Relating Theory and Practice

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One of the enduring social challenges is to find better ways of relating ‘theory’ and ‘practice’.

It is always a problem in professional training. Trainees can be taught the ‘theory’ but that doesn’t always mean they know what to do. For example teachers can be taught the theory of education in College, but that doesn’t always make them good teachers. It is also not difficult to give them classroom experience, but that doesn’t make them good teachers either. The problem is to find a good way of connecting theory and practice, in a way that lifts professional performance.

The problem was brought home to me very vividly by something I heard many years ago in a lecture by the late John Davy, who was then Science Editor of the Observer. He was talking about how anatomy was taught to medical students in the 16th century. He said it took three people. There was someone who read from Galen’s studies of anatomy, written in the 2nd century. There was also a barber who cut up a dead body. Thirdly, there was a Professor whose job it was to connect up what was being read from Galen with the corpse that was being cut up. Quite a challenge!

fraser watts brain challengesI think the reason why this is so hard for us stems from the structure of the brain. The two hemispheres are more specialised in humans than in any other species, i.e. they have become more different from each other than in any other species, largely associated with our special capacity for language. Also, intriguingly, the two halves of the brain are less interconnected in humans than in our primate ancestors. The great advantage of this is that it gives us two different ways of doing things, and makes is more versatile. We can be rational, articulate beings or we can be practical, intuitive beings. We have a choice in a way that no other species does.

The downside is that the two halves of us tend to fall apart. Whatever situation we are in, our two minds tend to go in different directions. That gives us an unprecedented versatility, but it leaves us not knowing who ‘we’ are, or how we want to react. It leaves us able to focus on theory or practice, but not knowing how to hold the two together. It is an enduring problem.

Over the last few years, in retirement, I have been receiving some personal psychotherapy (for the second time in my life). One of the things that has fascinated me is almost whatever question comes up in therapy, I find it hard to know which way to go on it, because my ‘head’ goes one way and my ‘heart’ goes another.

These issues also arise in religion and a few years ago I edited a book on head and heart in religion.

Religion is (and ought to be) one of the areas of life where our intuitive minds are given free reign and we live intuitively. The religious life can be a place where we mould and shape the intuitive mind so that it serves us better. However, sadly, religion seems often to have become dominated by two much ‘theory’, rather than being a place to leave that behind. In religion, as elsewhere, we could potentially hold theory and practice together, in a way that would heal this rift in human life.

– Fraser Watts