What’s your theory?

I’ve read a couple of interesting posts recently about the role of theory in education. The first was by Naomi Barnes for the AARE blog site. Barnes starts by making an interesting observation:

“My student teachers often question the value of educational theory in their initial teacher education. Also often early career teachers tell me that the theory they were taught at university holds no value in their day-to-day practical lives.”

Yet she goes on to address this issue by discussing a theory of history rather than education; an argument that reminds me of the old Schools (Council) History Project in the U.K. (see this paper for an interesting discussion).

The second post was by John Andrews who again makes the case for educational theory. But this time, it is a theory I don’t recognise because it seems to be set in opposition to the, “tangible, the measurable, the calculable, the secure and testable and the practically applicable.”

As a scientist by training, this is not my understanding of what a theory is. Theory provides a conceptual framework to explain the measurable and, critically, a theory is testable. Specifically, a theory is something that is falsifiable: You can conceive and conduct experiments or observations that have the capability of proving the theory wrong. In fact, in science, we don’t even call something a theory until it has survived a number of such attempts. Until then, all we have is an hypothesis.

Some educational theories are not falsifiable. I’m pretty sure that productive pedagogies fits into this category. It’s proponents don’t seem able to imagine any kind of data that we could collect that would prove it wrong. Instead, it’s truth seems to be a starting assumption.

Other educational theories have actually been falsified but oddly remain undead. Piaget’s stage theories spring to mind.

When I mention the learning theories that I am interested in then I’m often told that these are not educational theories at all. Cognitive Load Theory is one of these but it doesn’t pass muster.

Cognitive Load Theory is not intended to be a theory of everything. For instance, it has little to say about motivation. And, as with any nascent theory, it’s had teething problems. For a while, it too was heading for unfalsifiability.

But I am attracted to Cognitive Load Theory because it makes some useful predictions about what happens when we learn and, even if it doesn’t survive in its current form, it has enough similarities to other promising theories – such as Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning – to suggest that there’s probably a core of truth to it.

Yet I am deemed to be atheoretical. Perhaps it’s because interested in the wrong theories.

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19 Comments on “What’s your theory?”

  1. I find this discussion interesting. I remember thinking while sitting in my first year ITE course called Educational Foundations that it was interesting but didn’t really help me understand teaching or how to teach. Looking back at it, that course was a foundational course upon which other education courses were built upon. It was, largely, a history of education and how we came to where we are, and it deal in educational theories, however, as you note, a theory is testable and falsifiable, and I do not recall the theories we were given coming across that way.

    I’ve written before about my views on CLT and why I think it is important, and it is a well-known facet of education yet seems to get little traction. I suspect it is due to being such a small, yet at the same time large, part of education. It is also not shiny or a hot button topic that can be used for leverage by stakeholders.

    I sometimes feel like education has been reduced merely to a political football, with the lives and futures of our students the stakes.

  2. ijstock says:

    I think you hit upon the answer in your last sentence. I have had precisely that response from two publishers now – “…not what the education world wants to hear….” This is not about a quest for knowledge, simply a reinforcing of whatever happens to be fashionable amongst the movers and shakers.

    (I agree with you about cognitive load theory, by the way).

  3. David F says:

    Hi Greg—I think the issue is the evolution of education from a field originating in philosophy and religion to one increasingly (at least, in theory–ha!) on evidence. As has been written elsewhere, the original forms of education in the West come via Plato, Quintillian, Erasmus, the Jesuits et al., with a specific concept of “why education” and what its role was (mostly about forming morals and ethics for the whole person). Later Rousseau and then Spencer, Petrazelli, Dewey and Piaget propose an alternative to traditional education–based on a specific theory of how children learn.

    Where we’re at now is the hicupped movement away from that sort of thing to one based on cognitive psychology and neuroscience, however, the old philosophical views of theory are still with us. Personally, I think that the philosophy part (especially the morals and ethics part) is important for defining the purpose of education for a school/system, while the science-y part is needed for how we educate.

  4. Greg was kind enough to help me work out this thought on twitter. Now that it’s a bit clearer, I thought it would be good to record it on the post.

    Theory can help us in ways that I don’t think this post captures entirely. It’s often the case that there are questions we have that (a) do have real implications for practice but (b) we are practically unable to test.

    We might, for example, want to know what sort of experiences a toddler should have to support their learning of algebra, Calculus and other areas of higher math. Someone might come along with a theory: toddlers should play with toys that allow them to experience smooth and continuous change, as well as breaks in this continuity — this will help them down the road with Calculus.

    I’m not saying that this theory is true. I don’t know if it is, or if it’s reasonable. But my point is that it would be a mistake to say that it’s in principle unfalsifiable In principle, the experiment is simple. Randomly assign demographically similar groups of toddlers to a treatment and control condition. See if, 15 years after the treatment, their Calculus scores are higher or not.

    It’s not an unfalsifiable claim. But it’s very, very, very unlikely that we’ll be able to actually perform any experiment like this. For all practical purposes, there is no test that will help us decide this question. This is a place where theory can be helpful.

    That’s my idea: that you can be both falsifiable in principle, but untestable in practice.

    The measure of theory in science probably shouldn’t be, I think, that it’s in practice testable. Otherwise, theory can never get ahead of our experimental capabilities. It took years before Einstein’s general relativity could be practically tested in its completeness. Surely, though, relatively counts as a scientific theory.

    It makes some sense to me to say that a scientific theory can’t be in principle unfalsifiable. But it might be practically untestable. And that’s precisely where theory is most valuable, it seems to me.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      If this theory about toddlers really is untestable then why is it helpful? Why would anyone follow its recommendations?

      • Because if you’ve got a good theory — one that is reasonable, well-connected to other things we know, consistent with what is currently known, maybe even confirmed in some part — then you might believe the theory. And if the risk compared to the alternative options is sufficiently low, you might follow that theory’s recommendations in practice.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        If you can test parts of it then it’s partly testable – in this case I think the theory about toddlers is actually testable in many ways. If you can’t test it then it’s a belief with all the possibilities of bias and prejudice that brings. As a profession, we need to move away from making decisions based on such beliefs. So it’s not useful.

      • Well, *everything* is partly testable.

        And I agree with you — there could be many ways to partly test the toddler theory.

        I agree with you about the big picture: why rely on theory when you have good evidence? The profession should move away from biased, prejudiced guessing in situations when we have good evidence to rely on.

        But the question is, what do you do in the absence of a test? Sure, maybe parts of the toddler theory could be confirmed. But what should I do while I’m waiting for those results to come in?

        What is the toddler theory is in principle testable, but the results aren’t going to be ready for another 10 years. What should I do while waiting?

        Theory is helpful, among other times, when you’re waiting for a test.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        1. I don’t think theory is practically helpful in the absence of anything testable and you have not made the case to show why it is. In fact, it could be quite harmful e.g. many educators were convinced by the now widely discredited whole-language theory of early reading instruction and this has probably led to greater levels of illiteracy than if they had not been convinced by it.
        2. Waiting years is not the only way to test the toddler theory.

      • 2. Waiting years is not the only way to test the toddler theory.

        Oh, agreed. I just meant that if we were waiting, and I had to make a teaching decision anyway, why not try my best to figure out a systematic, clear explanation that leads to predictions and that could be testable someday, i.e. a theory.

        What would you have people do, in such a waiting situation? It seems that you’re saying you’d rather people refrain from thinking systematically about problems if they can’t quickly be tested with experiments. You seem to think that people will make worse decisions if they think systematically about a problem than if they operate without an explicit theory.

        I don’t know much about reading instruction, so I can’t comment on the whole-language approach and the harm it’s done. But your point doesn’t seem to be about the value of theory or not. Instead, it seems to be about not being overly committed to ideas that have low or moderate evidence.

        In our everyday lives — including in our teaching lives — we come across many, many situations for which no experiment has been done to guide us. Systematic thinking doesn’t seem like much of a vice to me, as long as it’s done well and is made consistent with what knowledge we do have, and that one is open to its being contradicted by future tests.

        Now, is this good policy? You say no, and I don’t have a knack for policy. I don’t know if it’s better for the profession as a whole if we refrain from thinking systematically and carefully about problems we aren’t able to immediately test.

        But it seems to me a mistake to say that theory isn’t helpful, professionally, in situations where practically there is no experiment on its way to guide us.

      • Greg Ashman says:

        It might seem that way to you but I don’t think you’ve demonstrated this in your argument. Perhaps it needs more systematic thinking… 😉

  5. Chester Draws says:

    The problem with Cognitive Load Theory, for those that love educational theories, is that it applies to only one specific part of learning.

    Theory fetishists want a single unified theory that encompasses motivation, retention, understanding and the brain all in one set. They also need to be “socially just” or you can forget them, so theories implying significant differences in natural ability aren’t acceptable.

    Actual teachers have loads of theories, but they are much more discrete and pay no attention to any theories of the brain.

    My theories of learning/teaching include, but are not limited to:
    1) there’s no point practicing a skill badly, hence homework for junior students needs to be easy or not given at all.
    2) repetition in small chunks of a skill is far better than massive loads all in one go.
    3) success breeds success, and that breeds better motivation.
    4) some kids just cannot be reasoned with.
    5) some teachers sacrifice their students’ results rather than admit that their personally loved theory doesn’t work in particular situations.
    6) what the teacher thinks is important is usually of passingly trivial importance to students and to pretend otherwise is a waste of time.
    7) people don’t like being confused for any longer than a short time — if the “aha” moment does not follow quickly after the puzzle it will merely irritate and cause a lack of motivation — so any discovery learning in my classrooms better have the discovery arrive in under 5 minutes.

    That sort of theorising –which every teacher does — doesn’t count as theory. It’s far too disparate, with no over-arching principle.

    If education theory took architecture or chemistry as it’s model — here’s a list of things that work, here’s some that don’t, here’s some exceptions, theory doesn’t trump facts, however inconvenient — rather than philosophy we’d all be better off.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      I see – sociological theories have to be more grandiose that testable, scientific ones.

      • Stan says:

        Yep . Theories on gravitation are not very good scientific theories because they don’t explain sub-atomic particle behavior.

        Again people can’t see to get over the word theory has different uses.

        I have a theory that the used car salesman is not really putting my interests ahead of his bosses as much as he would like me to believe. Einstein’s general theory of relativity was an accepted scientific theory within a few years of being published.

        Words in English can have different meanings in different contexts. This is not a theory it is a fact and some people seem to be unable to comprehend it in the particular case of the word theory.

  6. […] to take my word for it because the AARE site is currently down, but the programme is full of ‘theory‘ and teaching approaches such as inquiry based learning that are at odds with what we know […]

  7. […] (PISA). Like pretty much everyone else involved in education, they have swallowed educational ‘theory’ wholesale and think that they can use this to define the best teaching practices. The problem is […]


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