Not a Poor Relation – The Value of Theory

For as long as I can remember, I have loved books and loved reading. One of the joys of growing up where I did (not too far from Hay-on-Wye) was frequent visits to the acclaimed epicentre of the second-hand book store trade.

Whether it was in a tiny Tudor shop neatly tucked away down a cobbled lane or in a cavernous converted warehouse, I could be found parked at a table or sat in an old dusty armchair flicking my way through books. I had my favourites; old copies of Wisden’s Cricketer Almanac, classic works of geographical or geological literature and foundational works and musings of educational pioneers when I became a teacher.

What I have discovered as I have meandered my way through my career, is the value of reading educational literature, especially theory. I have also noticed how hard it has become. There are so many complexities, pressures and politics associated with it. Time to access, read, digest, reflect and make-sense of research and literature can be an obstacle. Intersecting this are the espousals of individuals, groups, committee’s, organisations and even politicians about what the profession should or shouldn’t be thinking, doing and not doing, reading and not reading. Canon this, canon that, ‘must read’ this or you’re a (insert belief group here), be research informed, substantiate or evidence that…

It is encouraging then to see so many teachers publishing and blogging about practice and sharing their work, tips and research. We are the better for it. However, it seems to me that there is a greater prevalence of practice and the technical aspects of curriculum and pedagogy, over-and-above theory, which I would suggest is of equal value. There seems to be a fixation on the tangible, the measurable, the calculable, the secure and testable and the practically applicable. However, theory can help us investigate our hunches, instincts and tacit knowledge which sculpts our practice. It can suggest practice possibilities. The distinction between ‘theorists’ and ‘practitioners’ seems unsound, unworkable and epistemologically untenable and becomes codified in our ongoing debates. I find the reflections of Brookfield (1995) of interest when considering the value and worth of reading literature on theory (in an expediency-hungry environment). He suggests that:

  • Theory lets us name our practice: by exploring the ideas behind, and depictions of other people’s practice, we can contrast, connect with or think through our own experience;
  • Theory breaks the cycle of familiarity: by reading and thinking about activity and theories that have emerged from beyond our own context, it can be helpful inasmuch as gaining insight into what features of work are locally-specific and which are generic
  • Theory can be a substitute for absent colleagues: if we are unable to connect and work with colleagues in person, shared literature can create a conversation about work or ideas from a distance;
  • Theory prevents groupthink and improves conversation with colleagues: working with educational literature can function as a provocative feature of work that can shake-up comfortably settled frameworks and ideological homogeneity. It is only useful, I would suggest though, if it leads to more thinking that results in action;
  • Theory locates our practice in a social context: we can agonize over effectiveness, appropriateness and meaning in our work. Literature around theory can help us untangle pedagogical puzzles and the politically sculpted nuances within the system we work.

Perhaps where theory comes undone in a relentlessly busy profession, is that it can seem too abstracted, obscure and a sizeable distance from practice. However, it’s worth shouldn’t be underestimated. It is unlikely to manifest itself as a cool infographic, make it into a top 10 ‘books all teachers should read’ poll, be the topic of a teachmeet two or seven minute talk or have a school write about how theory underpins it’s philosophy and practices? Or will it? If we value the thinking about how and why we do what we do and are keen to understand the complexities of our work, engaging with and talking about theory is important.

So how can we engage with educational theory when we are busy and are bombarded with ‘what works’ etc. where the thinking seems to have been done for us? Perhaps instigate or join a reading group? Get involved in a research project? Lobby your school or professional associations for some journal access. This seems to be happening in places across the profession and this is encouraging. For me it comes back to what Gilbert Ryle (1945, 1949) calls the distinction between ‘know-how’ (what teachers do) and ‘know-that’ (teachers being able to explicate what they do). Theory can help us articulate this and robustly engage with ideas and concepts from which practice has emerged.




2 thoughts on “Not a Poor Relation – The Value of Theory

  1. Thank you so much for this reflection, so true!

  2. Thank you Jon – I think that this is very wise, and fits nicely with my most recent post

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