Book Notes & Thoughts: Theory in Practice, by Argyris and Schön (1974)

theory in practice

Why do we do what we do?

In a model where humans are taken to be rational actors, we each have a “theory-in-use,” an internally consistent logic, that guides our actions. Theory of action is about what we believe we should do to effect a particular action. For example, in situation S, if I want C, I do A, given assumptions a1…an. To characterize someone’s theory of action, however, you cannot just ask them: you must observe what they do because their espoused theory may not match what their theory-in-use. Though if the two are the same, this is a state of “congruence” (p.23).

What good is all this?

First, embedded in all this is a theory of learning: by formulating our theory-in-use, we can change it. This change is the learning. The goal of describing is to “produce data that help the individual learn” (p.38-39). This reflects a cognitivist approach: having people articulate their behavior, understand it, then their theory-in-use will change as a result.

Second, making theories in use explicit allows practitioners to share their practices. Argyris and Schön speak at length about the problems with professional education (p.14) and their mismatch between professional education and post-graduation institutional arrangements. This is definitely true in education.

Argyris and Schön contrast the difference between traditional scientific research and practice-based professions. In science, scientists communicate theories, methods, and results with each other so that others will test them to build knowledge. Knowledge is public, explicit, and cumulative. Everyone contributes to this knowledge, pushing us all forward. In the professions, knowledge is practice-based, and the learning is private, tacit, and ephemeral (p.144). Articulating theories-in-use, or making the tacit explicit, becomes a way of building knowledge of practice that all can test.

Argyris and Schön trace the history of professions: how the disciplines split from the church and then again when they split between liberalized and rationalized. Aside from being interesting history, it traces the rise of professional expertise in applied fields. This connects to my interest to understand how research and development works in education. In the industrial age, research and development came about as a place where knowledge was converted from a production environment to an engineering environment. What is the parallel in education? How do we “convert” the production of new knowledge from inquiry to changing practices in action?

This week I was at my second at the Carnegie Summit in San Francisco. Their Networked Improvement Community model is meant to be a “social reorganization of research and development” in education. It is in this space where knowledge is converted from “pure” inquiries to action. I’ve been working to understand what “educational R&D” really meant, but I think I understand that it is a shift in how knowledge is produced and used. Rather than it being a technical process where contextless knowledge flows (via journal articles?) from research to practice, NICs are a social infrastructure where people work together to define problems, articulate how their actions will change the result, bring resources to bear on the actions, and then implement it iteratively in context. In situation S, if I want C, I do A.

Sometimes I wonder why particular books make it into my hands at particular times and I get motivated to read them despite a myriad of other things I *should* be doing. This was one that somehow felt right to read right now, and lo and behold the connection it helped me build.

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