Praxis makes perfect

Praxis is not as commonly referred to in the educational field as it should be. It is a poorly understood concept, and not particularly well researched either. And yet praxis is (or should be) at the very heart of what we do, and who we aspire to be, as educators. What is praxis? My explanation is that praxis is at the nexus - the overlap - between theory and practice. It's the sweet spot of education in action. Praxis is the essence of what happens when theory is applied to practice, and can be simplified in this Venn diagram. But there is a lot more to understand about praxis.

My colleague Oliver Quinlan wrote a very thoughtful post about praxis. He argued that the theoretical models we learn, and the skills we acquire as teachers, are inextricably entwined. They influence each other, and in effect, become a part of who you are, your identity as an educator. He writes:

"...your theoretical framework influences your practice, but your experience in the classroom also continues to shape your framework; the two are not separate."

Others have also written eloquently about praxis. The Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire for example, defined the gaining of praxis as a means to emerge from oppression and ignorance:

"One of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings' consciousness. Functionally, oppression is domesticating. To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it." (Freire, 1970: 33).

Freire is concerned with liberty from oppression. This oppression takes on the form of ignorance as much as it does chains, or prison bars, or walls of a ghetto. He is saying that praxis gives us the awareness, or consciousness of where we are. A realisation of the predicament we are in. It is an awakening to the reality, and a call for action to do something about it. Knowing, and then doing something based on that knowledge, is a powerful response. But it's not as simple as that. Consider the following passage:

"We can now see the full quality of praxis. It is not simply action based on reflection. It is action which embodies certain qualities. These include a commitment to human well being and the search for truth, and respect for others. It is the action of people who are free, who are able to act for themselves. Moreover, praxis is always risky. It requires that a person 'makes a wise and prudent practical judgement about how to act in this situation' (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 190)."

Theory without action is just theory. Hot air. Action without theory can be just as hollow. How can you justify your actions and decisions in the classroom, if you have no theory to support you? The best equipped teachers are those who are best informed. The best way to use theory is to test it out in practice. The most effective teachers are those who not only innovate in their practice, but also know how to justify their actions through the application of appropriate theory.

Praxis is the contextualisation of theory within action. It can, and should pervade every aspect of our professional practice and identity as an educator. It's time to stop thinking about theory and practice as separate concepts. It's time teachers began to meld the two together, so that thinking and action - theory and practice - combine to enable us to create, develop and maintain the best possible learning environments for our students. That's how important praxis is.

Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical. Education, knowledge and action research, Lewes: Falmer Press.
Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books.

Photo by Steve Wheeler

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Catherine Novak said…
Thanks for the clarification, Steve. I had thought that praxis was just a jumped-up academic way of saying "practice" - your venn diagram and explanation set me straight. :-)
Zealman said…
I really hope a system of measurement is put in place to ensure all these experiments actually produce students who are useful to the world of work.
I have been working in #rhizo14 community inaugurated by Dave Cormier over the last five weeks. It has been a real stretch for me to 'internalize' the theory from that community. There are many in that community who have a keener theoretical grasp than I am ever likely to have, but I have been working in the praxis for the last three weeks and writing about it as well here: I agree on an intellectual level with all that you say above about praxis. I agree with the Venn diagram. Yet, it melts down into a bunch of words without feeling. That is not a criticism of you or your observations. It is just that when you begin to embody the theory from out of yourself and into the world, is like a birth--messy, painful, and fraught with feeling. You cannot return to the mountain of theory as the same person. Nor should you if the theory is any damned good at all.

That diagram has some problems once the theory has been re-born in the field, in the classroom. It is like the difference between reading a play and improvising in the play that is your own life. It is no longer 2-D--it is 4-D. That last dimension, time, is what makes the Venn so inadequate in the end toward describing what is happening when the theory of a wheel hits the gravel of the road. All I can say is that your mileage will vary.

Thanks for the provocative and helpful rendering in text and image. So helpful.
Praxis is a very interesting area, I did not realise that some of the theory around it goes back a good 30/40 years. Guess I now know where to have a dig in attempts to consolidate my understanding of this concept further.
Thank you for your post, it certainly gives me something further to think upon. Also,
It is nice to see that venn diagram again, as for me it defines the area quite nicely.
che nwamuo said…
In a VUCA world with three generations of workers and two (sometimes three) generations of students, MOOCs would then be seen as that link between theory and practice. Sort of Eduction in practice if you will.
This continued learning and iterations in our understanding and application of theory is the true praxis.

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