Expert advice

From the minute we decided to go into teaching, people have been telling us exactly how to be the most successful teacher in the world.  For example:

  • If you read Piaget, you’ll learn that your chemistry students are in the formal operational stage of development, in which they can incorporate ideas into their existing schema and make better sense of them.  As teachers, we should meet students at this stage of learning (though they may be better-suited for teaching in a concrete operational environment) and conduct instruction in this way.  This theories, while interesting, were obtained using incredibly unscientific methods.
  • B.F. Skinner tells us that free will is an illusion, and that human action is a result of operant conditioning.  If you want to control your classroom, it’s good to keep the responses unwavering and firm to ensure compliance.  He believed that a teaching machine would do a good job teaching because of this rigidity.  He also built an isolation chamber for his daughter.
  • The concept of “discovery learning” posits that if you give students a problem, they’ll figure out a solution from first principles.  It doesn’t matter if you give them the preliminary information because they’ll learn it for themselves.
  • Feminist educational theory teaches us that we need to foster discovery, moral development, activism, and self-sufficiency in our female students.

You get the idea.  We’ve been told many different things by many different people and now we have to figure out what it all means.  On the first day of school, no less.

Why educational theories don’t work

Clearly, the educational theories discussed above don’t get along well with one another.  How is it that intelligent people doing scientific research can disagree with one another so much?

Actually, it’s not that hard to understand.  Let’s have a look at some of the factors that make these theories so screwy:

  • The scientists who write them aren’t scientists:  B.F. Skinner was accused of “scientistic” behavior, which is the belief that empirical data are better at learning things than formal scientific data.  Piaget believed that he didn’t need a large sample size for his experiments (his infant development theory is based only on his three kids) because he thought his theories of development are universal.  Better yet, he argued that his critics were irrelevant because they didn’t understand that he was trying to achieve certain outcomes with his experiments.
  • Animals aren’t people:  If you do studies with pigeons or rats, it’s hard to believe that this will be completely relevant to humans.  And, believe it or not, rats are often treated as human surrogates.  This doesn’t say good things about how we see kids!
  • Many theories are very old:  If you believe (as you should) that different things will work for different students in different times, it’s easy to understand that these theories may not be as relevant as they used to be.
  • Educational researchers are usually not teachers:  Well, they may have been teachers at one time, but even that’s not all that common.  If somebody writes theories about how kids will learn in a classroom without working in that classroom, it’s hard to imagine that these theories will work well.
  • Educational theories reflect the researcher as much as the student:  If I were to perform an educational experiment about how kids learn, I’m pretty sure I’d find that creative activities are the best way to go.  This isn’t necessarily because it’s right (I’ve never done the experiment), but because it matches my personality and my perception of how people behave.  When working with people as test subjects, it’s nearly impossible not to confirm your preconceived beliefs.
  • Teaching is not one size fits all:  What works for me will not work for you, and these theories tend to claim that all students in a population will behave similarly given similar socioeconomic and classroom stimuli.  Given that students are not robots, this seems unlikely.

Anyway, I can go on and on, but you get the idea.  Educational theories, while occasionally interesting, frequently don’t give us what we need in terms of useful information.

How to determine the validity of an educational theory

I don’t want to say that educational theories are worthless.  I mean, sure, they don’t give us the answers we need – that much is true.  However, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Or, not all of the baby, anyway.

When you read about an educational theory (and you’ll read about a lot of them, that’s for sure!), you need to ask yourself the following questions when considering how seriously to take it:

  • Does the theory pass the “BS” test?  If you read about an educational theory that contradicts everything you know about students, disregard it.  Students are not robots and they’re not infinitely creative, and any theory that assumes either is just nonsense.
  • Does following the theory require expensive or time-consuming training?  If so, then it’s probably not a real thing.  Any theory that can reach students should be simple enough that a few days of studying the papers and a few weeks of trying it out will tell you whether or not it works.
  • Does the theory require you to change your personality?  If you’re a gentle and loving person, you probably don’t want to follow a theory that has you barking orders.  Even if this theory is correct, it won’t work for you because it doesn’t match who you are.  Likewise, if you’re a firm disciplinarian, you won’t do well following a theory in which you’re expected to become warm and fuzzy.

I’m pretty sure that no theory will give favorable answers to all three of these questions, but the good news is that they don’t have to.  In fact, you might just find that even the stupidest theories have something to offer.

Using theoretical information

Educational theories are like cattle:  Some parts are better left untouched.  For example, you may find the top sirloin of classroom management in one theory to be attractive while being revolted by the Rocky Mountain oysters of laboratory management.  This is fine.

Though educational theories may be one-size-fits-all, you are not one-size-fits-all.  Though educational papers tend to suggest comprehensive programs that cover all aspects of education, you’re free to pick and choose what works.  If you’re a disciplinarian, you probably shouldn’t change that… but you might find that adding a discovery activity might work.  Likewise, if you’re a warm and fuzzy teacher, it might not hurt you to tell your students to quit the horseplay a little more forcefully than you’re used to.

Here’s my point:  You are a professional.  You have an interest in working with kids and the desire to see them learn.  You’ve been to classes to learn about what other people think about education, but as a professional you have the right to ignore whatever parts don’t work.  You’re not in the classroom because somebody has granted you a wish – you’re there because you’re highly-skilled. Your knowledge is what matters, not anything written in a journal.

The bottom line

When you read a paper about educational theory, take it with a grain of salt.  Sometimes it will be completely worthless and sometimes it will contain grains of truth that will work for you.  And sometimes you’ll get great ideas that you’ve never thought of before.

What you should never do, however, is feel as if these theories are commandments that need following.  They are general suggestions and should be treated as such.  What’s most important isn’t that you follow somebody’s research plan, but that your students learn.  And that everybody’s happy during the whole process.


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