In theory there is no difference between theory and practice…in practice, there is

Nik Powell, Director, National Film and Television School

“I did not have an education, so I had to use my brains” Bill Shankly Liverpool Football Manager.

Like Shankly (and I am lifetime Gooner!), I did not myself have a formal education beyond the age of 16; but I have to admit to having a very good one until 16!

However I have always believed in the benefits of higher or further education both for the individual and for Society as a whole. In some ways my belief is quite extreme for someone who is not themselves educated beyond A level. I believe that the study of almost anything will have benefits. The process of researching, arguing, dissecting, interpreting, persuading, learning, setting down, doing, practising and all the usual process’ that for me are part of learning cannot but have benefits for each individual, whatever they are studying.

So what I am writing about is not the purpose or benefits of Media Studies as these for me and, more importantly for students, are surely self-evident. Rather I would like to discuss how to organise and teach Media so each person studying it can get as much benefit and understanding and knowledge both applicable and otherwise from their course.

“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is”

And I think the greatest confusion is the (sometimes misguided) attempt in some quarters to combine the teaching of both the practise of making media (the ‘how’) with the teaching of media and great media texts/films/shows. I have believed for some time that Media studies courses should keep to teaching the great Film and other media texts in the same way that Literature courses teach the great texts of literature and teach you how to study and write about them, not how to write them! If you study English literature and you want to learn to write novels or plays, you either take a specific separate course in writing or you join the University drama club(s- in many universities); normally the latter. However you can also go to specialist schools or on specialist courses to learn in depth the challenges of creating as opposed to understanding and dissecting the great texts of the world. Indeed I have always strongly believed that, if for instance you want to write or direct fiction in the form of film/tv and/or plays and/or novels and/or comedy, you are often best off at undergraduate level taking a basic English or other Literature course. By studying the great storytellers of the world down the ages, some will begin to learn how to write themselves.

So anyone wanting to make films or other moving image story telling perhaps should – like an English (or American, or French, or Russian) Literature student – be studying the great storytellers in Media and learn through studying them how great stories are told in  the moving image. Like literature courses, these should be classroom based (apart from visiting cinemas, theatres to see the great storytellers work performed or shown etc) and NOT practical as much as individual teachers might prefer them to be so.

And the point or ‘purpose’ of these courses is surely to give students an understanding of great storytelling – specifically in its media forms- so that they will understand, and be able to draw from  all the stories they will be told- true and otherwise –  by the media during their lives.

“I want the ideas to be seductive AND I want the results to be seductive” Brian Eno

That therefore brings us to the courses ‘Media production’ and/or ‘Media practice’. As a result of the availability of low cost but super high quality equipment – whose quality most importantly is good enough for broadband, television and cinema – these courses have of course been able to become much more ambitious in what they attempt to teach.

I believe that critical, analytic film studies classroom teaching should be kept separate from these practical courses. This way undergraduate students with a vocational rather than academic bent can acquire the education and skills required ‘on the floor’ of the Creative industries.

Singapore has an educational system based on the English system but without the most recent change where all colleges were given university status. There – as used to be the case in the UK – students can chose between an academic route (A levels followed by university) or a vocational route ( GCSE’s followed by what Singaporeans call Polytechnics which teach all the vocations from Nursing to Engineering to Film and Media). I am an external assessor at one such Polytechnic. The students courses are 3 to 4 years. They can specialise in sound, cinematography and other disciplines. They learn the practical side of Film and programme making. They learn everything from Location agreements to how to source their lighting. When they do the interpreting the scene exercise common in many film schools, they recreate a scene from a Tarantino movie rather than a Bunuel movie. They have the practical disciplines (camera, sound etc) as specialisations within the Polytechnic to support such exercises.  Instead of being small universities who may be starved of funds during the new fee driven regime that lies ahead in the UK, these Polytechnics are very well resourced and respected in Singapore by the government teachers and students alike as they are seen as complimentary to, not competitors of, the main universities. Indeed graduates of these polytechnics continue on to Singapore’s own excellent Film School The Puttnam Film School or to other film schools around the world including our National Film and Television School.

The second element I would urge in these practical polytechnic style courses is that they are not just interested in the writing directing producing triangle. Rather that they concentrate on the other specialisations. Each specialisation must be held to be as important as each other specialisation. Indeed students should have to choose to specialise within the practical media courses in the behind the camera disciplines such as camera and sound and design and production managing and so on. Although always remember as Cesare Zavattini an Italian New Wave writer said that ‘“Cinema is a collaboration where everyone tries to erase everyone else’s work”

I suppose what I am arguing for at an undergraduate level is a very clear separation between the academic and the practical/vocational Media courses. So that the students and teachers and industry and government know what and how these courses are setting out to deliver; in short know what their purpose is.

…”That lyf so short,the craft so long to lerne” Chaucer

Many successful role models in our industry did not have an academic bent. While not claiming to be a role model I certainly did not have an academic aptitude. Hence the illiteracy of this article! We do not want to exclude such people from Media courses. We do not want to thrust academic interpretations of Media texts or Films down their throat. We want to teach them the ‘How’ without the paraphernalia of academia – but to a super high level of understanding and competence- which contextualised specialisation can enable. This can be achieved through our existing university system. However I feel that it can be better achieved by well funded Singapore style Polytechnics which provide a practical alternative pathway into the Creative (and other) industries while at the same time providing an excellent education. But whether practical or academic, they should both still follow Rudyard Kipling’s (yes I know he is a British Imperailist writer!) maxim…

“I keep six honest serving men, they taught me all I knew, their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who”

And to TS Elliotts exhortation…

“ We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time”


This entry was posted in Nik Powell and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Tim Brook says:

    At undergraduate level, perhaps. But media education begins at birth (see Bazalgette) and it simply makes no sense at all for young learners to separate critiquing and creating – indeed the two are mutually beneficial.

  2. Antonio Lopez says:

    Ciao, I like the quote: “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” I would like to expand upon your notion of practice. While it is true that practice as defined by course catalogs has to do with the practical application of skills, such as filmmaking, I also think media literacy is a kind of practice. For me practice means doing something, and when it comes to media we are always doing something, even if it is channel surfing. The act of making a choice, to me, is a kind of practice, one that can be differentiated between consumerism and active cultural citizenship. So I would like to challenge this notion of practice as being either or, but as both. Thanks for listening!

  3. John Fitzsimons says:

    I am not convinced that critical awareness of the media encourages better media products or better media producers, or ever good outcomes. It can discourage media production as a “false pathway” in life. It can therefore disempower students. We should not assume that critical awareness always has a positive outcome. So here I agree – Learn to make effective media. It’s a key way to become a participant in a democracy.

  4. N Tennear says:

    Taking a look at OCR A2 papers reveals that for many students theory is something not to engage with but something to memorise without understanding and then crowbar into analysis any way it can be regardless of relevance, the name ‘Propp’ is definitely an alarm bell. ‘This isn’t the fault of students though. It’s ropey teaching or even worse a lack of knowledge on the teacher’s part pushing them to have a quick look at Mediaknowall (Who hasn’t wanted to take their own life after reading the 27th ‘I used the Hypodermic Syringe theory in my music video’?) There seems to be a mindset where theory and theorists are a tick sheet and that genuine application isn’t necessary for a mark; I’ve even seen a student with a crib sheet of theorists and key quotes that cover the key concepts. They’d got it from the internet after feeling that they ‘didn’t know enough theory’.

    Theory needs to be taught in ways that allow students to value the ideas enough to apply them to their projects and then be able to recognise them in their own work otherwise there’s no point in teaching it. The current OCR specification doesn’t allow for theory and practice to be ‘kept separate’ so schemes of work have to be created that allow theory and practice to compliment each other.

    p.s. If theorists really knew how to make films we’d all be banging on about the absolutely awful Riddles of the Sphinx and Hitchcock wouldn’t get a mention.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *