What is the importance of theory and practice

Theory & practice

by Ulrich Kaiser

About the etymology

The terms theory and practice are of Greek origin. theory is a borrowing from the Greek verb θεωρείν (= observe, look at, look at) or the noun θεωρία (= Intuition, reflection, insight, literally "vision of the divine"). With theory originally meant the contemplation of (divine) truth through pure thinking. The word practice is also of Greek origin (from practice or prâgma) which means as much as deed, action, performance (or also implementation, completion, promotion). The fact that we no longer think of the contemplative vision of divine truth when we speak of theory is undisputed in scientific and educational contexts. The etymological meaning of the word is therefore of little help in understanding the terms.

From a psychological point of view

To clarify the terms theory and practice a reference to Hans des Sieingen is helpful, a Swiss researcher in the field of developmental and thought psychology, learning psychology and the psychology of action. According to Aebli is a behavior an unconscious or conscious reaction of the person he received from the To do as a conscious behavior. Act again as an act of a high degree of awareness and goal-directedness and cognition builds on action, but begins to demand attention with the aim of good order or securing of structures. Cognition passes into reflectionwhen there is a "pause in practical activity and exchange of practical activity for a form of activity" which "facilitates structural analysis". Aebli illustrates the situation with an orchestral rehearsal:

There is another possible measure of action that threatens to become confused: pause, take three steps back, think. Because an action usually pursues different goals and has to meet many requirements, it is often not possible to free the necessary attention to ensure and improve the good order of the action structure during its course. So the conductor knocks off in the rehearsal and says: "Now look at the rhythm in this measure [...]" [...]
This is reflection: Pause in the practical activity and exchange the practical activity for a form of activity that facilitates the structural analysis. [...]
The question arises whether this way of thinking introduces a new form of behavior that is completely different from action. Dualists would affirm this [...] We will orientate ourselves differently in this book [...]
Thinking, reflecting, is therefore a mega-activity over concrete action. However, it is not a new behavior, but consists, so to speak, of the same, only refined and therefore better suited to its purpose.

Aebli 2001, I / S. 21 f.

behavior, To do, Act, cognition and reflection can be imagined as a continuum with the practice (e.g. as To do or Act), on whose other the theory (e.g. as reflection) could locate. However, since the structure of the problematic action is preserved in reflection, reflection is not an antithesis to doing or acting.

From an educational point of view

For pedagogy, Andreas Lehmann-Wermser and Anne Niessen spoke about the problem of how to operate with the theory-practice scheme. They point out that the concept of theory as well as the concept of practice can mean very different things (e.g. scientific theory, reflection in the colloquial sense, practice as a teaching reality, an 'intelligent practice' dependent on morality and knowledge, etc.). Your thesis is therefore that

The constructs of theory and practice are not conceivable in isolation, but always exist only in connection, namely in the people of the 'practitioners', that is, of the teachers, as well as of the 'theoreticians', the scientists. The current tendency to deal with the theory-practice problem in the educational sciences supports this perspective.

Lehmann-Werser / Niessen 2004, p. 136.

As early as 1978 it was pointed out that research is often unable to solve serious problems in teaching, which would lead to an ever increasing alienation between science and the world in which we live.

That would be a development that would correspond to the dogmatization of established educational practice (e.g. as an affective front against ›scientification‹) or the research-related fragmentation into disciplinary sub-projects. With that, however, the action-oriented sense of theory would in fact come to an end, and there would be that desolate state in pedagogy in which unemployed theory and theory-less pedagogical work would confront each other. [...]
So there is a vital interest (not only for educational science) in adequate understanding and interpretation of the problematic development of the theory-practice relationship [...].
At the beginning there would be skepticism, both against a purely scientific understanding of theory as well as against a general concept of practice that declares all forms of human activity to be 'practice'.

Contactor 1978.

In the 1980s, Niklas Luhmann and Karl Eberhard Schorr then dealt with the problem behind the difference between science and teaching under the catchphrase Technology problem discussed:

The decisive question is rather what theoretical and practical consequences will be drawn from the fact that the teaching situation shows a technological deficit. [...] The first suggestion would be to stop the search for objective causal laws in interpersonal relationships and instead to ask, on the basis of which causal ideas people act.
Since there is no causal law that is sufficient for social systems, since in other words there are no causal plans of nature, there is also no objectively correct technology that one only has to recognize and then apply. There are only operationally implemented complexity reductions, shortened, actually wrong causal plans, to which those involved orient themselves.

Luhmann / Schorr 1982, p. 17 ff.

Publishers promise solutions to the problems of teaching in the form of commercial offers that are tailored to curricula and lessons tailored to them, as well as reforms that attribute the failure of teaching to its ›scientification‹ and therefore demand more ›practice‹ (e.g. in the form of a music class Teaching). But the problems pointed out by N. Luhmann and K. E. Schorr cannot be solved in this way. Andreas Lehmann-Wermser and Anne Niessen sum up the theory-practice scheme:

The simple juxtaposition of theory and practice in the form discussed so far offers - so our thesis - hardly any development opportunities, but above all stirs up the resentment of the practitioners and promotes the perplexity of the scientists. Let us return once more to the definition of the terms theory and practice formulated at the beginning: We defined educational research and pedagogical reflection as theory, and everyday action in the classroom as practice. If one tries to understand this definition from the perspective of individual pedagogically thinking and acting subjects, then it becomes clear that only two poles of pedagogical action are named, but not the many mixed forms that the subjects practice constantly and naturally: Educational thinking is not Conceivable without the subject of teaching, teaching not without 'theoretical' reflection. ›Theoretical‹ and ›practical‹ action cannot exist without reference to the other - even if mixtures and objectives may look different. From the perspective of the subjects, at most, different degrees of reflection on 'practice' and practical relevance of 'theory' can be discerned, but there is no fundamental separation between the two areas.

Lehmann-Werser / Niessen 2004, p. 142.

From an epistemological point of view (according to N. Luhmann)

In the constructivist understanding of science according to Niklas Luhmann, it is not practice but rather the method that constitutes an antithesis to theory. "Theories are conceptually formulated statements, including statements about concepts, even if they have no empirical reference" (Luhmann 1992, p. 406). Methods, on the other hand, “have no other aim than to bring about a decision between true and untrue. In contrast to theories, they are initially aimed at an extremely reduced problem «(Luhmann 1992, p. 415). It would therefore be completely nonsensical to declare theory as opposed to practice, because statements that are not methodically (through practical action) checked against the code (true / untrue) of the scientific system would not be theoretical in the scientific sense, but dogmatic or speculative. Luhmann writes about this:

Rather, the concept of 'practice' is intended to indicate that working on theories is an action like any other action - an action that takes place in situations, has to take over circumstances and experience surprises; an action which, if it is to become independent of needs felt at the moment and thus work, depends on very complicated conditions that the social system of science must guarantee.
The practice of theory is not sufficiently characterized by the requirement to abstain from value judgments. [...] Two boundary marks can be set from the outset: The personal preferences of the researcher are as indispensable for the development of theories as pills and books. They are just as irrelevant to the truth of his theories as tablets and books. It is also irrelevant whether the preferences are conscious or unconscious, whether they are concealed or presented. In this sense, value freedom is a firmly institutionalized structure of the social system of science, which of course does not exclude that one can successfully deceive oneself and others.

Luhmann 1969, quoted after 1991 pp. 317-319.

Theory (i.e. theoretical statements) and practical-methodical action are two sides of the same coin and inextricably linked.


In view of the fact that in all perspectives mentioned here the term pair theory and practice seems to make little sense, it is interesting to think about what function the arguing of theory and practice at schools and universities. For this, two further couplings should be pointed out. On the one hand, the parallelization of the theory-practice scheme with music theory / musicology as well as music practice and, on the other hand, the attribution of the success and failure of music lessons to one side of the scheme. In this function, the scheme serves to influence curricula, consume power to implement or prevent reforms, and relieve the burden of seriously considering improving music teaching.
Verena Wied has in terms of the fashion theme Percussion pointed out that music lessons are also conceivable,

in which there is only one drum in the middle, the playing technique is explained lengthily and then the student who already plays the drums is allowed to play. [...] On the other hand, it is not seen that there can be other content that achieves similar results or can be taught with a similar methodological competence [as percussion, note UK]. Content and method are thus each blind to a different counterpart.
In contrast, the present work does not assume that there is a linear causal relationship between percussion as the cause of a certain effect.

Wied 2017, p. 10.

Another aspect is addressed here, namely that practical actions can be reflected on and topics that are usually developed through reflection can be developed as actions. After all, only when specific topics are linked to certain action- or reflection-based methods does that gap arise between theory and practicethat can be instrumentalized for individual goals and preferences. The problems associated with the theory-practice scheme (a supposedly successful or unsuccessful music lesson) could also be discussed in a completely different way.

Reflection requires an interruption of existing action. You can very well play the violin, look at a conductor, slow down or speed up your playing a little, keep one eye on the wall clock and think about when it is finally time to take a break. All of this is possible at the same time or in the language of psychology: It happens in parallel stimulus processing. However, if reflection or problem-solving thinking sets in, all of the things mentioned can no longer be carried out at the same time. For example, if a pupil is asked a question that forces them to reflect, stop listening to music, make music or think about the break. Then other modes of action are forced (thinking and answering) and there is - in the language of psychology - a change from parallel to serial stimulus processing. Only after thinking and answering (when the teacher has turned around) can one look at the clock again and longingly long for the break.

Kaiser 2011, p. 9.

Reflection, which aims at an analytical perception, forces the interruption of actions such as listening to music, feeling music or making music. The change from a usually positive action to an unfamiliar reflection is difficult for everyone - not only for students and not only in school - and has to be practiced in order to succeed. If one does not want to elevate an unreflective practicalism to the ideal of teaching, it would be necessary to thematize and practice the mode change for reflection oneself. Because it can be assumed that the unconscious or inexperienced mode change from action to reflection has a large proportion of defensive attitudes, regardless of whether reflection relates to a practice in the colloquial sense (e.g. making music), a so-called theory (e.g. music theory) or something else (for example, to group dynamic processes or the conversation with the neighbor).

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  • Hans Aebli, Thinking, ordering what is done, Volume I: Cognitive aspects of action theory, Vol. II: Thinking: The ordering of what is done, Stuttgart 1981, 32001.
  • Ulrich Kaiser, Johann Sebastian Bach. A superstar yesterday and today (= OpenBook 2), Karlsfeld 2011 (commentary).
  • Andreas Lehmann-Wermser and Anne Niessen, "The juxtaposition of theory and practice as a misleading perspective in (music) education", in: Music educational research in Germany. Dimensions and strategies (= Music Pedagogical Research 24), ed. v. H. J. Kaiser, Essen 2004, pp. 131-162.
  • Niklas Luhmann, "The Practice of Theory", in: Social world 20 (1969), pp. 129-144, quoted after Sociological Enlightenment I. Essays on the theory of social systems. Opladen 1991, pp. 317-335.
  • Niklas Luhmann, The science of society, Frankfurt a.M. 1990.
  • Niklas Luhmann and Karl Eberhard Schorr, "The technology deficit of education and pedagogy", in: Between technology and self-reference. Questions to pedagogy, ed. by Niklas Luhmann and Karl-Eberhard Schorr, Frankfurt a.M. 1982, pp. 11-40.
  • Egon Schütz, "Theory, Technology, Practice in the Horizon of the Metaphysics of Subjectivity", in: Journal of Education Supplement (15) 1978, pp. 23−32, quoted here from: Existential-critical pedagogy (= Phenomenological writings on the anthropological practice of education, art, language and humanism 2), ed. by Malte Brinkmann, Wiesbaden 2017, pp. 51-62.
  • Verena Wied, Percussion in music lessons. A functional analysis of interviews, Munich 2017

Creation of the article: January 21, 2017
Last change of the post on January 21, 2017