Practice without Theory: Reflections on 'Applying' Psychological Theories

Helping teachers teach–this should not be so hard. After all, when it comes to learning, there is no shortage of theories.

  • Psychology has something to tell us: educational, cognitive.
  • Instructional design says something.
  • Education has sub-fields.
  • Etc.

Therein lies the problem. Not only are there many theories, but we are also baffled as to what an “application” of any given theory might be.

The very relation of theory to practice, ideas to behavior, rules to ‘applications’–these are not easy problems.

  • Theory/practice (or “praxis,” as it’s sometimes called) is a major issue in critical theory, especially after Marx.
  • Philosophers since Wittgenstein have worried over something called “rule-following behavior”: what we’re told or think we’re doing vs. what we actually do. The gist seems to be that the rules don’t explain how we follow them.
  • Sociologists and anthropologists can also write whole books about the ‘logic of practice’ (cf. Bourdieu, de Certeau).

So if we want to practice or apply whatever psychological or instructional or educational theories that are out there, we would then have to read another pile of books about what “practice” or “application” would be.

But there is a way of being an astute practitioner which evades many of these issues. It’s a well-known fact in educational circles that beginners think quite differently than experts. And so many lovely volumes have compiled thoughts about the topic of ‘expertise.’ By looking at what expert practitioners do we might get further than reading all competing theories.

Instead of learning, let’s take another complex psychological phenomena–which some experts have ‘applied’ or put to practice: “joint attention” will serve us well.

“Joint attention” is a psychological phenomena which basically boils down to the idea that you and I can be interested in the same thing at the same time. Your eyes go somewhere, and mine follow. I become interested in your interest, and then we’re both attending to the same thing. We are interested in something together.

Joint attention is a complex phenomena.

  • It doesn’t seem to be well understood.
  • We know that humans acquire it at a specific age.
  • It has something to do with intention: in following your gaze, I understand that your behavior bodes forth some aspect of your consciousness, and my thinking draws close to yours.

So we know what it is and when it is, and we know it’s a problem when it doesn’t happen. So “joint attention” is not unlike learning. We don’t know all the causal mechanisms, but sometimes we want to make it happen.

In addition, joint attention has a role in learning–at least in face-to-face learning. Basically anytime anyone is in a classroom, joint attention must play some role. If learners cannot attend to what an instructor is doing, the whole game is pretty much done for. (And I think we’ve all been in that classroom at some point or other.)

So how can ‘joint attention’ ever be ‘applied’ if it is not well understood? How can we do it, if we don’t know the underlying causal mechanism?

Well, it can be applied, and we do make it happen.

I first became aware of joint attention when reading a book about my college acting teacher: Nikos Psacharpoulos. Nikos was the subject of more than one book: one on acting and one on acting Chekhov.

Nikos was a practical man of the theater, but he also had a searching mind. So in the books about him, Nikos recounts anecdotes about famous actors, things that happened to him, moments from plays he admired, things he’s seen in movies, and things he’s read in books.

One anecdote Nikos recounts (during an acting class) involves the Lunts. Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were a famous theatrical couple: married actors who acted together and separately–acted brilliantly, by all accounts.

The Lunts were famous for their teamwork–and their work ethic generally. They took their art and craft seriously. For one particular play and scene, the Lunts conceived an interesting effect.

The characters they played were conversing, when one spots a bird flying across the ‘sky’–which is over the audience’s heads. The other then notices this glance, follows it to see the (imaginary) bird, and the two then watch ‘the bird’ fly the rest of the way across the sky.

It’s not an unusual thing to happen, but it’s unsual on the stage: unusual but not unknown, since in the last act of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters Masha notices some geese flying, watches them and comments on them–and presumably the other actors might follow the gaze of whomever plays Masha.

In short, the Lunts simply transposed a bit of theatrical behavior they liked in one play to another. (The couple acted in Chekhov’s The Seagull but not, it seems The Three Sisters.)

Clearly the Lunts understood the idea of joint attention. Joint attention is somewhat the fulcrum of theater

  • If the actor is sufficiently involved in something (first-degree involvement)
  • the other actors can become involved (second-degree involvement) and
  • so can the audience (third-degree involvement).

Then you have all the complexities:

  • one character ignoring another, failing to be involved,
  • the audience splitting their attention and involvement,
  • etc.

In short: from a psychological perspective, dramatic irony is the manipulation of contrasting forms of joint attention.

Lunt and Fontanne weren’t “applying” any theory of joint attention. It was doubtful they knew the term. The concept wasn’t available–although certainly people have long known that you can be more or less interested in what another person is looking at and doing.

And here is the crux. Without joint attention, there could hardly be such a thing as theater. An audience becomes interested in what the performers or doing–or the performance falls flat. The general psychological term here would be “involvement.” It’s involvement Goffman theorizes in Frame Analysis: how we become involved in different activities–or can be thrown out of them–and what involvement says about the kind of joint, coordinated activities people get themselves up to.

Lunt and Fontanne knew joint attention, because it was core to their work. People who worked with the Lunts and remembered them and were interviewed for biographies knew to recall such moments as interesting ones. And people like my acting teacher in turn knew how to attend to books about theater, and to plays, theatrical performances, the behavior of actors he worked with and who studied with him.

And all these people did these things, were interested in these things, without the slightest concept of joint attention or anything like it. Like Moliere’s famous character who was ‘speaking prose’ all his life without knowing it, theater practitioners ‘apply joint attention’ every day–but without knowing it.

The implication is: practice does not require the application of abstract concepts. Not every “doing” is a form of “applying.” Practice more reasonably involves knowing how to do certain things, being systematic about results, and astutely transferring what one knows how to do in one situation to another–the way Lunt and Fontanne transferred the explicit event in one play and its implicit use of joint attention to an entirely different play.

In short: one can know a hell of a lot about something, and one can know how to do something very well and one can learn to do so all without any rigorous kind of theorizing whatever. (There is a kind of theorizing, but it is personal and ad hoc: actors do it; writers do it; painters do it.) And this process is called expertise, and it’s a form of practice.

The more rigorous form of practice in the theater is not theory: it’s method, technique, craft. That’s what Stanislavski built by observing what expert theater practitioners had done, by observing himself, by testing what experts had done on himself and others (in his directing).

So if we want to get anywhere with helping teachers teach, we will have to know quite a bit more about how to make practitioners very expert. And we should likely look at practical arts and how and when they are taught effectively.

It’s doubtful we would throw away all the science. But what we do with the science–that is another matter.

--Edward R. O'Neill


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