The relationship between theory and practice is a difficult one

The relationship between theory and practice is a difficult one. Individuals have had a troublesome time trying to understand the relationship which in turns creates the tension. Professional scholars who work in departments at universities such as business, journalism, engineering, agriculture, public administration, education, law, medicine and social work have had trouble explaining the tension.

Academic journals that are highly respected have highlighted growing concerns that academic research is no longer useful for solving problems practically and that there is a widening gap between theory and practice. Another concern that has been consistently raised is that findings from academic and consulting studies are not of any use to practitioners and many times are not even implemented. The downfall is organizations can no longer keep up with the changing times. The gap between theory and practice is typically framed as a knowledge transfer problem. This approach is based on the assumption that practical knowledge (knowledge of how to do things) in a professional domain derives at least in part from research knowledge (knowledge from science in particular and scholarship more broadly). Hence, the problem is one of translating and diffusing research knowledge into practice. A second approach views knowledge of theory and practice as distinct kinds of knowledge.

Through my work with communities, one key lesson that kept emerging over time for me is that no one can ever develop another person. The potential and ability to develop already lies within individuals – in their aspirations for their lives. The role that NGOs and global development forces play is to provide information on that will help others make informed choices on how they will achieve development within their context. When global and local players think that their interventions can develop other people, they forget that the people they normally referred to as the “targets” for their development projects are independent individuals who think and believe that they already have the capacity to develop.

This is why the current and past development approaches in the community development arena, where the so-called experts from the “developed” world spend time and other resources to help the underdeveloped world, is in my perspective a displaced and outdated process. There is no need for anyone to be convinced that their way of life is inferior and needs to change.(Van De Ven & Johnson, 2006)

While researchers grapple with theories and frameworks for certain behavior patterns and possible causes of community challenges, development practitioners are right at the core of it all. They interact with the communities every day at every level; some even suffer the same predicaments that the communities they serve suffer. The tensions between educational theories and practices — what critical pedagogue Paulo Freire termed “praxis” — can either buoy a classroom to great heights, or sink it entirely. Teachers must constantly balance their teaching philosophies against their practical, in-class constraints. Occasionally, the aims of one teacher’s practice may conflict with the aims of the same teacher’s theory. Similarly, the same teacher may find herself pressured to teach a certain way based on her personal philosophy, while also feeling pressured to teach a certain way based on more practical concerns.

Van De Ven, A. H., & Johnson, P. E. (2006). Knowledge for Theory and Practice. Academy of Management Review, 31(4), 802–821.