In defense of Theory

This is a very long article (word count 1800)  that I wrote several years ago to explain why I spend so much time immersed in theory, even though I am deeply concerned with practical implications. The examples are specific to education at the university level, but the idea of the connection between theory and practice is legit for other fields. To put the comments in context, I was working in faculty development at the time. That would be the “promising” academic career that I scuppered a couple of posts ago. I miss that job. A bit. Sometimes.

I do consider myself (despite all job descriptions to the contrary) to be, primarily, a practical theorist. I have a great passion for academic pursuits, and I am constantly engaged with the creation and dissemination of knowledge. I certainly have critiques of how we do it – I don’t think that the university is responding particularly well to societal forces, and I am concerned that the institution may be changing so markedly that we are losing sight of several of its roles. However, I don’t think that we should respond to perceived probelms by throwing out all the goals of education in the process of critiquing it. So I continue to work on it and in it, despite my growing cynicism. [I did recently express the belief that we have made so many ‘compromises’ for the purpose of ‘doing the good work’ that we are no longer about the ‘good work’ but are actually now about the ‘compromises’. This is quite the truth claim, and would need substantial backing up.]

So… why do I theorize? Why do I continually seek out the positions of other people and hold them up to the light, rather than just concentrating on getting better at what I am actually paid to do by developing my technical skills? I could do that. There are Master’s degrees in educational technology that are entirely skills-based. I don’t have to do this to keep my job. In fact, I suspect that they could legitimately fire me if I focus too much on theory. Yet…

Theory is one of the ways in which we aggregate human experience. Ideally, I believe that, as educators, we should have ways in which to judge our impact that are more informed than, “I tried this and it seemed to work”. Educational theory is part of an ongoing discussion by educators and people who think deeply about education [who may or may not consider themselves educators]. Theory is not simply a range of different perspectives – it is a body of work which exists in constant conversation. Different theories are founded on different assumptions and have different implications. They are not all created equal. They are testable and can be challenged within their disciplinary context. Otherwise, they are just opinions. The standards of what constitutes good theory differ depending on discipline.

To be clear, education is not a discpline – it is a “practice” that draws from (at least) philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology. [The concept of professional knowledge of theory reflectively informing personal practice has a name (praxis) but it is a slippery concept at best. I’ll leave it aside for now.]

Using findings from psychology and anthropology we can improve how we teach. We can observe patterns of human behaviour and know that certain approaches are more likely to achieve desired aims than others. These are fairly scientific fields, and they have disciplinary standards of rigour that are used to assess the validity of the findings that would look familiar to scientists… including predictive power and reproducibility. Hopefully, if we share our knowledge by publishing the results of our research, more effective approaches will be adopted more widely, and we will systemically get better at what we do. Current understanding of cognition and the learning “process”, for example, strongly supports:
– getting students to work together as new ideas are introduced,
– being explicit about your conceptual framework and where new knowledge fits into it
– getting students to reflect upon their knowledge as they integrate new knowledge (even mathematics!)
– providing frequent and immediate feedback on learning tasks
– providing ‘realistic’ learning tasks and complex problems (at least for advanced learners)

A large part of my job involves distilling the current research on ‘how to teach’ and providing it in theory-free workshops. Yet I need to maintain the position that although I’m not inflicting the theory on the participants, I am, in fact, familiar with it myself… I am not just telling them what I did last week. In an academic context, this largely consists of referring to theorists whom, I am quite confident, will never be read by my participants. (Were I a nastier person, I could do a lot of damage with that.)

Cognitive and learning theory doesn’t have much to say about whether it matters if the student thinks you care or not. In fact, there is a significant body of work on student feedback (a completely different type of educational research more based in sociology and anthropology) that indicates that it doesn’t really have any impact on how much they learn. Implication: nurturing environment = not important for learning of factual knowledge. You might, however, still give a damn, because it may have an impact on whether the student still enjoys learning, and whether they are going to be motivated to seek out learning later in life. (jury’s still out on that one) You might also have a philosophical position that values the ‘humanness’ of your students which impacts your approaches.

Cognitive psychology also doesn’t have anything to say about how to choose what to teach. If we are very very good at transmitting information, but we don’t give any consideration to what we are teaching or what the point of it all is in the first place, we have only done part of our jobs. If I care that my first-year students know what biology is about, but I (because of my research) am extremely interested in the mating behaviours of a particular obscure toad and use that as my only example, I will have done my students a disservice by misrepresenting the structure of knowledge in my field. If, however, I am interested in teaching the research process to graduate students and how the “mating behaviours of a particular obscure toad” are representative of a particular small branch of biology, I may very well be doing my job with exactly the same approach that I used in the other course. Context, context, context.

So there are layers of theorizing to be done. One of the things that we are asked to do, in teaching dossiers, and teaching philosophies, and teaching statements is to develop a coherent personal theory. This should be informed by the range of theory that is available, but you should apply a standard of proof to those theories.

See above: Not all theories are equally valid.

Moreover, you, personally, must take a place in all of this.

It is my opinion (here is my own theorizing) that I should be aware of my beliefs about how students learn, why they are in the classroom, why they might be taking my subject, why they might be taking this particular course in the subject, why they want/need a university degree/high school diploma/college diploma… Are they going to join a book club or be a graduate student? Do they need to do their taxes or buy the right amount of material for a fence? Do they need to be able to do calculus, or do you want them to have enough mathematical knowledge to judge whether an “expert” is manipulating their vote?

From a teaching perspective, I also need the sociological and political foundation to be able to tell when I am being manipulated or when I am being asked to do things by administrators that conflict with current thinking in educational circles. I do some of these things anyway, because I am low in the ranks and lack even a path to tenure… and I know that somebody else will do them if I don’t… and probably less thoughtfully. But I still (at least) have questions at the back of my mind that help me measure the relative merit of my actions.

Questions that theory gave me:

What was the process by which this absurdly large ‘corpus’/ curriculum was determined? What beliefs about education does that reflect? Who stands to gain and who stands to lose? What are we NOT teaching and why? (Conversely, for the conservatives in the crowd: How come we can’t just keep using Plato and Socrates? What’s up with all this postmodern crap?) How did Coca-Cola/Pepsi get exclusive contracts on campus? Does it impact what are able to do? Does it matter if it does?

[Positioning myself in case you couldn’t read between the lines: I am a fan of postmodernism… and radical feminism, and ecofeminism… and physics. Really. My standard by which I reject conservative theory is that it cannot account for my existence. Neither can strict structuralism, so I’m not much of a Marxist either. Foucault… pretty good at accounting for my existence. But I don’t think that the postmodernists would accept me, because I’m too practical.]

One of my pet issues:

Does it matter if our students burn out in third year and resort to surface learning strategies to just get through?

If you think that university is for credentialling and you’re only interested in the ones who are going on to graduate school anyway, and you think that only the ones who are tough enough deserve to make it, it doesn’t really matter. But if you want your students to ‘learn’ and you still give them a reading load that overwhelms them you’re using a BAD educational practice. Um… and, yes. If you fall into the first category, I will be doing everything in my power to convince you that it is a morally reprehensible position. And I will probably refer to theorists in my argument. (although I will also tell you about my very brilliant and very bitter friends at the same time)


And where I’m going with all of this… the thing that drew me back into graduate school was the theory in my B.Ed. program. We were asked to consider, to reflect, to challenge, to weigh different positions and come to conclusions. We were asked to develop coherent positions and talk about why we wanted to teach as well as how we thought we could do it best. We were immersed in a role of responsibility where it wasn’t enough just to do what we were asked, but where we needed to know why we were doing it. And I put in my application to go back for more: “If I had had more of this when I was an engineering student, I would probably now be a pretty decent engineer.” As opposed to my years of wandering in the wilderness.