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Educational Theory and it's Relation to Practice: A Digest

The expansion of the state remit to include education resulted from the Forster Education Act of 1878 and the Balfour Education Act of 1902. Although it was always intended that this expansion would give expression to a variety of educational aspirations and ideals, it was also firmly linked to an overriding pragmatic concern: The need to create a highly differentiated labour force equipped to fill the range of occupational roles appropriate to the advancement of a modern industrial society.

This, in turn, meant that education had to be institutionalised to an unprecedented degree, not only to ensure that educational provision and the flow of qualified teachers could be regulated and controlled, but also to make sure that the policies of schools, the content of their curriculum, and their methods of assessment were more harnessed to the economic needs of society.

William Forster

Education was increasingly seen as a ‘system’ which had to be efficiently organized, managed and administrated. A necessary prerequisite for effect management and administration of this ‘system’ was the creation of a greater consensus about the goals of education. In this climate of increasingly institutionalised educational provision, educational theory turned from the philosophical problems about the purpose of education to instrumental problems about how education was to achieve those social and economic purposes prescribed in modern society.

In the period immediately following the second world war, educational theories of an applied science form proliferated and affected all areas of educational practice. Behaviourist theories of teaching and learning, bureaucratic approaches to educational organisation, and administration and technical models of curriculum development appeared – all purporting to improve education by applying scientific principles and knowledge.

By the early 1950s, educational theory had become fully accommodated to the scientific and technological spirit of the age. As educational practice was transformed into a neutral instrument for pursuing given social objectives, so educational theory was transformed into a neutral instrument for overwhelming the technical problems to which the pursuit of these objectives gave rise.

Throughout the 1960s, educational theory became increasingly dependent on the ‘parent’ disciplines of philosophy, psychology, and sociology. At an organisational level, the philosophy, psychology and sociology ‘of education’ had, by the end of the 1960s, managed to carve up the domain of educational theory amongst themselves. By 1970, educational theory as an autonomous field of practical knowledge had ceased to exist. The anti-educational effects of the institutionalisation of schooling was itself made a major topic of debate by the de-schooling polemic of the 1970s.

Ivan Illich argued that because schools, had, in effects, become social institutions serving the economic needs of modern technological society, they could no longer operate as viable educational communities serving the learning and developmental needs of their individual pupils. Illich’s argument challenged educational theorists to develop a form of educational theorizing which did not simply solve the technical problem arising within the institutionalized education system, but raised critical question about how the process of institutionalisation had itself become a major obstacle to genuine educational development and reform.

This challenge is now being met by the development of a new ‘paradigm’ of educational theory – a ‘critical’ paradigm – which, like philosophical and practical forms of educational theorizing, incorporates a central concern with fundamental questions about the nature of education and its role in society. What makes it distinctive is that it is also concerned to explore the social, political and economic structures within which educational provision and practice are now embedded. It is thus a form of theorizing specifically designed to raise critical questions about the tensions and contradictions that occur between social values and educational values.


In particular, it seeks to reveal how the process of institutionalisation may distort educational values and constrain opportunities for their practical realisation.


Five Schools of approach to Educational

  • The common sense approaches
  • The philosophical approaches
  • The applied science approaches
  • The practical approaches
  • The critical approaches


The Common Sense Approaches

This refers to approaches which base educational theory on a common sense understanding of practice. Thus, with this approach, educational theory is always ‘practice-focused’; educational theorizing is simply a matter of codifying ideas, concepts and principles embedded in practice and then using this theory ‘to test practical competence and identify deficiencies in practical performance. Practice determines theory rather than theory determining practice.


The Philosophical Approaches

Within the philosophical approach, ‘common sense’ is regarded as too unreflective and uncritical to provide an adequate basis for educational theory. It therefore offers a form of theorizing designed to enable practitioners to extend and enrich their common sense thinking by relating it to a philosophical understanding of the true meaning and purpose of education. Educational practice, therefore, is not interpreted simply as a form of common sense action but as a form of reflective practice based on educational ideals which can be articulated and justified in the light of some coherent ‘philosophy’.


The Applied Science Approach

The approach adapted by those educational psychologists, educational researchers and curriculum evaluators who insist that any defensible view of educational theory must conform to standards laid down by science. On this view, educational theory is a form of ‘applied science’, using value-free empirical knowledge as a basis for resolving educational problems and improving educational practice. As it incorporates this view of education as a means to a given end, the applied science approach always interprets educational practice as a technical activity: a neutral instrument for bringing about some ‘given’ educational goals.


The Practical Approaches

This approach underpins the ‘illuminative’ and ‘naturalistic’ approaches to curriculum evaluation and research and ‘process’ models of curriculum development. With this approach, the aim of educational theory is not to provide solutions to technical problems but to help practitioners to make morally defensible judgements. It seeks to do this by rehabilitating the practical art of ‘deliberation’ as a basis for acting educationally in particular practical situations. Thus from this perspective, educational practice is morally informed action: it is an essentially ethical activity guided by educational values rather than any narrow utilitarian concerns.


The Critical Approaches

Like the ‘practical’ approach, this approach rejects the view of educational theory as an ‘applied science’ and sees it instead as a form of ‘moral science’ in which the importance of educational aims and values is given full recognition. Where it differs from the ‘practical’ view is in its explicit recognition of how practitioners’ own understandings of their educational aims may become distorted by various non-educational social forces and of how the practical realisation of their values may be impeded by institutional structures and political constraints.

Educational practice is thus interpreted not simply as a moral practice but also as a social practice which is historically located, culturally embedded, and shaped by ideology. Normally, the interdependence of these competing views and practice is either unacknowledged or undisclosed. Indeed it is common for both educational theorists and practitioners or regard methodological debates about the nature and purpose of educational theory as quite separate from political debates about the nature and purpose of educational practice. In education, theory is an indispensable dimension of practice.


This is a digest of Professor Wilfred Carr Educational theory and its relation to educational practice, Handbook of educational ideas and practices, 1989, ISBN: 0415020611; pp 100 – 110.  Professor Wilfred Carr teaches at the University of Sheffield and researches the philosophy of education. His main interests surround a range of philosophical questions concerning the nature of `education´ and their significance for the ways in which educational theory, practice and research are currently interpreted and understood.

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