Education Theory

Education Theory

Education Theory

Education theory is the theory of the purpose, application and interpretation of education and learning. It largely an umbrella term, being comprised of a number of theories, rather than a single explanation of how we learn, and how we should teach. Rather, it is affected by several factors, including theoretical perspective and epistemological position.

There is no one, clear, universal explanation of how we learn and subsequent guidebook as to how we should teach. Rather, there are a range of theories, each with their background in a different psychological and epistemological tradition. To understand learning then, we have to understand the theories, and the rationale behind them.

While much learning can be attributed to social imitation or cultural lessons, Bereiter (1990) queries how we acquire more complex knowledge, and states that it is this learning that gives rise to the need for an educational learning theory.


Why use Theories?

Theories are used for numerous reasons:

  1. Help explain a puzzling or complex issue and to predict its occurrence in the future
    • Learning is a latent variable so there is no clear and universal way to explain and predict learning. To help explain this process, therefore, theories based on differing epistemological positions have been developed to explain the procedure.
  2. Allow the transfer of information in one setting to that of another
    • The complex and comprehensive conceptual explanations provided within the framework of a theory can be applied in different settings. Theories provide different "lenses" through which to look at complicated problems and social issues, focusing their attention on different aspects of the data and providing a framework within which to conduct their analysis (Reeves, Albert, Kuper, & Hodges, 2008).
  3. Theories provide greater opportunities for improvement by design
    • By providing information about the mechanisms underlying learning and performance, an awareness of theories and can help us to design environments to improve potential for learning


In terms of the application of psychological theories about learning and instruction to education, Sternberg (2008) proposes five reasons:

  1. Doing so enables one to have a scientific basis for education in how people think, feel, and/or motivate themselves rather than only to guess what intuitively might make sense.
  2. Good theories are specific enough to specify what the educational interventions should look like.
  3. If the theory is sufficiently specific, it will also specify what the assessments of instruction should look like.
  4. Good theories are disconfirmable, so they provide the basis for discovering whether the intervention actually does or does not work.
  5. One of the best ways to test theories and advance is through practical implementations.


The process of learning focuses on what happens when the learning takes place. A learning theory is an attempt to describe what happens when we learn and how we learn. Although something we often take for granted, learning is a complex process which, according to Hill (2002) has two main functions: the first is that it provides us with the vocabulary and conceptual framework for interpreting the examples of learning that we observe; and the second that it directs us where to look for solutions to practical problems. While theories themselves don’t give us solutions, they do direct our attention to those variables that are crucial in finding solutions.


Learning Theory Definitions

Most theorists agree that learning cannot be studied directly, but its nature can be inferred from changes in behaviour (apart from B.F. Skinner who claims that behavioural changes are learning and therefore no further process need be inferred). The majority of learning theorists share the following basic definitional assumptions about learning:

  1. Learning is referred to as a persistent change in human performance or potential
    • True whether or not they actually have an opportunity to exhibit the newly acquired performance
  2. To be considered learning, a change in performance must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world
    • Some changes (e.g., fine motor control) can be attributed to maturation and therefore may not considered learned.
    • Behaviour changes (e.g., search for food when hungry) are explained on the basis of temporary states but don’t imply learning.
    • Learning requires experience, but what these are, how they’re used, & how they bring about learning constitute the focus of every learning theory.


Theory & Practice

"I repeat, as long as you have studied the theory hard enough —" "And what good’s theory going to be in the real world?" said Harry loudly, his fist in the air again.
Professor Umbridge looked up.
"This is school, Mr. Potter, not the real world," she said softly.
J.K. Rowling

The history of the application of psychological theories to education has been described as ‘a spotty one (Sternberg, 2008). John Dewey (1938/1997) was among the first serious scholars of education to take this task seriously, and much of contemporary psychology of education may be seen as originating in large part with Dewey’s work.

There is an implicit assumption that there is a tangible connection between educational theory and practice. In reality though, the relationship between educational theory and classroom practice is more complex than is usually assumed. Below, Saugstad (2002) discusses the differing definitions of theory and practice:

In education, the meaning of the term 'theory' ranges from being connected to scientific knowledge, academic subjects and to empirical and pragmatic knowledge such as educational methodology. The dualism of theory and practice, which is reflected in the dictionary definition is also evident in education, where theory is often understood as being all that is not practice. This could be why the term ‘theoretical’ is regularly used to denote academic as opposed to practical school subjects and school-based teaching as opposed to practical internship.

In one perspective theory is understood to be normative for practice and in the other perspective theory is understood to be derived from practice. The first implies practice having to adapt to theory - Here the term theory attaches itself to scientific knowledge, the knowledge one acts on in practice is thus understood here as being synonymous with applied scientific knowledge.

The second that theory is defined through practice - theory is almost understood to be verbalised practice, it becomes a kind of pragmatic guide for actions, where the ideal is a connection between theory and practice that is as close as possible, i.e. theory should fit practice like a glove fits a hand. This is formulated in opposition to the scientific and dualistic perspective and consists of Dewey-inspired experience-based education.

The common assumptions are as follows:

  • That practical and theoretical knowledge is coherent, convertible and compatible.
  • The assumption that the theoretical and practical domains are of such a nature that a connection is possible.
  • That there is one specific theory that applies to one given practice. This assumption is deduced from the conceptions that practice is either ‘the realisation of the theoretical aspect’ (see OED) or that theory is derived from practice.
  • That theory is directly converted into practice and vice versa.
  • That practice is rule based and describable in general terms - derived from the conception that the generality, predictability and regularity, which is a characteristic of theory, is also a characteristic of practice.
  • That learning in the classroom can substitute for learning in practice. The assumption builds upon the notion that all forms of knowledge are qualitatively alike and that knowledge in the theoretical and the practical domains are convertible.

For Dewey, the purpose of education in relation to the fulfilment of the democratic ethic is to provide the social conditions that support persons in having a range of experiences necessary to develop whatever capacities, interests, and desires each individual might have. Especially given the rapidly changing nature of society, schools must support the widest diversity of intellectual and practical development for all students so that they might prepare themselves for the many possible life activities (Danforth, 2008).

A FEW YEARS AGO I was working as a full-time visiting instructor while completing my dissertation. In my Sociology of Education course, I instructed students to read Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1993). I quickly got the impression that only a minority of the students read the book and that the majority waited for lectures on the assigned materials to get the information needed for the exams. Pressured by the approaching end of the semester and frustrated by students' inability or unwillingness to carry on an informed discussion of the material in class, I found myself lecturing about the dangers of the "banking approach" of dispensing knowledge. I told them that teaching, learning, and social activism should not necessarily be viewed as separate activities. From the podium, I espoused the merits of dialogue in education. When I started instructing students on how damaging lecturing was to praxis, one student finally had enough of what I was saying and asked: "Well if you believe all this, then why are you not doing it?" I do not remember my response that day, but I have been haunted by the question ever since.

Sweet (1998, p.100)


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