Why theory matters

Photo by Stephen Andrews on Unsplash

Anyone who has completed a teacher education programme will be familiar with the part of the course where you were introduced to some of the men and women who have developed theories that help us understand the learning process and the conditions that are best suited to making this happen.

Whatever the impact of this exposure to theorists had on us at the time, and whether we realise it or not, pretty much all of our actions as educators are informed by theory in some way or another. This is evident in two ways:

  1. The work of educational theorists is what helps inform the design of our curriculum, which in turn has helped shape many of the practices in our school system. For example, the use of junior readers that progress through levels, expanding vocabulary and introducing increasingly sophisticated ideas can be linked to theories about child development and understandings about the way the brain develops. In secondary schools the idea of providing instruction in a particular ‘subject’ area which is then ‘tested’ to ensure the transfer of knowledge is anchored in theories linked to the cognitive sciences. The use of positive reinforcement and ‘rewards’ of various kinds has links to behaviourism etc.
  2. As educators we are constantly developing and testing our own ideas about what works in the classroom. Early childhood educators refer to this as ‘working theory’. Consider the times when you are confronted with a problem in your practice, and the process in your mind you work through to arrive at some sort of action to take to remediate that. This may be as simple as organising students in groups where the decisions you make are based on observations or assumptions about how particular students will work together. If your ‘theory’ works you’re likely to repeat that approach. If it doesn’t you may reflect on what happened and then try something different. This is such an ‘iterative’ and seemingly ‘intuitive’ practice that often we’re unaware that we’re doing it.

The key point I’m wanting to make in this post is that we need to be more explicitly aware of the theories that inform our work. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Theories provide perspectives and insights that help us understand how people learn and a way to explain, describe, analyze and predict learning. In that sense, a theory helps us make more informed decisions around the design, development and delivery of learning.
  • There is no ‘right’ theory that covers everything we do. There is a range of different learning theories (behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, connectivism, etc.), each of which has emerged as a result of someone(s) thinking deeply about a particular perspective or context in education. Our job as educators is to leverage this knowledge as we think critically about the approaches we take to teaching and learning in our classrooms and schools.
  • Most learning theories provide frameworks that help understand how information is used, how knowledge is created and how learning takes place. Having access to and understanding the contextual relevance of these frameworks helps us anchor our ‘working theories’ in our planning and teaching on a day to day basis.

Over time various educational theories have appeared to ‘supersede’ others, reflecting the increasingly sophisticated understandings we have developed about learning and how it occurs. The illustration below provides a simplistic overview of some of the major trending over time, starting with the view that learning occurs largely as a result of a ‘condition and response’ environment (behaviourism), to understanding more about knowledge and how it is transferred from one person to another (cognitivism), and on to where we understand this to be less about simple ‘transfer’ of knowledge, and more about the sense-making process within individuals who then make it their own (constructivism).

Image source: Derek Wenmoth

I’ve added a fourth column here – Agentic, not to suggest that this is a learning theory per se (there are actually a range of established theories that contribute to the practices we define as agentic), but to illustrate two things;

  • Our development of learning theories is constantly evolving, reflecting the more we are learning about learning and understanding about the human brain etc. As we continue to extend our practice to focus on student-centred learning, student-directed learning, personalised learning etc., our theorising about why this is important and the conditions under which it occurs and is successful becomes important.
  • Much of our early theorising has been focused on what we do as teachers and the context of learning that we have control over. As such, it is we, as educators, who take responsibility for the design of the curriculum, of instructional approaches and of how we establish the learning environment etc. The inclusion of Agency on the continuum here serves to illustrate the paradigmatic difference between the context of earlier theorising that was premised on the ownership of learning resting with the teacher, and that of agentic learning where there has been (or should be) a ‘shift in ownership‘ to where it is now the learner who is more actively involved in the learning design decisions.

I’m careful to emphasise that agentic practice does not represent a ‘new’ learning theory. Many educators have worked from the premise of promoting learner agency for decades (think A.S Neil’s Summerhill School or the Four Avenues School in Christchurch). And, of course, Early Childhood educators have worked in this domain for a very long time – influenced by the theorising of people such as Fredrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, and a host of others.

The real point I’m making is that, as educators (and schools) seek to embrace the notion of learner agency it is important (essential?) that they actively and explicitly explore the theories that are informing their work, and the beliefs they hold in common that explain why (and how) such theories are used.

I regularly see the impact of this in schools I visit. For example, I’ve visited some schools that have been provided with innovative learning environments, yet are still operating as if they had single cell classrooms, with students working through a time-tabled day, while others have managed to embrace the opportunities provided by such environments and are now operating in entirely new and different ways, having successfully translated what ‘shifting the ownership of learning’ means for them. It’s not the environments that make the difference – it’s the beliefs that inform the practice(s) within them – and these beliefs are often (implicitly) anchored in the traditions of particular theories and theorising.

To ensure we are operating in the most effective ways, and in the interests of our learners, we need to be more explicit about the learning theories that are informing our work, and engage actively in the way our early years colleagues do, in formulating (explicitly) our working theories in order to establish the most appropriate ways of working with and alongside our learners.

Among the schools I visit, the ones that are doing this most successfully are the ones where the evidence of this thinking is displayed in classrooms and/or teacher workspaces, and frameworks used then to explicitly inform decisions about curriculum design and pedagogical approaches. The same frameworks are also used to communicate with parents the intention (and outcomes) of this activity. The same frameworks (or modified versions of them) can also be used by the learners themselves as they take ownership of their learning, providing them with the ways of understanding what they are doing and with the vocabulary to be able to articulate this with others.

Learning theory matters to us professionally. But it can’t be left at the door when we finish our training. It must be engaged with and referenced in an ongoing way to ensure our practice has meaning and is effective.

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