“In Theory Means It Doesn’t Really Work” – Best Practice -vs- Reality

In theory means it doesn’t really work.  

At the end of each unit, my students complete independent projects.  They present their projects to their classmates and parents.  We always ask the students questions at the conclusion of their presentation.  One of my questions is always, “What was the most significant thing you learned from this project?”  Following an engineering project, a very insightful student responded with, “In theory means it doesn’t really work.”  He got a few chuckles from the audience.  It was cute.  It was funny.  It was also very true.  


This particular student was referring to his many trials and revisions while designing and building a quad-copter in our engineering club.  He said this almost three years ago.  I still quote him frequently.  It was the most honest answer any student ever gave me.  It was so strikingly honest.  This realization was really quite profound and so very true.  Our world is built on theory.  Our education system is built on theory.  It doesn’t really work.  

Our education system is built on something called “best practice.”  Theoretically(there it is again), we can stop ‘reinventing the wheel’ by studying best practice.  Best practices are simply practices that already possess a high level of agreed upon effectiveness.  Theoretically(again!), if an educational practice worked before then it should continue to work.  It should work forever, right?  Furthermore, the ‘best’ best practices are ones which are based in research…theoretically.  “Best Practices” are also, generally, targeted towards what works for the majority of the population, the majority of the time.  So, what’s the problem?  

In theory doesn’t really work.

The overwhelming majority of education research is conducted by researchers who have spent little or no time in a classroom.  Researchers in gifted education may have no classroom experience.  If they do, they still may lack in experience working with gifted children.  Furthermore, research has a tendency to simply quote other ‘research.’  I’ve seen 20 page journal articles with more than 30 references.  You don’t have to read the paper to know that there is nothing original about the research.  Many studies, due to lack of funding, are conducted with extraordinarily small sample sizes.  I can’t say I really blame anyone.  How can we study gifted education when there is no nationally agreed upon definition for giftedness?  Moreover, the very idea of giftedness presents researchers with an already limited sample size.  

“Best Practice” says that I should teach students fractions with bar pieces, not fraction pieces.  In theory, fraction bars provide more flexibility.  H. Wu writes, “This is one reason that a pizza is not a good model for the whole, because there is very little flexibility in dividing the area of a circle into equal parts except by using circular sectors. The other reason is that, unlike rectangles, it cannot be used to model fraction multiplication(2011, p. 3).”  Fraction bars can be divided in more ways. You shouldn’t use both.  You should use bars, and only bars.  I find this interesting because experience tells me that both works better than one or the other.  Ms. Voit wrote an interesting piece on “Learning Beyond the Common Core” that speaks to this topic.  In theory, yes, you can cut her remaining puppy into quarters and divide him among-st the four children.  In reality, no you can’t!!

In theory doesn’t really work.

“Best Practice” currently says that homework is bad.  Students shouldn’t do homework.  It’s a waste of time.  In theory, students should be able to learn everything they need to learn in school.  Experience shows me that my students need to do homework.  I would much rather send practice problems home with students rather than babysit them as they complete them.  This way, students can work at their own pace.  Then, they can come into class with questions.  Class time is much more productive.  I can, within minutes, identify the students who didn’t do their homework.  How?  They’re lost.  They don’t remember what we learned last week so they can’t apply it to today’s lesson.  

In theory doesn’t really work.

“Best Practice” says that we should encourage “creative spelling” throughout the elementary school experience.  In theory, this encourages creativity and promotes imagination.  Experience shows me that students WANT to spell words correctly.  In fact, they want to learn ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ words.  They want to be assured that they are doing well, that they are learning and that they are doing it right.  They don’t want to be lied to.  In fact, their inability to spell words inhibits them from trying to use a stronger vocabulary.  It frustrates them.  

​In theory doesn’t really work.


So, what do we do when “theories” and “best practices” don’t work?  We re-invent the wheel.  

Yes, it’s a long and grueling process.  It requires some trial and error.  Each and everyone of my students are unique.  Each child learns differently.  Each teacher teaches differently (theoretically…).  We must not generalize our students.  We must not generalize their learning environment.  We must not generalize our teachers.  Each student, more specifically – each gifted student, needs a unique learning plan.  

Yes, grade skipping works for some students.  It doesn’t work for all students.  

Yes, some students benefit from after school gifted and talented programs.  It doesn’t work for all students.  

Yes, accelerated math is ‘enough’ for some students.  It doesn’t work for all students.

Yes, most students learn addition in first grade.  It doesn’t work for all students. Some students know addition already. Some students are still learning to count.  

We figure out what works for EACH child.

​That’s what we do when ‘in theory doesn’t really work.”

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