Crossing the Theory-Practice Divide

Crossing the Theory-Practice Divide

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Practice as Knowledge

Recent debates point to the complexity of understanding practical knowledge.1 Robin Nelson argues that, apart from “factual” knowledge, there is another kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to do things. This knowledge is not always transferable through human communication; it is the knowledge gained through doing.2 He defines Practice as Research as ‘a research project in which practice is a key method of inquiry and where, in respect of the arts, a practice … is submitted as substantial evidence of a research inquiry.’3 In Practice as Research, the practice is both a method to produce knowledge and the outcome of such knowledge.

Practice as Research challenges the hierarchy of theory and the written word over practice and praxis (which Nelson explains as theory imbricated within practice4).5 Desmond Bell distinguishes between two approaches to combining practice and research, both unsatisfactory: sub-positivism, in which ‘empiricist rhetoric’ is combined with corporate rationality for the benefit of recognition and funding; and romanticism, which ‘privileges the expressive’ and does little for knowledge production.6 Drawing heavily on David Davies,7 Bell argues that understanding art as research demands an understanding of the process and conditions of art production.8

Practice as Research is less established in the Netherlands than in other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia. Leiden University collaborates with the Royal Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague to offer, amongst others, ‘research in and through artistic practice.’9 Leiden University also collaborates with the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam on the project ‘Bridging art, design and technology through Critical Making.’10 At Utrecht University, researchers from the Media Studies department have only recently begun to develop a collaborative project comparing Practice as Research across disciplines. However, Practice as Research is used in various courses in the department, especially in the context of game studies.

Practice as Research, Praxiography, and Production Studies

Bueger and Gadinger’s term praxiography brings praxis and ethnography together as it refers to practice theory-driven research.11 Ethnography is characterized by a variety of methods for data gathering, including, amongst others, observation, participation, interviews, and diaries. Based on their evaluation of Bourdieu’s “field of practice” and Wenger’s “community of practice,” Bueger and Gadinger discuss four basic techniques for praxiography: observation, learning practices (understood as a form of participant observation), talking about practices, and reading (text analysis).12 These four methods are not unfamiliar to a Production Studies approach, which might include the use of observation, interviews, and production- and industry-related artefacts.

Studying the production of audio-visual media, John Caldwell argues that, by speaking about their practice, either in conversation or in the form of professional documents and artefacts, media practitioners self-theorize about their profession. By reflecting on their work and explaining “how it’s done,” they implicitly develop theories about their profession.13 Practice, in other words, is a different way of developing knowledge. This embodied knowledge precedes theoretical knowledge.14 Nelson refers to this perspective as an ‘insider account,’ providing a fuller understanding of the practice.15 Bell sees the educational context as the usual site for practice-based knowledge production.16

The above serves to argue that a Practice as Research approach to our practical course aligns well with a Production Studies approach to researching students’ practices. Assignments served both didactic purposes, including reflection and research purposes, as they produced data. When this produced conflicts of interests, the teacher prioritized didactic purposes.

Self-Directed Learning

Brookfield argues that Self-Directed Learning means that the student, herself, conceives, designs, conducts and evaluates a learning project.17 Hence, the student is fully autonomous in her learning effort. However, the support of peers, experts, relatives, and other people close to the learner is of major importance to the learning effort. Thus, “self-directed” does not equal “in isolation.”18

There are various ways in which educators can help learners in their Self-Directed Learning efforts. These include helping gauge the learning resources; designing a plan; giving direct instructions, if requested; guiding and mentoring group learning activities; and evaluating learning.19

Brookfield sees Self-Directed Learning as an emancipatory learning strategy, despite the highly controlled and regulated society in which it takes place.20 This understanding of Self-Directed Learning aligns well with the intention of this practical course and was, therefore, adopted as a general approach.

Inquiry-Based Learning

According to Hobbs, the pedagogy of inquiry should be central to media literacy in order to critically question media texts.21 In today’s media environment however, media literacy involves both the consumption and production of media texts. Inquiry might, therefore, also be central to teaching film making. Inquiry-Based Learning is oriented around the exploration and investigation of a problem, authentic inquiries using contextualized and situated learning, and a research-based approach.22 Relying on earlier work by Hmelo-Silver, Golan Duncan, and Chinn, Blessinger and Carfora argue Inquiry-Based Learning includes gaining epistemic knowledge (knowledge of the subject matter) as well as epistemic practices (knowledge of how to do things).23 Therefore, it seems to align well with a Practice as Research approach.


Collaboration is a key aspect of Inquiry-Based Learning.24 The premise is that learning is most effective when learning happens in a ‘socially participatory way,’ i.e., through collaboration.25 According to Blessinger and Carfora, mentors/educators are involved in the process, but students take increasing responsibility for their learning.26 This freedom is related to the responsibility of making informed decisions about such choices with respect to resources, actions, and skills.27


Hmelo-Silver, Golan Duncan, and Chinn argue that scaffolding can ‘reduce cognitive load, provide expert guidance, and help students acquire disciplinary ways of thinking and acting.’28 Hmelo and Guzdial distinguish between black-box scaffolding and glass-box scaffolding. The former is aimed at the restriction of options to make tasks accessible and manageable, not at learning.29 The latter helps students learn but should disappear as the process progresses.30


Both Nelson and Bell stress the role of documenting practice to produce what the former refers to as ‘evidence’ in order to make tacit knowledge production explicit.31 To assess the gains of Practice as Research, in Nelson’s view, ‘documentation is integral to articulating and evidencing the research inquiry.’32 He advocates the use of a variety of means to do so.33 According to Bell, a form of auto-ethnography is most suitable.34 This brings us back to Praxiography, Production Studies, and the use of ethnographic methods.

Interactive Narratives

Nelson advocates making reading a part of the learning process of Practice as Research from the beginning in order to create resonance between theory and practice.35 Students in the course discussed here were introduced to interactive narratives through literature on interactive documentaries (i-docs). Eriksson and Sørensen mirror academic video with documentary film to claim its validity: both have the intention to disseminate knowledge.36 We would also argue that research underlies both, despite documentary’s association with unmediated reality. This makes documentary a good starting point.

Initially, i-docs were discussed in terms of technology. Choi, for instance, conceptualizes i-docs as technological processes that link media fragments together in order to form a narrative.37 Gifreu includes considerations of the user, arguing that i-docs are ‘interactive applications, on or off-line, made with the intention of representing reality with its own mechanisms that we can call modes of browsing or interaction, relative to the level of participation allowed.’38

Alternatively, Aston and Gaudenzi, put the user in the centre, conceptualizing interactivity as ‘a means through which the viewer is positioned within the artefact itself…’39 Focusing on the physical dynamics between spectator and digital artefact, they propose four modes of interactivity. In the controversial mode, the user is allowed to navigate freely through a narrative by interacting with or “being in conversation with” the computer. In the hypertext mode, users can explore a closed archive consisting of linked videos. The participative mode, made possible by the Web 2.0, counts on users to participate in creating an open and evolving content database. Finally, the experiential mode focuses on the physical presence of the user, challenging the user’s senses and perception of the world.40

Whereas the authors discussed above look at the workings of interactive texts, Lachman focuses on the design of such texts as experiences. Relying on the 5 E’s model of experience design used by Conifer Research, he discusses user-related considerations which are (or should be) involved when developing interactive narratives. The model includes Entice to lead audiences to interactive narratives, Enter to start the interactive experience, Engage for actual interaction with the content, Exit for the way the experience ends, and Extend for users to share or revisit the online interactive experience.41 The 5E’s model was used in the course discussed here to stimulate students to consider its aspects for their own narratives.

Course Design

The course was designed as a Practice as Research project, using Self-Directed Learning and Inquiry-Based Learning as didactic approaches. Documentation of the process of enquiry and production was used to ensure reflection on the process and produce research data on students’ learning. Students collaborated in teams.42 Collaboration was supported through a number of feedback sessions in which students commented on each other’s work.

Students were given complete freedom in the choice of subject, research question, and research approach, as long as they translated their research findings into an interactive narrative. Preliminary scaffolding was offered through an introductory lecture during a preceding practical course, a visit to IDFA’s Doc Lab, and a Master Talk by Jonathan Harris.

Glass-box scaffolding43 focused on providing knowledge and reflection on existing interactive narratives, specifically interactive documentaries, to familiarize them with some of the questions about interactivity they needed to consider. These questions included the function and goals of interactivity and the different kinds of interactivity.44 A lecture and assigned readings at the very beginning of the practical course were used to furnish this. Some of the readings were also needed for assignments, which refreshed students’ consideration of theory in relation to their practice. Feedback was generated during seminars.

Black-box scaffolding45 focused on providing existing technologies (tools and platforms) with which to create their narratives. Students were offered a number of tools and platforms with which to create their interactive narrative, including Dreamhost, Korsakow, Omeka, Scalar, Twine, and Word Press.46

Students were made responsible for a number of scheduled seminars in order to be able to schedule an activity or meeting based on their needs at the moment.47

  • 1 ‘KunstKennis: Kunst Als Leermeester van de Wetenschap? — KNAW’; Maarten Huygen, ‘Eigen Werk Onder de Loep Nemen,’ NRC Handelsblad, 21 June 2017; Maarten Huygen, ‘Kritiek Op Promoveren Op Eigen Kunst in Leide,’ NRC Handelsblad, 22 June 2017; NRC Handelsblad, ‘Kunst En Wetenschap Laten Zich Moeilijk Versmelten,’ NRC Handelsblad, 22 June 2017; Henk Borgdorff, ‘Is Kunst Wetenschap? Dat Is de Verkeerde Vraag!’, NRC Handelsblad, 4 July 2017.
  • 2 Robin Nelson, ‘Practice-as-Research and the Problem of Knowledge,’ Performance Research, 11, 4, December 2006, 107.
  • 3 Robin Nelson, Practice as Research in the Arts. Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, pp. 8–9.
  • 4 Nelson, Practice as Research in the Arts, p. 33.
  • 5 Nelson, p. 82.
  • 6 Desmond Bell, ‘Creative Film and Media Practice as Research: In Pursuit of That Obscure Object of Knowledge,’ Journal of Media Practice, 7, 2, 2006, 93.
  • 7 David Davies, Art as Performance, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.
  • 8 Bell, ‘Creative Film and Media Practice as Research,’ p. 97.
  • 9 ‘ACPA – Academy of Creative and Performing Arts,’ Leiden University.
  • 10 See
  • 11 Christian Bueger and Frank Gadinger, Towards Praxiography, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 79–80.
  • 12 Bueger and Gadinger, Towards Praxiography, p. 84.
  • 13 John T. Caldwell, Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television, Duke University Press, 2008.
  • 14 idem
  • 15 Nelson, Practice as Research in the Arts, p. 89.
  • 16 Bell, ‘Creative Film and Media Practice as Research,’ p. 99.
  • 17 Stephen D. Brookfield, ‘Self-Directed Learning,’ in Rupert Maclean and David Wilson, eds, International Handbook of Education for the Changing World of Work, Springer Netherlands, 2009, p. 2615.
  • 18 Brookfield, ‘Self-Directed Learning,’ p. 2617–19.
  • 19 Brookfield, p. 2624.
  • 20 Brookfield, pp. 2621–22.
  • 21 Renée Hobbs, ‘The Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement,’ Journal of Communication, 48, 1, March 1998, 27.
  • 22 Patrick Blessinger and John M. Carfora, ‘Innovative Approaches in Teaching and Learning: An Introduction to Inquiry-Based Learning for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences,’ in Patrick Blessinger and John M. Carfora, eds, Inquiry-Based Learning for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences : A Conceptual and Practical Resource for Educators, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2014, p. 14.
  • 23 Cindy E. Hmelo-Silver, Ravit Golan Duncan, and Clark A. Chinn, ‘Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006),’ Educational Psychologist, 42, 2, April 2007, p. 100; Blessinger and Carfora, ‘Innovative Approaches in Teaching and Learning,’ p. 5.
  • 24 Blessinger and Carfora, ‘Innovative Approaches in Teaching and Learning,’ p. 6.
  • 25 Blessinger and Carfora, p. 12.
  • 26 Blessinger and Carfora, p. 14.
  • 27 Blessinger and Carfora, p. 7.
  • 28 Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn, ‘Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning,’ p. 101.
  • 29 Hmelo-Silver, Duncan, and Chinn, p. 102.
  • 30 Cindy E. Hmelo and Mark Guzdial, ‘Of Black and Glass Boxes: Scaffolding for Doing and Learning,’ in Daniel C Edelson and Eric A Domeshek, eds, Proceedings of the 1996 International Conference on Learning Sciences (ICLS ’96), Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, 1996, p. 130.
  • 31 Bell, ‘Creative Film and Media Practice as Research,’ p. 90; Nelson, Practice as Research in the Arts, p. 98–99.
  • 32 Nelson, p. 72, italics in the original.
  • 33 Nelson, p. 87.
  • 34 Bell, p. 99.
  • 35 Nelson, p. 76.
  • 36 Eriksson and Sørensen. ‘Reflections on Academic Video,’ Academic Video Essays and Documentary Theory.
  • 37 Insook Choi, ‘Interactive Documentary: A Production Model for Nonfiction Multimedia Narratives,’ in Anton Nijholt, Dennis Reidsma, and Hendri Hondorp, eds, Intelligent Technologies for Interactive Entertainment, Springer, 2009, p. 44–55.
  • 38 Arnau Gifreu, ‘The Interactive Multimedia Documentary as a Discourse on Interactive Non-Fiction: For a Proposal of the Definition and Categorisation of the Emerging Genre,’ Hipertext.Net, 9, May 2011.
  • 39 Judith Aston and Sandra Gaudenzi, ‘Interactive Documentary: Setting the Field,’ Studies in Documentary Film, 6, 2, June 2012, 126.
  • 40 Aston and Gaudenzi, ‘Interactive Documentary: Setting the Field,’ pp. 126–29.
  • 41 Richard Lachman, ‘Emergent Principles for Digital Documentary,’ VIEW Journal of European Television History and Culture [Online], 5, 10, December 2016, 6.
  • 42 Although the set-up was to create teams of 2 or 3 students, a number of students immediately decided they wanted to work in larger teams to be able to film themselves. In the end, they formed four teams (consisting of six, five (2 teams), and two students).
  • 43 Hmelo and Guzdial, ‘Of Black and Glass Boxes: Scaffolding for Doing and Learning,’ p. 130.
  • 44 See, amongst others, Sandra Gaudenzi, ‘The Living Documentary: From Representing Reality to Co-Creating Reality in Digital Interactive Documentary,’ Goldsmiths, University of London, 2013,; Gifreu, ‘The Interactive Multimedia Documentary as a Discourse on Interactive Non-Fiction: For a Proposal of the Definition and Categorisation of the Emerging Genre’; Kate Nash, ‘Modes of Interactivity: Analysing the Webdoc,’ Media, Culture & Society, 34, 2, March 2012, 195–210.
  • 45 Hmelo and Guzdial, p. 130.
  • 46 Eventually, two groups decided to work with yet another tool, Eko Studio. Three groups used Word Press to present their projects and another switched to Scalar after discovering that Word Press held too many limitations for their needs.
  • 47 Efforts to arrange for a guest lecture were unsuccessful.


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