Theoretical knowledge or practical skill?

“There is nothing as practical as good theory”, said Harvard researcher Carol Weiss.

In a blog by Jason Stanley, we get a glimpse about the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge. In the blog, Stanley says: Our society is divided into castes based upon a supposed division between theoretical knowledge and practical skill. The college professor holds forth on television, as the plumber fumes about detached ivory tower intellectuals. The felt distinction between the college professor and the plumber is reflected in how we think about our own minds. Humans are thinkers, and humans are doers. There is a natural temptation to view these activities as requiring distinct capacities. When we reflect, we are guided by our knowledge of truths about the world. By contrast, when we act, we are guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions. If these are distinct cognitive capacities, then knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact — that is, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge. The world of the college professor is supposedly so different than the world of the plumber because they are viewed as employing fundamentally different mental capacities in their daily lives. The college professor doesn’t “get it,” because her knowledge is purely theoretical, knowledge of truths. The plumber isn’t qualified to reason about a political system or the economy because skill in complex action is not an exercise of such knowledge.

Stanley goes on to say: Most of us are inclined immediately to classify activities like repairing a car, riding a bicycle, hitting a jump shot, taking care of a baby or cooking a risotto as exercises of practical knowledge. And we are inclined to classify proving a theorem in algebra, testing a hypothesis in physics and constructing an argument in philosophy as exercises of the capacity to operate with knowledge of truths. The cliché of the learned professor, as inept in practical tasks as he is skilled in theoretical reasoning, is just as much a leitmotif of popular culture as that of the dumb jock. The folk idea that skill at action is not a manifestation of intellectual knowledge is also entrenched in contemporary philosophy, though it has antecedents dating back to the ancients.


Given this analysis, we do form an idea about the difference between the practical and the theoretical. But, many school graduates find themselves unable to do practical work or to solve practical problems at work. There have been arguments that the school curriculum should cut down on theoretical knowledge to focus more on students’ practical (knowledge) skills. To what extent do you agree with this?

People who agree with this statement state: First of all, many school graduates find themselves unable to do practical work or to solve practical problems at work, as well as the number of young graduates that cannot find jobs is increasing since universities spend too much attention on students’ theoretical education rather than practical work skills. Therefore, it is understandable that what young students have learnt at their higher levels tend to dissatisfy the demand of their jobs.

Secondly, another fact worth noticing is that the youth lack experiences in social communication, which is needed for their work space in the near future. And to achieve this skill is not any easy for reserved person and they cannot grasp all of this in a short period of time but to practice it afterschool or within the lessons when they are in college.

On the other hand, universities that focus on practical training create students who can only know about their jobs. These students cannot learn how to answer questions about the world or communicate with other graduates who have gained a wide range of world knowledge. What is more, theoretical knowledge benefits the students who plan to be experts in specific areas. Thus, without academic background, it is impossible for young graduates to research something deeply.

To sum up, the school curriculum should cut down on theoretical knowledge to focus more on students’ practical skills. Only by doing this can universities students be well-qualified graduates and could be able to address any practical problems at work.

But, learning theories have practical uses in the workplace as well.

Learning theory may sound like an esoteric idea, but understanding how people learn has many practical implications for both formal and informal workplace learning because it can provide best practices for teaching on the job as a trainer or a manager.

Here’s an overview of the most popular behavioral learning theories.

Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcement Theory suggests that behavior is controlled by its consequences and therefore individuals are motivated to perform or avoid behaviors because of past outcomes of those behaviors.

Reinforcement comes in several forms:

  • Positive reinforcement involves positively rewarding desirable behaviors.
  • Negative reinforcement means removing an unpleasant outcome to promote desirable behaviors.
  • Extinction involves withdrawing positive or negative reinforces to eliminate a behavior.
  • Punishment involves decreasing a behavior by presenting an unpleasant outcome after the behavior.

Workplace learning implications: The trainer must have a general understanding of which outcomes a learner finds positive or negative and strategically connect those outcomes to the course content, as appropriate.

Social Learning Theory

Social Learning Theory suggests that people learn by observing other people and attempting to copy their behaviors. Social learning is influenced by self-efficacy, which is an individual’s belief that he/she can successfully learn knowledge and skills. This means that the learner may not be able to adopt the behaviors they see if she doesn’t accept that she will get the same result someone else did.

Workplace learning implications: Formal and informal mentoring and coaching programs help employees build competencies by watching others. Keep in mind that learners are more likely to adopt the modeled behavior if it results in positive outcomes.

Goal Setting Theory

Goal Setting Theory suggests that behavior comes from a person’s conscious goals and intentions. Goals are impacted by the learner’s goal orientation, which affects the amount of effort a learner will expend on learning. The two predominant types of goal orientations include:

  • Learning orientation describes the type of learner that is motivated by increasing ability or competence in a task.
  • Performance orientation describes the type of learner who focuses on his task performance and how well he completes tasks compared to others.

Workplace learning implications: Goals influence behavior by directing energy and attention. Trainers and managers should encourage learners to base learning strategies on specific goals.

Need Theories

Need Theories suggest that needs motivate people to behave certain ways in order to satisfy the need or deficiency. Need theories are reflected in adult learning principles, which emphasize the learner’s desire to make connections between the content and their lives.

Workplace learning implications: Trainers should attempt to understand learners’ needs and explain how the training will help them meet their needs.

Expectancy Theory

Expectancy Theory suggests that behavior is based on three factors:

  • Expectancy, which is the link between trying to perform and actually performing. This is similar to self-efficacy because it focuses on the learner’s belief, or expectation, that she will be able to master the task.
  • Instrumentality, which is the belief that engaging in a behavior will result in the desired outcome. If a person believes that more education will increase his earning potential, he will be more motivated to return to school in order to obtain the expected outcome.
  • Valence, which is the value the learner, places the expected outcome.

Workplace learning implications: Learning is best facilitated when trainees believe they can master the knowledge or skill, when learning is linked to outcomes such as improved job performance or a pay raise, and when the trainees value the outcomes they perceive.

All of these theories (and many others) address how to create the optimal learning experience for students. They are all accurate in specific situations so there is no benefit in choosing one over the other. The trick is being able to identify the theory most applicable to the learning situation and accurately selecting the appropriate teaching strategies.




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