• When is a theory not a theory?

    by  • May 7, 2007 • Uncategorized • 0 Comments

    When it’s merely a belief, according to Wilfred Carr, professor of Education at the University of Sheffield (where I did my law degree many moons ago).

    I’ve been having an interesting evening reading Carr’s lecture to the2006 Annual Conference of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (hey, it’s Saturday night, what else are you gonna do?) entitled, "Education without Theory".  I really enjoyed it, as it reminded me of the Open University’s AA820 course which involves (if one decides to take that option) getting to grips with the post-modern challenge to history.   If you’re even vaguely interested in the "how" of history, as well as the what, and you have a couple of grand as well as 16 hours a week to spare then you should take AA820 – it’s great (note – you can’t, as they’ve stopped doing it – which is a real shame).

    Anyway, Carr’s thesis is that there’s no such thing as an educational theory.  He claims that the idea of an educational theory is based on "foundationalist" modes of thought that state that

    theory is everything that practice is not: that whatever else it is, educational theory is abstract rather than concrete, general rather than particular, context – free rather than context – dependent.

    and has grown from, and is related to the

    Enlightenment aspiration to formulate universal standards of rationality that informed the ways in which modern social and political theorists were to define their intellectual ambitions and conduct their academic debates.

    Carr points out that

    far from being a special activity that is conducted from outside of practice, educational theory is itself a historically formed practice inextricable from the local and parochial contexts within which it is produced and always embedded in, and dependent on, the kind of contingent norms, values and beliefs that it claims to examine and assess in the practice of others.

    Finally, Carr argues that

    The conclusion I have drawn from these insights is that educational theory’s aspiration to escape the world of practice in order to justify it from without is futile, that practical justification is the only kind there is, that we should stop searching for ‘theoretical justifications’ for educational practice and finally concede that there are no epistemological foundations that enable us determine whether what educational practitioners believe to be true really is true.

    I’m hesitating to post this because I’m scared I’ve missed something blindingly obvious (if I have, then please let me know).  It seems to me that Carr’s argument contains two large inconsistencies, and in the end is a rather quixotic charge against a mode of thought that either died quite a while ago  (or at least has been very unwell for some time).

    Carr claims that educational theorists are engaged in an purely abstract activity, yet in building this argument he cites several theorists and researchers who seem to me to have engaged with the post-modern embrace – accepting, and even valuing the contextual and practical element of educational theorising.   Carr spends quite a large proportion of this article in outlining the change in educational philosophy away from "foundation" philosophies towards studies of practice in context.  For example Carr tells us about:

    Donald Schön’s account of the ‘epistemology of practice’ and his compelling account of how, through the process of ‘reflection-on-action’ practitioners engage in a research process in which their ‘theories–in–use’ are made explicit, critically reformulated and tested through further actions.

    In covering the journey made by educational theorists, but then continuing by ignoring the character of this journey, Carr sets up an aunt sally, one with increasingly flaky paint, that he can chuck coconuts at:

    But what has never changed is the fundamental assumption that, by occupying an independent and neutral position outside the field of educational practice, educational theory can act as an arbiter for assessing the rationality of educational beliefs and practices.

    The second inconsistency is Carr’s criticism of Pring’s labelling as "theoretical activity" of the reflction of teachers on their practice.  Carr’s criticism is based on the argument that the in articulating and assess the beliefs that teachers consciously or unconsciously bring to their teaching teachers are not using theories, and are instead

    articulating [...] the beliefs that underwrite their practice not their allegiance to some theory.

    Carr’s search for "theories" against which to measure and the "beliefs" of teachers is a curiously ‘modern’ , or perhaps even ‘foundationalist’ way of looking at things.  It seems to me that Carr is trying to corner the word "theory".  He is trying to define it in such a way that firstly he can use it as a measure against which to assess the "practice beliefs" of teachers, and secondly, so that he can prove that educational theory doesn’t work.

    Carr’s argument therefore falters because he is trapped himself in an Enlightenment search for "Theories" (my addition of a capital here is intentional) to topple like so many sleeping cows.  What gives him away is his use of the word "allegiance".  Card carrying behaviourists, or Deweyites are thin on the ground in "chalk face" educational practice.  What teachers are allied to are things that work for them on the ground.  Teachers and the researchers that have been studying them since the eighties and nineties have increasingly admitted and used the contextual element of their work.  Nobody is engaged in constructing towering meta-theories that teachers can swear "alleigance" to. 

    Oh, and get a load of this, which is pure genius;

    Should the educational theory project now be abandoned? Although I have argued that it should, I have carefully resisted any suggestion that this is a recommendation that is ‘justified by’ or ‘follows from’ my argument. For me to claim this would be to exempt my theoretical argument from its own insight – to attribute ‘practical implications’ to the theoretical argument that educational theory does not have ‘practical implications’.

    So, Carr has argued that it should be abandoned, but not in a way that is justified by his argument, because if he did then his argument would collapse under its own weight.


    I’ve definitely missed something here, and would be grateful for any assistance.


    Leave a Reply