Bridging Theory and Practice in Teacher Education

reviewed by Barbara L. Seidl - March 20, 2008

coverTitle: Bridging Theory and Practice in Teacher Education
Author(s): Mordechai Gordon and Thomas V. O’Brien (Eds.)
Publisher: Sense Publishers, Rotterdam
ISBN: 9087900295, Pages: 160, Year: 2006
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Kurt Lewin is well known for contributions to a number of disciplines, including education, but perhaps one of his most often quoted phrases is the famous, “there is nothing so practical as a good theory” (1951, p. 169). Though most of us in teacher education endorse the value of this idea, efforts to convince prospective, new, or even experienced teachers of this maxim often elicit a range of reactions from raised eyebrows and drawn out sighs to undisguised signs of frustration and anger. In response to our attempts to teach theory, prospective teachers often express the belief that we are denying them the practical knowledge needed to teach, while more experienced teachers believe that those who work in universities have lost all touch with the realities of classroom life. University faculty may also experience a sense of frustration on the subject of theory and practice, believing that we “get it” and teachers simply “do not.” On the other hand, whenever teacher expertise is attacked, all professionals, including those in K-12 classrooms, will stalwartly defend the idea that there is a professional knowledge base that extends beyond common sense and the practical. Teachers do not intentionally avoid the use of theory. When theoretical information is accompanied by multiple, explicit, and reasonable suggestions for classroom application, teachers often take it up. For teacher educators, however, the question of ‘why it doesn’t happen more often’ remains.  

How do we take up the long perceived and, often, real divide between theory and practice? In their edited volume, Bridging Theory and Practice in Teacher Education, Gordon and O’Brien have brought together a group of teacher-scholars who tackle this question from multiple teaching positions and from diverse academic disciplines. The varied perspectives that these authors assume demonstrate the misunderstandings, complexities, and contradictions that often go unexamined as teacher educators attempt to build theoretical practical knowledge for teaching. But most importantly, these chapters offer many helpful ideas and examples for making the practical more visible in theory and the theoretical more visible in practice. In it readers will find helpful insights into how to work through the tensions that exist, as one of the authors puts it, in that uncertain space between theory and practice.

In the introduction, Gordon identifies the primary target audience for the book to be teacher candidates, but he also maintains that teacher educators and practicing teachers will find the book helpful and, with a few exceptions, I concur. The majority of the chapters do a good job of speaking to both teacher educators and teachers, making the book, as a whole, a text that can facilitate a productive exchange between university teacher educators and their students.  Because each chapter makes a different and interesting contribution to the ways in which we can bridge the divide between theory and practice, they are each worth mentioning.

A chapter that I found particularly persuasive as a teacher educator was Emily Remington Smith’s chapter on developing a teaching stance in an English methods course. Smith helps teacher educators imagine how we might make clear to our students the ways in which practice is inevitably theoretical and their responsibilities as teachers to be intentional about the theories upon which they draw. She provides a detailed account of how she supports her students in deliberately authoring a stance or, as she says, taking “ownership” of the theories that they draw from to teach. Though the entire chapter is strong, one very compelling element is the examples of lessons, interchanges with students, and assignments from her English methods course that provide the reader with a coherent and detailed account of how she goes about her work.  

Two additional chapters are situated in specific university classrooms. Thomas O’Brien critiques the esoteric theorizing in sociology, maintaining that sociological knowledge often does not make sense to those “who could use it most – teachers” (p. 83). Similarly, Paulette Patterson Dilworth explores the ways in which multicultural theory may fall short of practical application for many classroom teachers. Both Dilworth and O’Brien share a similar hurdle in that their work is two-fold. Dilworth frames the dual nature of this work well when she asks, “How can we prepare teachers to think critically and successfully apply principles of multicultural education to very complex classroom experiences” (p. 108)?  Much of the work that both Dilworth and O’Brien discuss is aimed at the first goal: the development of a critical consciousness and the ability to interrogate structural inequities. While O’Brien approaches this work through a sociological tradition, Dilworth uses Christine Bennett’s genres of research in multicultural education to theoretically frame the work of teacher education, as well as provide substance for what teachers might attend to in their classroom with children. Both provide helpful pedagogical examples of the ways they use these theoretical frameworks to challenge students’ perspectives around race, class, privilege, and oppression. Like many involved in preparing critically-oriented teachers, they make no claims that their work can disentangle the years of socialization that precede it. As Dilworth contends, a single course can “provide an opportunity for thoughtful reflection, deeper self awareness, and development of a personal teaching philosophy and vision,” but “teachers must continue to expand upon knowledge acquired […] and consider its implications for the classroom” (p. 117).

Instead of describing the ways in which theory and practice may be bridged, Ruth Sandwell’s chapter on the internal divide in history takes up an interesting critique of the contradiction between history as taught and history as theorized or written. She points out that contemporary scholarly approaches to researching and writing history position it as ‘meaning making’ where, “an understanding of the past is limited, partial, and mediated by particular cultural, social, and political forces” (p. 21) but that in teaching history, professors continue to represent it as fact and within the seamless, coherent narrative of a lecture. Interviews with history professors indicated that they continued to support this contradiction because they felt they owed it to their students who would be “required to teach [history as a narration of facts] in high school when they got jobs as history teachers […] and would not be served well by the introduction of other, more critical and confusing representations of history” (p. 25)!  This chapter challenges us all to consider how often our own practices exist in contradiction to what we tell students to do.    

Maria Xanthoudaki’s chapter on learning in art museums provides an excellent example of the way in which social constructivism can be used to plan for and create learning environments that provide, “a negotiation between the knowledge and culture contained in objects, exhibitions, spaces, tools, on the one hand, and the knowledge, memory and emotions brought by the visitors themselves on the other” (p. 64). Her thorough and insightful application of social constructivism to this context should make us all nostalgic for a time when this vision of an inviting and open ended education was more prominent - before it began to be strangled by a combination of standards and high-stakes, mandatory testing. The co-construction of classroom culture and knowledge is also present, but backgrounded, in Kevin Basmadjian’s chapter where he explores ideas of uncertainty in teaching. He uses technology as the context and his story of introducing laptops into his high school writers’ workshop to make the case that teacher educators should create opportunities for prospective teachers to experience the discomfort of uncertainty and chaos so that they can begin to see uncertainty not as, “a necessary evil” (p. 93) but as a resource for their work with children. More than anything, his chapter provided a fresh way of thinking about issues of control and student freedom in the process of supporting children in becoming protagonists within their own learning.

Edmund Marek and Timothy Laubach provide a different look at aligning theory with practice in their chapter on science education. They describe a long and fruitful history between a university science education program and a local school district. Spanning over forty years, the partnership began with a focus on inquiry-based science curriculum and became a space where prospective teachers, even today, continue to be apprenticed within a unified theoretical orientation to science teaching. The authors maintain that the continued success of this partnership has largely been due to the creation of a culture of on-going inquiry among teachers, teacher educators, and university students. Because this kind of extended, successful partnership is ideal, but rare, I think that readers of this book may end up wishing for more detail on the specific ways that the practice-theory divide was negotiated between the university and the teachers, rather than a general description of the history of the project.   

I’ve saved the first and last chapters for the end of the review because I believe their placement within the book to be its one slight challenge. Peter Taubman’s chapter on the contribution of psychoanalytic thought to education’s approach to critical reflection opens the book and, while interesting, was the most complicated in regards to making connections to classroom practice.  Perhaps this is because connections between the worlds of education and psychoanalysis are rare. As a teacher educator, I appreciate the inclusion of this chapter in the book – it provided me with an opportunity to think outside the sometimes closed world of education. My worry is that more naïve readers will be so severely challenged by this first chapter that they will retreat back into their belief that theory is not for them. If it had been placed at the end of the book, readers could have encountered it with more context and with more confidence in the ways in which theory can inform their work.

The final chapter by Mordechai Gordon on the application of theory to classroom teaching would have been, in my opinion, a better way to open the book. This chapter does a wonderful job of exploring why theory may be under-used and the misconceptions many people hold about theory; particularly the idea that it can be “plugged in” (p. 120) in its entirety to classroom contexts. Theory is a symbolic tool, Gordon maintains, and is significant for, “its ability to define the problems that teachers face, clarify their confusions, and suggest possible solutions to these problems” (p. 123).  He concludes the chapter by providing four ways that theory may be applied in classrooms, providing us with new ways to talk with prospective students and even graduate students about the role and use of theory in constructing a position for a teaching and academic life. As an opening chapter, these ideas would have been a helpful frame for the rest of the book.   

Overall, I believe this book can be a very helpful contribution to teacher education. Among the book’s strengths are the flexibility of its use, the ways in which it complicates the theory-to-practice dilemma, the pertinent examples presented by each author, and the inherent persuasive ability of many of the chapters to change a reader’s mind about what it means to invoke theory in the day-to-day practice of our lives as teachers. It reminds us, as O’Brien contends, that we must make it a “habit to talk with one another rather than past each other” (p. 73) if we are to facilitate the work of teaching within the contextual and continually shifting spaces between theory and practice. Finally, the book reminds us that firmly connecting theory to practice is the responsibility of teacher educators. Failure to do this well is our failure, not something that can or should be just chalked up to student resistance around theory. Accordingly, instead of just telling our students about theory, we might begin by showing them how we ourselves have built an approach to teaching that is intentionally theoretically practical.    


Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science; selected theoretical papers. D. Cartwright (Ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 20, 2008 ID Number: 15159, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 8:04:16 AM

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