective of their own culture by seeing it through the filter of another culture. It also validates the diversity of student's experiences in today's multi-ethnic classroom, and prepares them to understand the various points of view they will come across in multi-ethnic Canada.

Non-Western frameworks tend not separate theory from practice. This fact is itself significant, since it contrasts with a Western tendency towards dualities (woman-man, black-white, work-play, theory-practice). The Western bias blinds us to subtler ways of understanding the world. For instance, the aboriginal way of life cannot be learned through books. It must be experienced to be understood. In Ms. Cassidy's class, aboriginal ways of thinking are taught precisely through engaging in aboriginal practices, such as ways of holding meetings and discussing. In many cultures theory is only visible through practice.

As a course director, Ms. MacGregor has developed a number of strategies for linking theory and practice, for making students reflect upon those links, and for developing citizenship skills. She has found it useful to start her courses with a reading which challenges students to reflect on the contradictions inherent in studying the ecological crisis while simultaneously hoping to find jobs in fields that contribute to the problem. Citizenship skills entail an ability to express oneself well. Ms. MacGregor has students write and send a letter to the editor of an environmental publication. Students learn to compose rational arguments and to identify logical fallacies in the arguments of others. The exercise teaches students argumentation, rhetorical skills, and the analysis of controversy.

Although the tension between theory and practice is a problematic issue, TAs can learn to balance it by sharing their solutions and strategies. Also, TAs should participate in dialogues on teaching with faculty, as this can lead to greater involvement in generating departmental teaching visions. These shared statements should include an explicit commitment to building citizenship skills in undergraduate students, emphasizing equally theory, community involvement and lifelong learning. Finally, more dialogue and the formation of genuine teaching teams where all members have a voice (possibly including an undergraduate representative) would allow for the training, mentoring, and preparation of graduate students for teaching and future academic positions. Graduate students and faculty should take advantage of the great wealth of pedagogical experience and creativity within departments.