That’s Fine in Theory – But What Use is it in Practice? More contemplations on ‘Troubling Reading’

There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

So said Kurt Lewin, claimed to be a founder of social psychology and action learning.

This statement expresses itself as a paradox because it works with the apparent duality between theory and practice, or to put it another way – education and the ‘real world’.  In this binary construction the ‘real world’ is the location of practice, of life, in contrast to the world of education and theory which takes on a deathly pallor.  Theory, then, is seen to have little use to life.  Lewin’s inversion of this makes it paradoxical, subverts the ‘common-sense’ character of the original binary opposition.

So, how then to make sense of Max Van Manen’s claim that phenomenology, that exquisite family of theory emanating from German idealism, is concerned with the ‘practice of living’?

Van Manen states this in his article titled ‘Phenomenology of Practice’.  In this fine piece of prose Van Manen lays claim to the usefulness of theory, simultaneously asserting the practicality of theory AND challenging the usefulness of a common-sense view of practice:

Thus, we wish to explore how a phenomenology of practice may speak to our personal and professional lives


For Van Manen theory is eminently useful and practical, enabling us to gain purchase on what our ‘practice’ may be BECAUSE phenomenology is intimately concerned with how we live, how we experience life.  But, theory is not useful if it simply promotes ‘instrumental action, efficiency or technical efficacy’.

Rather, a phenomenology of practice aims to open up possibilities for creating formative relations between being and acting, between who we are and how we act, between thoughtfulness and tact.


There is an ethical content to this that can often be missing from ‘theory-lite’ modes of thinking and teaching.  Here I have in mind some aspects of Action Research and Action Learning.

As noted in some earlier posts I have been engaging with these literatures in order to enrich my own professional knowledge and practice in academic development.  In one sense, our colleagues want something useful – new techniques for teaching or assessment, new skills in learning technologies, tips on how to supervise more effectively.  And yes, we try to do this.  But we also encourage them to critically reflect on this, and to some extent to deconstruct the normative content of what they claim to ‘want’.

But much Action Research and Action Learning would claim the same.  Its just that in reading some of this material I sometimes get a feeling, and it often presents itself as a feeling, of uncomfortableness.  Its almost as if I want to say: “It sounds fine in practice, but what use is it in theory?”.  What I really mean by this is that the variations of ‘reflection-on-practice’ and ‘reflection-in-practice’ bracket the social world, the world of power and politics.  There is often a distinct absence of political economy, of gender, social class and race.  This is partly an effect of the location of the practice of much of the AR/AL I have been reading – management education.

For the purpose of this entry I need to put to one side the issue of the hyperbolic claims for critical theories of education that I have been embedded within all my professional life.  I do want to say that there is a rigorous discussion within management education scholarship about issues of power and privilege.  Its just in reading about ‘how to’ do it (AR/AL) this is not so apparent.  It kind of speaks to me as the victory of practice over theory, of unconsidered life over the considered life.

And that is why this article by Van Manen is appealing to me.

Thinking of the importance we give to reflection as a methodology of professional education, Van Manen directs attention to the fact that reflection was an object of theoretical interest to Husserl.  Our ‘experience’ of the world as temporal, as linked, as coherent, is an effect of perception – that is we do not ‘experience’ the world as a series of ‘now’ which we can then differentiate in terms of past, present and future.  In asking our colleagues to ‘reflect’ on their experience of academic practice we are actually (if I understand Van Manen and Husserl correctly) asking them to bring objects into their perceptual field, to make aspects of practice intentional objects of our consciousness.  In doing this aspects of what might be considered experience ‘in the past’ or ‘in the future’ are already changed.  This is because we do not retain images of past events as fixed.  In attending to a direct event or object (lets say our use of presentation software in large class teaching) we are already framing it in relation to ‘past’ (retention) and anticipated (protension) events.  And what memories (if indeed these actually ‘exist’) we may have of previously using presentation software is transformed by brining an immediate object within our intentional gaze.  Got it?  I am not sure I have quite got it yet.

Let me try this again.

In asking our colleagues to intentionally focus on their use of presentation software now, in the past, and in the future we appear to be asking them to perceive these practices as somehow discrete entities. For Husserl and Heidegger and other phenomenologists we (as observers of temporal time) do not actually stand outside of the experience of time.  There is no separation between ‘us’ and time.  Time is a ‘taken-for-granted’, something we experience primordially and through our bodies.  The pedagogy of reflection (using learning journals for instance) jolts us out of the ‘taken-for-granted’, makes the past-present-future of using presentation software an ‘object’ that we can some how interpret ‘as if’ it was something outside of the normal flow of practice.  This is rather similar to Bourdieu’s argument that in research (as a particular social practice) we wrench events out of the flow of life and make them ‘objects of study’).  But this flow of practice is full of interpretation, or pre-understanding (of what teaching is, of what learning is, of what learning technologies are); understandings that are often unarticulated.  The jolt to the ‘taken-for-granted’ can (and I emphasise ‘can’) make us more aware (bring into consciousness) these pre-understandings and therefore the potential for creating new meaning.  The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ arises from the narrative  or story in which it is situated.  This might be a narrative that places learning technologies within a person’s sense of themselves as a particular kind of educator; or within a story of career progression that necessitates (for that person) getting ‘such and such’ a skill or certificate under their belt; or perhaps in a narrative of being ‘out-of-place’ in academia and so needing to ‘prove’ oneself through taking  up a professional development course.  It will always be this learning at this time for this person.  There is never experience in a general or objective sense. The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ therefore depends on what matters at that moment for that person.  Therefore, phenomenological theory directs us to the central importance of ‘practice’ shorn of its ‘taken-for-granted’ garb.

Is this the lesson from phenomenology?

From the phenomenological perspective there is no me and then the world I engage with, I am in the world; there is no learning technology with which I engage, me and the technology and my use of it are all incorporated in my practice.  My practice, my sense of self in this practice, cannot be captured adequately by the language of cognition alone.  Teaching, as any of us will testify if we are honest, is about mood, atmosphere, relationships – it is what Van Manen talks of as pathic (as in empathy or sympathy).  The local or private knowledge of the practitioner and the public (abstract) knowledge valued by academia are melded  into one experiential, lived sensibility of ‘doing’ teaching, of ‘doing’ learning technologies.  The ‘I’ or ‘me’ is in the practice rather than (cognitive) observer of that practice.


In conclusion, Van Manen says:

To reiterate, we may say that a phenomenology of practice operates in the space of the formative relations between who we are and who we may become, between how we think or feel and how we act. And these formative relations have pedagogical consequence for professional and everyday practical life.




[Does that make sense?  As you can see I am working this out as I go along.]