Teaching Cannot be Atheoretical

“Lets’ talk about educational theory.”

I probably should not have started this post with those words, because no sentence causes a teacher to start daydreaming in a presentation, close the book, or open a new tab in their web browser faster than that one.

Teachers avoid discussions of theory for good reasons. They do not address many of the practical realities that define teachers’ daily work. Also, teachers craft effective lessons without referring explicitly to their theoretical perspectives. Further, lessons can be effective without articulating the theoretical rationale to students.

That does not mean, however, that what teachers do is atheoretical.

Theories explain what we observe and predict will happen if we take certain actions, so they are the basis of the unspoken assumptions we make about our decisions and actions. Theories also function much the same no matter the field. When crafting an experiment, biologists are informed by evolution as they pose questions, design methods, and interpret data. Read an article in a biology journal, and there may be no mention of this central theory to biology, but it did influence what was done.

Of course, the articles in education journals are more likely to include a theoretical perspective than biology articles, but that can be explained by the many theories that can be justified in education. Educational researchers know how they frame questions and collect and interpret data depend on the assumptions they make, so for their work to be understood, clear statement of assumptions in essential.

The point of this blog post is implicit in the preceding paragraph: When it comes to teaching, there are multiple theoretical perspectives that can be adopted. I argue these perspectives are there even if the teacher does not articulate or even recognize their existence.

Consider this situation: A math teacher decides to “just teach” the quadratic equation and not be bothered by the theory. They give their usual lecture, drawing graphs (or maybe having technology draw the graphs), writing down equations, rearranging the “a,” “b,” and “c” (along with some other symbols), and simplifying them to get the answers. Students then practice solving similar problems. They are tested on how to solve the equations, and this is all done prior to the physics teacher’s lesson of projectiles.

While it may appear that this was an atheoretical approach to the lesson, I maintain the decisions are grounded in theoretically rich assumptions, for example, the teacher appears to believe:

  • Solving these equations is something that does not exist in students’ brains before the lesson;
  • The steps for solving the equations can be transferred by them seeing and hearing in to their brains;
  • Learning this skill is best learned by attending to an authority;
  • Practice ensures retention;
  • A test measures students’ ability to solve the equations;
  • Performance on the math test predict students’ ability to use the steps in physics class;
  • That performance in math and physics class predicts their abilities to recognize situations outside of the classroom in which the quadratic equation is useful.

We could argue about my representation of the teacher and the validity of the assumptions, but that detracts from the point I am trying to make. I maintain the teacher’s decisions are grounded in a theory about their teaching. They could defend their decisions (the explanatory role of theory) and they would defend statements about what their students know (the predictive role of theory), even though they rejected any role for theory to start.