The point of Educational Theory -my tuppence worth

A point of research is often cited as ‘making the ordinary seem extraordinary’ – to this, a value judgment of my own educational research. An observation of a lesson, a reflection of how we teach, as we start to unpick what we did and why is the beginning of research.

When undertaking my PGCE, I valued the baseline of theories that I now have ingested – and in some cases rejected in the grand ‘belief network’ of experience.

To my surprise, during my PhD I have come to find Educational Theory informative and (briefly hesitates over keyboard) fascinating. For sure there is often a poor fit with the reality of the classroom (especially when we try to shoehorn HE learning models into schools), but I remain open-minded to knowledge, rather than fatigued by the everyday struggles of working in FE classrooms with its complex issues: institutional, personal and attitudinal from young students. I refrain from rejecting wholesale this poor fit in applying the conceptual to human behaviours, as if students were mice, by trying to be reflexive and spontaneous in my actions, as well as cognizant of the literature. I also recall that Educational Theory fits into broader schema than the instrumental or determinist of what to do in a classroom and/or how learning works.


To start, let’s be clear about educational theory, which Newby (2010) differentiates from Research theory (whatever the discipline). Education theory is concerned with:

  • Child development
  • Learning
  • Leadership
  • Curriculum design


“…it aims to be generalisable , whereas research theory is specific to a particular type of problem or approach” (72: 2010).

Education theory shapes our understanding and can be tested and fall into two types:

  • Normative theory – how things could or should be organised or what goals should be achieved
  • Explanatory theory – how things work (e.g Vygostky).

How does this affect procedure?

  • Theory testing as the goal
  • Theory development as an outcome

Apropos to methods, that is a separate issue dependent on many things, including the view of the researcher, but to place the locus of all theory only within scientific approaches is disingenuous and potentially reductive to a singular theorem of reality, known as ‘truth’. Within this avenue, learning in every shape and form becomes measurable, which in my mind is scandalous (but each to their own and as you do).

One problem, two paradigms:

  1. Quantitative: ‘the level of motivation in Group A is higher than Group B.’
  2. Qualitative: ‘the level of motivation and the motivational drivers are different in the two groups.’

Educational theories to the problem might look at ‘why and how and what works’…before or after the fact. Vive la différence.

Mind your privilege

The knowledge and experiences that a researcher who proposes educational theories brings to the field are pertinent, which can help to shape (or distort) their research, whatever the paradigm. Sometimes a hunch is worthy of exploration and credited as such by research centres. Sometimes theory is necessary because so little is known on a subject (see field of Technology Enhanced Learning), so whether it have practical utility is besides the point as we come to understand it’s properties and others develop it.

Perhaps ‘explanatory theory’ (above) can better be described as a ‘model’, that is: a representation of reality.

Here Educational Theory develops value by being more broadly informed, not just by the cognitive and Psychology, but other social science studies: anthropology, cultural practice, linguistics, history, etc. This is because education theory is more than about the school or classroom and we don’t want to reduce Learning (as a nutrient to growth and vehicle for processing experience) to ‘what works best’, lest learning loses any sense of the playful, the creative, the experiential, the imagination and (why not?) the pointless and the plausible (since sometimes important things are learned by accident, rather than resulting from negotiated coercion). Otherwise Learning may become framed within some stultifying paradigm in a hideous dystopian regime of terminal-evaluation, behaviour management and control orchestrated as a political football.

Educational Theory – so what’s the point?

Many teachers become teachers because they are curious and creative problem-solvers. Their curiosity may be nullified by this (hypothetical) regime. Theory can, I’d argue, give oxygen back to creativity by illuminating possibilities and purposes. In my 6-7 years of teaching, I’ve become more institutionalised the longer I have worked, become gradually more preoccupied with targets, achievement and retention. Studying my PhD – resident in much Educational theory, both good, bad and indeed obscure – has helped emancipate me from that narrow paradigm.

It’s reminded of the broader remit of Education, not just 3 objectives a lesson and plans and assessment and who’s stolen the Whiteboard pen, as much as the social, interpersonal and intrapersonal values (I’m particularly enlivened to this in teaching adults, who might otherwise be disenfranchised). Theory also reminds me that I was very heavily defined in what I did by the cramming of methods in a ridiculously short 1-year PGCE. Because evidence has it that we teach the way we are taught to teach, theory provides a metanarrative.

Some pragmatic Educational Theory

Now, to cite some ‘useful’ classroom educational theory, how about Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Actions; this posits that instructors pose ‘truth claims’ which are accepted or rejected by students, so that they participate in constructive dialogue based on their Lifeworld agency.

True or False statements (and answer ‘why’):

  1. Educational Theory facilitates reflection in educators
  2. Educational Theory generates criticality, as educators may respond agreement of disagreement
  3. Educational Theory is perpetually static, because knowledge and the nature of reality never changes
  4. Educational Theory reminds us that there is a broad, informed history of research that validates our professionalism
  5. Educational Theory is not just about the sitting still and behaving in the classroom and outcomes, but about society, Governance and Power, community networks, parenting, literacy, etc.

And finally, here is Garrison and Anderson’s (2001) Community of Inquiry model: a theoretical mapping of online learning experiences that has distinctly informed my research, and which I hope to add to.




*I concede of a problem with models: as representations are not the actual thing, but an imitation seeking consensus. I find comparisons and analogies a little unhelpful sometimes, because in some respects we start to move away from the ‘actual’. Yet, on the other hand, like metaphors in literature, they are useful as comparisons and to create likeliness and comparison for difficult, complex and abstract things. Here qualitative research becomes the fuzzy area, so disregarded by truth-seekers.

That’s my own paradigm for my PhD in Technology Enhanced Learning. In honesty, I am too concerned with language, experience, relationships between factors and meanings – and too abject with numbers to lump with quantitative approaches. I seek how and why, but all teachers have different approaches.

Yet I have tried to stay grounded with my research, leaving aside the philosophy and focusing on the practical values derived from it. Now in my final year I learn that these conceptual philosophies transcend the practical, which still remains key, because as we observe and study we start to see the metanarratives of power, politics (and everything is political), ideology, personal positionality of the researcher (‘mental models’). These are set aside as far as possible, but they do inform what we do. No educational theorist whatever the paradigm is not shaped by their privilege; so we return to language as our best representative tool to translate what we learn.




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