I’ve been doing some thinking lately about the challenges of applying theory and research to practice. I’ve written before about the challenges of balancing my practitioner side and my scholar side (see My Secret Life), but my recent ruminations take a different tack.
One of the best theory-to-practice projects I worked on was to create a set of guiding principles based on adult learning theory. A team of experienced practitioners and I reviewed a variety of learning theories, pulled out key practice recommendations that we wanted to keep top of mind in our work, and crafted a pretty neat document that serves as a helpful reminder. (It’s proprietary, or I would show it to you.)
Here’s the challenge. Once you reduce theories to bullet points, it’s very, very easy for us to forget what the underlying concepts really mean. And individuals who never learned the underlying theory may also misinterpret a bullet point albeit with all good intentions. At lunch the other day, a colleague was discussing a similar example from her own work. She’s written about the way the work of Carl Rogers has been reduced to the tactical practices of “active listening,” which is a real loss of the depth of what Rogers had to offer and leads to misapplication of the approach.
So we have a dilemma. In order to support the application of theory to practice, we often craft a set of key ideas or process steps. Over time, that set of bullet points becomes everything that practitioners know about the theory, and it’s woefully inadequate (although it might have a lot of face validity).
So here’s what I’m pondering, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. As a person who is committed to scholarly practice, how do I avoid the reductionist trap when I make the translation of theory to practice? Better still, how do I make sure that my presentation of theory to a practitioner audience (as in my graduate classes) effectively represents the rich depths of the theory without having students’ eyes glaze over? (I’ve been wrestling with this as I’ve been revising one of my courses this summer.)
These challenges are important outside the small circle of the scholar-practitioner community. Much of our rich understanding of the world is being reduced to bullet points for presentation on the internet. Not only do we need to be concerned that folks may have stopped reading in any depth (see Is Google Making Us Stupid?), but we have to be concerned that they are skimming over something that has already lost a lot in the translation to bullet points.
What are your thoughts about this issue?