Okay so educational theory can be tedious, dull and mystifying. The thought of having to engage with theory can provoke feelings of either dread or terror. Lots of educational theory is inaccessible, verbose and repetitive. Once I’ve worked my way through the language with a dictionary, I usually struggle with the concepts. Sometimes I feel that theorists are arguing against one another over pointless semantics. Distinctions and binary oppositions are set up that don’t ring true in the practical world. Most of the time competing theories all have something of worth and their relevancy usually depends on the context, rather than integral correctness of one approach over another.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater! Here are 7 reasons why theory is your friend:
- Theory doesn’t have to be dry and turgid. There are some amazing theorists or thinkers out there who write in a much more accessible, plain and direct way. Writers like bell hooks write in a much more grounded and engaging way. There will be definitely be a theorist out there for you – you may just have to kiss a few frogs first!
- Theory isn’t irrelevant to practice. We all work with theories, especially when we teach. We might not talk about it like that but these are our “theories-in-use” as Donald Schön argues (Schön 1991). So my theory or thinking is that learning takes place when learners have to do something with the information they are receiving. This means that when I plan lessons I make sure my learners are doing something active throughout. That is how my thinking (or theory) informs my practice.
- Theory gives us the ability to “name” our practice (Brookfield 1995: 186). It gives us the language to talk about our own experiences and feelings and observations. It gives us the tools to recognise what we think as being important and worthwhile.
- Theory helps us to challenge the recycling of our practice and encourages fresh thinking. Paulo Freire argues that without theory there is a risk of beginning to “walk around in a circle, without the possibility of going beyond the circle” (Horton and Freire 1990: 98).
- Theory can challenge received wisdom and bring diverse opinions into teaching communities where a settled orthodoxy might prevail (Brookfield 1995).
- Theory makes us look at how our teaching sits within the world around us, rather than just simply in our own classroom. Theory can tell us a lot about the problems and challenges we face, that exist in the wider context of education so we can understand how best to either solve or mitigate them (Brookfield 1995).
- Theory can be a colleague to teachers who don’t have a supportive community of praxis around them (Brookfield 1995). It connects the teacher to other ideas and points of views. It can help teachers step outside of their own subjectivity. Like Brookfield says, you can have a conversation with a book (Brookfield 1995).
So give it a go and don’t get scared or intimidated by the big words or the complex sentences. There will be a theorist or thinker prince out there for you. Don’t assume the problem is with you: the problem is with all the frogs!
Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Horton, M. and Freire, P. (1990). We Make the Road by Walking. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Schön, D. (1991). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Aldershot: Ashgate.