Theorising Education: Some Issues

There is a constant refrain in many quarters about the quality of much educational research and the lack of capacity among researchers. What characterises this situation and responses to it is the focus almost exclusively on building capacity in relation to the methods and methodologies of educational research. Less attention has been given to capacity building in the domain of theory and how we understand theoretical practices. Given that good educational research depends on a combination of high quality methods and methodologies and high quality theorising this is an issue.

There are compelling arguments for the need for good and rigorous theory in research. One goes back to David Hume’s insight that the only thing that empirically can be established is the correlation between observable phenomena. Theory is needed to generate explanations of underlying processes. In interpretative research the main role for theory lies in deepening and broadening understanding of everyday interpretations and experiences. The primary interest of critical theory lies in exposing how hidden power structures influence and distort such interpretations and experiences. All this suggests that educational research cannot do without theory. What is needed, however, is a more rigorous understanding of the nature and roles of theory in education research and practice.

We need to examine more thoroughly the actual usage of theory in current educational research. What kinds of theory are being used? How are they used? For what purposes and to what effect? Over the past decades there has been a strong growth of alternative ways of theorising, e.g. post-modern, post-structural, posthuman and feminist theorising and theoretical work inspired by such approaches as sociomateriality, complexity theory, actor-network theory, psycho-analysis or phenomenology. Some of these uptakes are gestural rather than substantive and there are questions about the work they can do. The sheer diversity of theoretical work itself generates the problem of talking about theory in the singular at all.

One of the defining characteristics of much educational research is that it aims to contribute to the improvement of educational practice. Theory plays an important role in this ambition as it is one of the main vehicles in which outcomes of research become available for educational practice. This raises questions about the different ways in which theory can be used in educational practice – ranging from theory as itself a form of intervention, theory as recipe for action and theory as a tool for making professional action more ‘intelligent’. It also raises questions about the ways in which educational practice itself can be understood and theorised.

Within recent discussions on theory and research in education there appears to be a tendency to move away from theory. This is first of all manifest in the idea that educational research should generate reliable evidence about ‘what works’ so that educational practice can become evidence-based. Discussions on evidence-based education tend to prioritise the empirical over the theoretical in simplistic and under-theorised ways. It is also manifest in more explicit discussions about the value of theory for educational research and practice. These discussions not only raise questions about the particular role of theory within evidence-based education, but also indicate a need for a more precise analysis of the extent to which and the ways in which educational research and practice are actually over- or under-theorised and why and how this might matter.

Big agendas require big ideas…

Richard Edwards

This blog is edited and amended from G. Biesta, J. Allan and R. Edwards (2009/10) ‘Theorising education: the Laboratory for Educational Theory’, Research Intelligence, 109: 18-19.

For further discussion of the issues, see G. Biesta, J. Allan and R. Edwards (2011) ‘The theory question in research capacity building in education: Towards an agenda for research and practice’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 59, 3: 225–239.


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