Teachers need theory. They also need to theorise. To us as a group of academics, this seems self-evident; theorising in education means thinking about why things happen in the classroom, and offering models that explain that why. However, it has become increasingly clear that education academics in particular, and perhaps academics more widely, have not been particularly proficient at explaining to teachers (both experienced ones and those closer to the commencement of their careers) why theory matters. The quote at the topic of this post, taken from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, should remind us that we need to look at how we might use theory to frame our experience of the world, while at the same time, remembering that the frame is not the same as the experience itself
A recent article in the British Educational Reasearch Journal brought this home to us with some force. In the article, a group of researchers had collected some data about the practice of setting by ability in British schools, and had then chosen to look at that data through a theoretical “lens” provided by the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. What does this mean? For most academics in most arts and social sciences, when they collect data, they need to locate that data in a theoretical framework, both because they need to think about how they will analyse the data but also, for practical reasons of time and space, they need to articulate how they are thinking about it. These researchers were interested in the idea that setting simply reproduces an educational status quo, and so looked at the data with Bourdieu’s concept of “symbolic violence” in mind. For Bourdieu, this term describes a situation in which a state of affairs has been established in society which damages a group of people, but has become so accepted or legitimised that even the people who the situation harms , often agree with it. Some of the data that the researchers collected did support a Bourdieusian analysis of setting; for example, very few of the respondents in the survey – who were children in schools where they were set for subjects such as Maths and English – challenged the notion of setting as being the best way to determine who was taught what, even if they were in the ‘bottom set’. However, the researchers also acknowledged the limitations in that this Bourdieusian analysis was less successful when helping to determine other things, for example why there is a significant gender difference in terms of pupil attitudes to setting.
Putting to one side the arguments that surfaced later in the online discussion about methods and validity of data , what interested us were the nature of the responses to this article that appeared on the internet. These were fascinating, most notably because what became apparent to us was a) that some people did not really understand the way that the researchers were using Bourdieu and b) that a large number of teachers at best, did not really value the idea of theoretical lenses, or at worst understand the idea.
The point is here that that these researchers, like many across education, are deliberately choosing to look at their data using a theoretical model. They are doing this in order to do two things. Firstly, to see what that data can say beyond the obvious, literal description (to offer an interpretation of it) of it and secondly, to test out the theoretical model. In this particular instance, the researchers determined that some of Bourdieu’s ideas were useful for thinking about why pupils feel the way that they do about setting, but that in other respects they were not. Academics do this all the time in research. I started my academic career using theoretical lenses from cultural studies to explain how I thought children worked creatively. Now, alongside these, I use cognitive and sociological ones. I don’t think any of these tell the full story of the writing and films that young people produce, but pragmatically, they make me think about how that production happens.
This does not mean that the theoretical model works or successfully explains real world phenomena all the time, but rather that it might offer some perspectives on it that we may not have previously considered. This is the important thing about theoretical lenses for teachers. You may not agree with the researchers’ findings regarding (in this example) setting, but what you should probably do, as an informed and reflective teacher, is think about the inherent problems of setting – and most teachers would agree there are at least some of these – from both your own and other academic perspectives. People who suggested that the researchers had decided on the outcome of the study prior to collecting the data are sort of missing the point here; this was a Randomised Controlled Trial, and the data included quantitative as well as qualitative elements, but the researchers were clear from the outset that they were coming from a place in which the social justice imperatives of education were driving their work. As such, they chose to make a Bourdieusian analysis of that data. Other academics might choose to look at that data through a different lens. It would be interesting to see, for example, something like Creemers & Kyriakides’ Dynamic Model of School improvement applied to the same data to see what it said about setting in terms of school effectiveness – or the extent to which Lave & Wenger’s ideas about communities of practice might work in schools which stream by ‘ability’. Even if we want to view data in purely scientific terms, it is highly likely that we will be applying a theoretical lens to it – perhaps Popperian falsifiablilty, or the Kuhnian idea of the scientific revolution. Either way, these are still theoretical models, with imperfections and limitations, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bother with them.