“Useful Theory”~

“As learners and researchers, teachers and students are involved in a process of discovery and construction. Oral and written language promote and enable learning. Learning takes place within a context—a group of teachers or students and teachers in a classroom—and this context is itself situated within a larger societal context, both influencing teaching and learning” (Clawson et al.).


In Clawson et al.’s “Out of Our Experience: Useful Theory”, an excerpt from Teacher Research for Better Schools, the growing field of teacher research is discussed and its applications explored. More, teaching as a process of research and of learning in and of itself is discussed, how teachers can collaborate and use their own wealth of knowledge from their teaching experiences as grounding for theory asserted. This article provides an ample overview of teacher research and of research conducted in favor of teacher research as well as ample rationale for why teacher research should be viewed as valid.

Early on, this article distinguishes between theory and “useful theory”, citing a group discussion of teacher researchers as stating, “Theory is only useful if it’s useful” (Clawson et al.). Essentially, this statement addresses the point at which most teachers seem to believe academic theory fails. That point is where theory ceases to explain or account for lived experience. This discrepancy between theory and practice has been explored in multiple studies from varying perspectives to date (Howard, 1998; Addison & McGee, 2010; Purdy& Walker, 2012; Early, 2014; Bastian, 2017). Clawson et al. seem to be making a case for why teacher-led inquiry and research provide necessary grounding to research on student learning and writing, viewing teaching itself as, “a process of research.” The underlying assumption here being that theory without an impetus in real-life experience has less practical or “useful” application in academic settings.

What was rather interesting about this article was the forwarding of the idea of collaborative teaching. This concept was discussed and promoted in work by Early (2014). The idea behind collaborative teaching is that educators, when they pool their knowledge and engage in open dialogue about what learning occurs or does not in their classrooms, better inform their own pedagogy and so better assist students in their learning. It’s an interesting concept and one that sounds like it should work. In the university Writing Center I work at, we engage in a kind of collaborative teaching/coaching in which, every 2 weeks approximately, we discuss how sessions are going and what we have noticed about the students we have been seeing. Are we getting a lot of students coming in for help on rhetorical analyses? Have we had many “hostile” clients coming in? Any challenging sessions–and why? Any good sessions–and why? This discussion is also assisted with notes taken by graduate assistants about the notes the coaches wrote about their sessions. Essentially, as in collaborative teaching, we pool our knowledge and, if there is a problem or challenge the Center is encountering, we attempt to come up with a solution from the information we have. Logical? I would say yes. Useful? For our purposes, it has been.

Again, collaborative teaching and teacher research both sound like sound and valid concepts. Did this Clawson et al. article make a strong case for that, though? This article sounds like more of an overview of other research, its support subjective as it comes from almost exclusively teachers involved with the National Writing Project or other academics. For me to view this article as more valid, I think I would like to see the “other side of things.” For example, what are the specific reasons against using straight theory? Any statistics for how little application it has to lived experience in this pedagogical context? Also, what is the evidence that teachers who engage in collaboration come up with better teaching models? This seems to be implied. I am not sure if it was the purpose of this article to address all of these issues–as it sees to be more of an introduction–but they are questions I have as a reader and a burgeoning researcher in the field of Writing Studies.

Overall, I find Clawson et al.’s work to be interesting if not entirely compelling as it is presented. Their concepts and theory seem to be logical but I would like to see more evidence and more of the “grounding” that is discussed. It is one thing to have a bunch of teachers assert that teacher research and collaborative teaching inform better pedagogy and practice than any other kind of theoretical framework. It is an entirely other matter to have evidence that explains why teacher research does or does not inform better pedagogy and generate better learning outcomes for students.


Clawson, Shelia, Marion S. MacLean, Marian M. Mohr, Mary Ann Nocerino, Courtney Rogers, and Betsy Sanford. “Out of Our Experience: Useful Theory.” The Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 4, 2003, https://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/954. Accessed 22 April 2018.


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