What’s your theory?Posted: February 28, 2017
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.