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Reproduced from 1987 Conference Proceedings, pp. 40-44 ã SCUTREA 1997


A critical response towards a constructive definition of praxis for the use of adult educators

Ian Haffenden, University of Surrey

This short paper attempts to take the above discussion on praxis a few steps further by considering praxis firstly with regards to its range of possible uses, secondly through a selective examination of a range of users and the differing ends they seek, and finally with regards to its delivery as a skill for the use of adult educators/practitioners. As such, the object of the paper will be to clarify some of the main aspects of the concept (from a personal standpoint) before going on to extend the discussion into the teaching of praxis as a skill.

The word praxis has been used by a variety of people in a variety of contexts with different meanings (e.g. Aristotle; Kant; Freire; Marx). Here, however, it will be taken to refer to a single or multiple set of complete oscillations between either: theory - practice - theory or practice - theory - practice. It thus corresponds to both (i) the interaction between cognition of experience and the attribution of meaning to it, and (ii) the interrelationship between subjective and objective realities; as a guide for action. However, due to the range of applications the meaning of the concept praxis needs further examination. Firstly, there is the issue of the 'cognition of experience' which can only be given meaning in specific situational, societal, and social contexts (see next section, and Haffenden,1), and secondly, what is meant by the 'attribution of meaning'?

Taking the second point first, it becomes necessary to distinguish between two types of 'attribution of meaning'. Firstly, there is the attribution of meaning in the case of theory - practice -theory, whereby the theory is for practice; or the attribution of meaning is guided and conveyed by a specific theoretical base. Here praxis relates solely to the particular theoretical base adopted by the participant(s) and all practice/action is contextualised and given meaning within the framework of that theoretical base (e.g. practice/action that is constantly related to and given meaning through marxist theory or a religious philosophy). A weaker form of this type of praxis can also be found. This is praxis whereby the specific theory becomes substituted by a subset of the theory or a discrete number of principles or maxims. In this case practice is not so much guided by a coherent theory, but by an individual need to resolve conflicts and/or contradictions experienced in everyday life as a result of applying the taken maxims or principles (e.g. elements of sexism such that the word man in words such as chairman always being corrected). In this weaker form single self-standing principles or discrete aspects of a given theory are interwoven, via praxis, with the cognition of experience resulting in subsequent action.

The second type of 'attribution of meaning' is the type characterised by the praxis: practice - theory - practice. Here the meaning conferred is based on theory/theories about practice. In this case praxis refers more to the process of systematic critical reflection based on a single or number of theories. Thus practice, here, is (or can be) systematically observed or experienced, reflected upon/recorded, reviewed and analysed with the meaning conferred based on the analytical outcome (at whatever level/order of sophistication adhered to). Praxis here relates more closely to the idea of experiential learning. Examples of this would be any form of formative or illuminative evaluation and possibly some action research. In each case, the second type of praxis is operationalised, whereby theory is used to 'illuminate' and give meaning to practice, observations and/or experience with this leading to resultant informed action. Here, praxis is used as a process or means for (I) the generation of theory (Glaser and Strauss2) on which to base action/ practice, or (ii) the examination of experience (and/or recorded experience) against a number of theories leading to action.

Hence, to summarise, we have praxis,

Type 1, where theory guides practice: (a) in the strong sense of adopting a theoretical model and applying it through praxis to inform action; or (b) in the weaker sense of adopting a single maxim or principle (e.g. Kant's Categorical Imperative) or set of maxims and principles as guides for action.

Type 2, where theory(ies) illuminate and/or enlighten practice through a process of recording, reflection and analysis on which informed action can be based.

To substantiate the above meanings for praxis, in adult education, three short cases are now considered (drawn from those presented for analysis during the SCUTREA 1987). These will further highlight the importance of contextual issues, especially since praxis can be applied to a number of levels of analysis.

Case One (Type 1[a]): The University of Nottingham Diploma course represents a good example of the importance of context. In particular, the Diploma course is an active and significant attempt to enable adults to become familiar with and apply Freire's educational philosophy, within a British context. It thus adopts a clear philosophical stance as a basis to guide action and analysis. Praxis here becomes focused; with its practice 'stage' theorised within a given frame of reference; guiding action towards a shared and accepted commitment to radical adult education. However, the long term ultimate success of such a course, contextualised within an overwhelmingly 'negatively' polarised capitalist society where capitalism penetrates every aspect of life - is likely to be limited, unless major societal changes take place. However, limited success might be achieved in the weaker sense of Type l[b] - as the second case will show.

Case Two (Type l[b]): This example was drawn from the experiences of Lalage Bown and relate to a Nigerian (impoverished) urban community. The case is one of a committed woman student realising a development study in this community as part of a postgraduate programme. The result of the study was the establishment and empowerment of a women's action/support group, who through the process of praxis (Type l[b]) were to challenge the dominant male culture. This single group were then to subsequently generate a raising of awareness in other women in the community leading to the establishment of similar groups. However, where the original group was set up and facilitated by the student who may well have utilised Type l[a] praxis - based on a definite theoretical position - it is clear that such a theoretical knowledge base was not possessed by the members of the subsequently formed women's group. These groups were motivated more on the maxim of establishing greater equality (whatever that meant) for their members.

Case Three (Type 2): The example here is drawn from the idea of double loop learning in the work of Argyris and Schon (an example provided by Alan Knox). 'Double loop' learning occurs when the adult learner is enabled, through a process of Type 2 praxis, to look deeply into his/her own practice and the assumptions and values that underpin it. This is undertaken in an effort to guide future practice and action based on an increased matching of 'espoused theories' to 'theories in action'. However, common to all Type 2 praxis, the theory base here is not fixed, but generated or appropriately derived from the review, reflection and analysis of practice. Thus, in Type 2 praxis, the participants' practice and/or underlying system of values are challenged, exposed, and generally altered as a result of the process. This is in strict contrast to Type l[a] praxis, where the theory guide (and is applied to) the practice in an effort to maximise the application of theory through practice.

The above examples have been used in an attempt to exemplify the three types of praxis identified. However, in life the divide between these types may be far less clear to the adult educator/practitioner. Take for example a fourth case, that of the social worker. Here the professional situation can often lead to a more complex set of circumstances, where, for instance, the social worker whilst guided by theory based on the law and recognised professional conduct (Type l[a]) will frequently be exposed 'cold' to new situations in which the guidelines might be hard to relate. This can lead to a response based on a rapid analysis of the ongoing situation (as under Type 2). Yet, under such constraints judgement can be clouded - depending on the turn of events - by personal morals, values and maxims (of Type l[b]) that may be at odds with the professionally or 'officially' recognised position that the social worker should take. The dilemma is a familiar one. However, what is clear is that a wider awareness of the different types of praxis - their strengths and weaknesses - need to be recognised by adult educators/practitioners such as social workers. They need to be taught and given the ability to differentiate between the types of praxis and the range of skills they use.

Following on from the above, this final section will examine, briefly, the question of teaching praxis to its potential users; adult educators and practitioners. However, while the range of potential users and situations is vast, here we will concentrate on the basic principles of its delivery. Firstly, it is important to recognise that praxis is a process and as such forms the means by which change(s) can be brought about, either deliberately and/or premeditated (Type I) or through reflection. review and analysis (Type 2). In this context, praxis can be seen to form one part of what Fullan3 calls a 'theory of changing'. A theory that enables the theory' about what should change to be implemented. Thus, praxis forms the process by which action can be facilitated. However, to enable this, the users require the necessary process skills; the ability to oscillate between theory and practice and back to theory again (Type l) or from practice to theory and back to practice again (Type 2). Furthermore, through on-going use of praxis, over time, the ability to transfer experiences and understandings is enhanced, since the process encourages the selection and application (where possible) of proven strategies for action. There are two elements in the praxis process, firstly the skills to do it, and secondly, the knowledge base required for theory. Taking the skills first:

The skills required for praxis differ between types. In Type 1, for example, the skills relate more to the ways and the means - the strategies - for putting the guiding theory into practice. Hence, the range of appropriate skills would include, for example, skills of recognising and matching situations and events, mapping and modelling the theory into practice, organising, fostering, challenging, and confronting individuals, groups or situation, exposing conflict and contradictions. Alternatively, Type 2 praxis can involve the application of the following (indicative) range of skills: observing, identifying, recording, reflecting, diagnosing, analysing, relating, fitting and modelling. In sum, the range of skills that might be used in either type is vast, however, some cognition or listing of these is important to the learner, if not vital, if the praxis process is to be learned and applied.

Moving on to the knowledge base, it is clear that the key to successful praxis lies in the ability to successfully oscillate between theory and practice by applying the above skills in a systematic way. However, the system and chosen content is provided by the theory base. Moreover, the higher the level and/or the greater the range of the theoretical knowledge, known to the user, the wider the potential application and analysis. Yet, whilst it is clear that in Type 1[b] praxis, the depth of theoretical understanding need only be minimal - thus making it possibly the most powerful form of praxis for initiating wide-scale social change in a heterogeneous group through the instillation of key maxims and principles the systematic development of a range of adult groups capable of utilising praxis of Type l[a] and 2 require the integrated development of a complimentary stock of schema, analytical competences and requisite theoretical knowledge.

Finally, an overall pedagogical strategy for praxis need be considered as common to both types of praxis is a shared need to master the application of the praxis process. To achieve mastery in praxis, the 'teachers' of praxis need firstly to raise the awareness of the adult learners of its use and application; secondly, to get them involved in doing it - case examples might be explored and re-examined, alternative approaches discussed and tried out, or new approached identified and applied; and thirdly (particularly in the case of Type l[a]) to build on this involvement until it is sufficiently instilled, as a process, to enable the learners to develop the process themselves in their on-going life experiences. This might be achieved, for example, through the self-generation of cases and applications.

Thus, to summarise, praxis can be considered and defined as a process skill that facilitates action through the ability to undertake a three stage process, of either: theory - practice - theory (Type 1), or practice - theory - practice (Type 2). The process enables meaning and understanding to be conferred on experience leading to: (i) the planning of future action based on a given theory (Type 1), or (ii) informed action based on an analysis of practice (Type 2). In both cases it can be seen that praxis forms an essential and powerful tool in the hands of an adult educator/practitioner. A tool that on the basis of the analysis provided here, it might be argued, needs wider recognition and use.



  1. Ian Haffenden (1986) 'International Adult Education: Comparative Analysis of the Younger Adult' 16 . Annual SCUTREA Papers 1986; pp. 180-188
  2. B. Glaser and A. Strauss, The discovery of grounded theory (Aldine Publishing Co., New York, 1967)
  3. M. Fullan, The meaning of educational change, (Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1982)

This document was added to the Education-line database on 28 May 2003