Why educational theory is flawedPosted: November 28, 2015
The TES has published an interesting piece by Janet Orchard that argues in favour of teachers learning educational theory. I think that educational theory is incredibly important and awareness of it among teachers is low. I also agree with this statement by Orchard:
“Teachers need to be able to plan successful lessons independently, and distinguish clear and legitimate aims from unclear and questionable ones. Teachers need to be able to communicate what they are doing clearly and coherently to parents and other stakeholders, justifying their professional judgements with legitimate and contextually relevant reasons.”
My concern is that a better knowledge of educational theory will not help teachers do this. It does not generally have this kind of practical value. Although very interesting, and perhaps essential to understanding the great debate in education, I tend to agree with Carl Hendrick’s assessment on Twitter that educational theory, “has little or no value for effective classroom teaching.”
Distilling the frenzy
The perceptive reader might wonder whether I have just contradicted myself. How can educational theory be both incredibly important and have little value for effective classroom teaching? It manages to do both by being largely wrong. And not just quietly wrong; educational theory is often loudly, ideologically, charismatically wrong. It sets the tone and manufactures the tropes through which educators express all kinds of misconceptions. It launches ships made of salt while the brass band plays and someone films it all for a TED talk. Others have invoked the words of Keynes when discussing educational theory. He is writing about economics but this quote is an excellent description of how educational theory affects our profession:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”
The scientific method
The problem with educational theory is partly due to what the term, ‘theory’, means when used in this way. In science, a ‘theory’ is the end-product of the scientific method. It has been rigorously tested against experiments or sets of observation (e.g. you can’t experiment on stars but you can conduct sophisticated observations). Scientists actively look for evidence that would prove their hypothesis wrong. We have a robust theory only after a hypothesis has undergone substantial testing and experimental results are replicated by other groups of researchers.
Educational theories, on the other hand, are often little more than what some eminent educationalist reckons. Sometimes they are supported by experimental evidence. However, it is often weak in nature and lacking in replication. Piaget’s stage theories have now been disproved even though he conducted plenty of experiments. The stages that he identified are likely to have been the product of the particular educational experience of the Swiss subjects that he studied (who included his own children).
Other educationalists are actively hostile to use of the scientific method. They talk of this as ‘positivism’ and apply special pleading. We are told that education is so terribly complex that scientific approaches break down. If it really is that complicated then it is hard to see how partial, unreplicated, uncontrolled, narrative accounts with a few numbers scattered around from time-to-time will have a better shot at uncovering the truth than scientific experiments.
And yet the beast of educational theory lives.
Take Paolo Freire’s banking model. This is often trotted-out to explain why explicit instruction is such a bad thing. Yet explicit instruction is one of the educational practices for which there is strong empirical evidence. When you look at the case that Freire builds, it is clear that it is political; it is what Freire reckons about education based upon his revolutionary political beliefs and his experiences of teaching illiterate adults. It should be clearly seen as offering us little to apply in our K-12 classrooms.
Or there is the case of John Dewey. Almost a religious figure in the field of US education, his intentions and legacy are often fought-over. And yet his influence is at the heart of the ‘expanding horizons’ model of social studies education which has been turning students off the subject for nearly a hundred years. Despite being comprehensively critiqued in 1980, expanding horizons is the model for a brand new social studies curriculum in Australia.
All is not lost
But perhaps things are not as bleak as I suggest.
Psychological research is not perfect and it suffers from flawed studies and low rates of replication. Yet one of the reasons that I decided to pursue research in cognitive load theory is because it is one of the few frameworks that I have found to offer anything of practical use. Although often criticised as lab-based, much of the research has been done with students in classrooms. And it is unashamedly scientific in its approach.
Cognitive load theory is certainly not perfect and has stumbled along the way. So have other promising psychological theories. But if you want something of practical value in the classroom, modern applied psychology seems the better bet.