What’s the Point of Educational Theory?

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Is educational theory of use to teachers? In this piece, Mark Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Science Education, argues that the role of theory in educational research and in supporting teachers is often misunderstood.

Theory Practice“Educational research does not tell teachers or policy makers how to improve learning; it is just concerned with having long debates about meaningless theory.”

The above statement is a synthesis of viewpoints I have encountered over the last few months and I remember holding a similar opinion myself in my early days of teaching.  Since leaving the classroom to become a tutor and, slowly, engage in educational research I have felt that entering into philosophical debates and long discussions about methodology is something of a guilty pleasure.  I have also been directly challenged by school colleagues, policy makers and student-teachers about what the point of theory is.  I am involved in a project trying to ‘translate’ educational research into practical suggestions for physics teachers and, most recently, I attended the ResearchEd 2013 conference, a grass-roots meeting of teachers and others who want to find out what works in education.  Both have heightened my sense that there is a real mismatch between what teachers, leaders and policy makers feel research should do and what it actually does.  It has taken me a long time to piece together what this problem actually looks like, but now I feel I have a useful picture which I shall share here in order to further the discussion.

Statements like the one at the start of this article need pulling apart in order to examine what the challenge is.  The elements are that firstly, all educational research should improve teaching and learning and secondly, that theory is not something which is of use to teachers in developing practice. Let’s deal with each of these components in turn:

1)      Research should be about improving teaching and learning.

The ReseachEd2013 conference showed that there is a real hunger for evidence-based research into what works in teaching.  Organisations like the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) have the support of government and plan to spend around £200m over the next 15 years on research of this kind.  This is great.  The EEF are clear that context matters, so what might work in a challenging school in London may not work in an independent school in Wales.  However, with that caveat they support detailed analysis of which strategies; which textbooks; which approaches to reading provide statistically significant improvement for learners.  The EEF are not alone, researchers like John Hattie have analysed hundreds of studies from around the world to compare the effect size of different influences such as class size, peer support etc. on the outcomes of pupils.

Such research, if not taken superficially, is of great use to teachers and policy makers.  So why isn’t all research like this?  There are two limitations to this type of evidence-based research. Firstly, where do you get the ideas for the interventions or approaches in the first place?  At ResearchEd 2013 we heard some great accounts of how teachers have been frustrated with an aspect of their teaching and set out to systematically improve it, and then evaluate how this intervention has helped.  This can grow into broader and more systematic research.  It is possible therefore that teachers in isolation come up with new approaches from scratch.  It is also possible that they draw on a bit of reading, a conversation or input from a colleague or tutor.  This input may well have some root in a theoretical perspective.  For example, it is generally agreed that the notions of scaffolding and supporting peer interactions in lessons follow from Bruner’s (1978, 1983) interpretation of constructivist theories of learning.  This does not mean that such theories are ‘correct’ and I share the concerns of Osborne about constructivist theories in education, but it does show that theory may play a role analogous to ‘blue sky research’ in science.  Michael Faraday, who pioneered the generation of electricity would not have been able to foresee its use, he was just fascinated in how moving coils of wire close together induced an electrical current.  I am not saying that we are likely to find the educational equivalent of electricity soon but I am illustrating that theory, and the arguments researchers have about it, may provide the inspiration for future approaches which then go on to be evaluated and shown to be effective.

There is another justification for the development of theory though.  Whilst research into the effectiveness of a strategy or approach may give us an idea of ‘what works’, it does not give us any indication of why it works.  This makes the development of new strategies a process of trial and error, whereas theory has the potential to provide rapid development based on a new understanding.  So whilst educational research that considers the evidence for what works is incredibly important, the development of theory has a role to play in prompting innovation and even giving a clear direction for new policy and practice.

2)      Theory is of no use to teachers though.

Teachers are influenced by theory every day, often without realising it, but many are put off by the seemingly abstract nature of theory and the words used to express it.

I had a moment a few months ago when I had been observing a lesson and contemplating why the pupils had not taken from the main activity what the teacher wanted them to.  Having been immersed in some research that morning I began to explain to the teacher afterwards that I thought the activity should have been more pupil-led in order to allow solutions to emerge from peer interactions.  Understandably, I was met with a blank face!  I quickly realised that what I needed to do was to translate this theory into a practical suggestion for what might be done differently.  I suggested writing in the lesson plan what the pupils are doing, instead of what the teacher is doing, and giving groups of pupils a problem that they then have to discuss and feed back on.  We sat down and planned the next lesson with some of these features.

As a tutor it can be really difficult to be good at research and engaging with abstract theoretical arguments whilst also being up to speed with the particular challenges of policy and curriculum, knowing the class well enough and having the ideas to generate concrete suggestions. I often get the balance wrong.  Keeping abreast of research and policy is part of my job but teachers have to be incredibly driven to do this on top of everything else they are charged with.  Bridging research and the specifics of a particular classroom is incredibly difficult and sometimes us tutors don’t help by going on about abstract concepts or distant research.

The language of educational theory is often another barrier to teachers engaging with it and it must seem educationalists make up new words constantly.  Partly this is a fair cop and narcissism does play a role.  However, the terminology being used as theorists argue with each other allows them to distinguish subtly different positions that have been hewed over decades and such argument ultimately makes these positions stronger, or they get shot down.  This is a good thing because poorly thought-through notions of learning and teaching should not make it to the classroom.

So what is the point of educational theory?  Whilst not all theory goes on to provide inspiration for a strategy or develops into new understanding of learning or teaching, out of the protracted and messy arguments some seeds take root that grow towards that light.  Theory has a role to play in advancing education, as evidence-focused analysis of particular techniques and strategies does.  Engaging with theory is difficult and bringing it to bear on real classrooms is even more so, but this does not mean we should abandon it.  Instead teachers, researchers and policy makers need to work hard to understand where each other is coming from and focus on using everything we can to improve education.

References

Bruner, J. S. (1978) The role of dialogue in language acquisition. In Sinclair, A., Jarvella, R. & Levelt, W. J. M. (eds) The Child’s Conception of Language. New York: Springer-Verlag

Bruner, J. S. (1983) Child’s Talk: Learning to use Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Osborne, J. (1996) Beyond Constructivism. Science Education 80(1) 53-82

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One Response to What’s the Point of Educational Theory?

  1. Education_Researcher Saturday, 7 December 2013 at 11:47 #

    Completely agree, theory is just some thoughts about why something happens, educationalists alienation from this kind of terminology reflects a massive intellectual under-development of the profession – I hope you keep plugging on with your view, there are signs of progress with ResearchED 2013, EEF, Prof Coe, controlled studies Prof Paul Connolly @ Belfast and others.