Theory of action in the classroom (pt 3 in a series)

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To illustrate the theory of action as defined by Chris Argyris and his colleagues, we need to apply it to an educational context.  By relating the theory of action to a teacher’s development in school we can see how the two sub-theories – theory-in-use and espoused theory – can be applied. 

In this hypothetical situation our teacher, who is relatively inexperienced, is finding it hard to engage a class in learning.  This manifests itself in low-level disruptive behaviour. On occasion, disruption has been such that it has required the intervention of other staff to bring the class under control. 

From the outset our teacher has been made aware of the espoused-theory of the school that all students should behave in a way that allows them to learn in class. This has been made explicit to them by the teacher in charge through a supportive observation, after which they were issued with the school’s rules for classroom management, to emphasise the point. 

This helped our teacher, to a degree. It was easy to apply the actions that clearly defined what, when and where.  For example, students should arrive at the lesson and line up quietly outside the door in the corridor.  On instruction from the teacher, they would enter in silence and go to their seat.  Once there, they would wait to be invited to sit by the teacher. Once seated, they would prepare themselves to learn by opening their books and accessing their equipment in silence. It also helped our teacher that in this case, other classes could be seen doing the same.  However, in the general run of the lesson behind closed doors, the problem of low level disruption hampering learning re-emerged. 

The fact it only happened with this one class proved problematic. Despite reviewing the approach, our teacher was unable to draw on experience with the other classes. Using different methods had limited success.  

Having been a good student, this teacher wasn’t able to even draw on personal experience of being disruptive and thus had no understanding of what triggered this type of behaviour in students.  

As the situation continued, it also became obvious that the students expected disruption and acted accordingly.  Frustrated, feeling under pressure and beginning to wonder if the school’s espoused theory could be owned, the teacher sought the advice of a more experienced colleague. The colleague invited the teacher to observe their own lesson, with a similar group of students. The colleague guided the class seamlessly from one part of the lesson to the next.  

After the lesson the experienced teacher, who had been trained as an expert coach, explained that rather than being collective, this approach was built upon a range of activities which meet the learning needs of each student, providing work that was relevant, recognised the degree of complexity of the learning for the student, had the correct pace and rewarded their endeavours.  The activities were derived from a detailed understanding of each child’s learning characteristics and what they already knew.  

Our teacher agreed to take a similar approach. The colleague suggested adopting a strategy which at first focused on a few of the students. From these students the teacher gained a greater understanding of their learning characteristics and what they already knew.  It was then possible to project how each student would react in a given situation and thus determine a suitable course of action. Finally, they agreed that after each lesson they would analyse the impact of their actions. Our teacher would learn from this and if it went well, transfer it to the rest of the class.  Over several lessons, the teacher was able to accomplish a number of objectives:

The result was that over several lessons, the behaviour of these students improved.  With this success the teacher was able to quickly adapt their approach to the remaining students in the class and before long, the class was meeting the espoused theory of the school. 


We hope you are able to relate the scenario we describe in this example to your experience.  It should help to demonstrate how Chris Argyris’s conception of a theory of action can be applied to advantage in a school setting. 

Point for reflection

Can you describe an example from your own practice which would illustrate the same scenario?

In the next blog we will look further into Argyris’s concept of a theory of action and relate it to our approach to school improvement. 

Take care and stay safe.