Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why so many theories of education?

Stephen Downes asked "why education has so many different theories, as opposed to pretty much any discipline that is not fiction, which has just one main theory. "

I don't think multiple competing theories is restricted to education, but affects the whole of the humanities and social sciences. I think that there are a number of reasons for this (some better than others).

Firstly, we bring a huge amount of baggage with us - political beliefs, religious beliefs, the society we live in etc. Thus we can have Marxist, capitalist, Christian, Muslim etc theories of society and of education.

Secondly, but related to the first, there is no agreement on what education is about (or for). Is it to enable us to be good workers (wage slaves?)? or is it to develop the whole person in an Enlightenment way? Or is it to make us good believers? (Well we have faith schools in the UK) Or, what is the balance between these competing demands on education.

Thirdly, there is no agreement on whether learning is social or individual (for lack of a better word). Clearly, at some level learning is what occurs inside the learners head, but equally clearly it has social aspects too.

Fourthly, measurement is extremely inaccurate for a number of reasons. Marking is an art not a science (however hard exam boards try). Get two people to mark the same script and the marks can vary enormously (hence double marking and double peer review). Also, we examine (ie look at) what we (easily) can rather than what we may want to. We use proxies to the real learning. Thus, it is very hard to know what has been learned.

Fifthly, Learning theories seem to have problems with the disconnects between:- formal and informal learning- what the student wants and what the teacher / system want- learning and using that learning (there are plenty of stories - and some research - into students being able to answer exam questions on eg physics questions, but not being able to apply that to the real world.

In conclusion, I would suggest that the social sciences (and I would lump education in there) are not comparable to the physical sciences as they start from ones political perspective and therefore there will be competing incommensurate theories. The nearest I can think of the sciences is evolution and so called intelligent design. Because they start from different premises (evidence and faith respectively) they cannot actually be compared.

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