Friday, 27 April 2018

Learning Theory Pt 2: Why have a learning theory?

(This page is part of the EBTN 'Theory of Learning' project.  
Please help us develop it by commenting at the bottom of the page.)

The advantages of a shared 'theory of learning'

1  Disadvantages of having no shared theory

1.1  'Anything goes' in education

Teaching is complex.  In the absence of a theory which explains the majority of the observations, it is possible for different teachers to come to quite different conclusions because they are aware of only some parts of the evidence.  This wide range of views means that almost 'anything goes'.  If it sounds plausible, then teachers may try to use it.
This leaves teachers open to fads, whims and gurus all offering their take.

1.2  Giving government power

When government offers 'reform' (which are always intended to improve learning), teachers do not speak with one voice.  Most other professions, who have a shared theory, speak with one main voice and are able to confidently refuse to carry out ideas from politicians which they know to be unhelpful.  

2  Benefits of a shared theory

2.1  Having a 'textbook'

At present the evidence is offered to teachers by different authors in different ways (and mixed with the old myths etc).  Teachers deserve a shared textbook which compiles both the evidence and it's explanation (theory) in one place.
An effective, evidence-based theory of learning would need to be explicitly taught in professional teacher training programs to be spread across the profession. Having a theory will ensure that all teachers have the same quality of knowledge and understanding of how children learn best.

2.2  Respect for the profession

By politicians and wider society: A shared theory will form the basis of greater respect for teachers from wider society, less interference by government and faster progress towards better learning.
By students and parents:  When students find that the methods used in their lessons are also found in the textbook of teaching, they gain confidence that their teacher is the expert.

2.3  Saying "No!"

Most professions with a shared theory and evidence speak with one voice.  If parents or government proposed something to engineers which they knew to be wrong, they simply refuse to do it - and cite their theoretical knowledge.
At present, teachers do not speak with one voice.  Government simply 'picks its experts' and teachers speak with many voices.
With a shared, evidence-based theory, teachers could say "No" with a united voice.

2.4  Lower stress for teachers

A secondary effect could be that the shortage of teachers would be significantly reduced if the stress-level caused by government interference and time-consuming, but low-effect methods were removed and teachers could produce the better results without overworking.

2.5  Underpinning 'what works'

We already have lists of effective methods compiled from the evidence.  We can be confident in using them in our classrooms.  However, if it is just a list, we do not know why they work.  Theory will provide an explanation.

2.6 Dispelling the myths

At present, myths such as 'learning styles' can linger in the profession long after the evidence shows them to be ineffective.  A shared theory would explain why these myths are unfounded.

2.7  Identifying areas of research

As well as randomly trying out ideas to see if they work, research could also focus on refining the model/theory and testing hopeful ideas based on the theory.

2.8  Improving Special Educational Needs learning

A theory of learning would help explain why some students are struggling (learning difficulties) and so direct support towards brain-friendly strategies which take account of the disability.

2.9 Replaces unconscious theories

Whenever anyone states an opinion about education, they are using a mental model to do so.  These mental models are, for the most part, unconscious and not-evidence-based.  (Sometimes the opinion is claimed to be 'obvious' or 'common sense'.)  By definition, an unconscious theory cannot be tested.
By writing down a theory of learning we make it conscious and testable.

3  Would a theory empower or disempower teachers?

Some teachers are concerned that a 'theory of learning' could become 'one more stick with which to beat teachers'. However, this is not the case in other professions.  The 'sticks to beat teachers' have mostly been about methods, not theory. Examples have been:
  • Particular interpretation of the evidence on 'assessment for learning'
  • Insistence that phonics is 'the answer' for all pupils
Most other professions are liberated by their shared theory.  Doctors or engineers do not feel oppressed by their anatomy or structures textbooks.  Theory gives the individual teacher autonomy and the opportunity to say 'No' when asked to carry out a counter-evidence task.

3.1  Empowering the teacher

At present the huge quantity of written material on learning and teaching gives the impression that learning is a very difficult thing to understand.  This empowers the 'expert' who can easily convince us that their opinion is fact that we should follow.
A 'theory of learning' is, by definition, fairly short.  When teachers are familiar with the theory, they are much less likely to be controlled as we will be the experts too.


Feedback from teachers

These are the responses from teachers to the question:
"In what other ways do you think that a 'theory of learning' will be helpful?"

The text above is compiled using these contributions.
  • Blow some of the assumptions about education out of the water. Expand access to include more valuable participants within academia and economic traffic.
  • A theory of learning will also drive teacher education, making sure that most first year teachers come into the classroom with a common baseline approach to teaching.
  • Useful to share with students and parents - the key for me is that it will help students to learn better. 
  • It will provide a great structure and a way to validate what we do
  • It might form a base pedagogy that could be used to branch out from. My 'go to' with students is that in order to internalise something you need to encounter it 3-4 times and in 3-4 different ways. 
  • If shared with students it could increase their buy-in. 
  • I am wary - I suspect it could become one more stick with which to beat teachers. 
  • To understand the teaching role; empowering teachers but other stakeholders too
  • Working out effective general and subject specific methods of teaching
  • Having a theory will ensure that all teachers have the same quality of knowledge and understanding of how children learn best. Too many teachers provide activities rather than learning opportunities. Too many teachers still talk to the children instead of providing investigative opportunities. Teachers should have a responsibility to keep up to date with the latest research therefore children learn effectively. Having a theory will help to develop the idea that all teachers are forward thinkers and are preparing children for their future, not the teacher's past. Having a theory will help teachers to be classed as experts in their field.
  • Provide clear strategies for teachers 
  • Give reasons for strategies 
  • Provide a useful discussion forum 
  • An effective, evidence-based theory of learning would need to be explicitly taught in professional teacher training programs to be spread across the profession; the language of the theory could also be incorporated into lesson plan templates and teacher evaluation rubrics.
  • It helps to define what further research and observations should be undertaken in order to further our knowledge.
  • Help teachers to plan better lessons
  • The professional discussions that such a theory can facilitate will be powerful. It will also establish a common language which can work across all teachers and in all cultures.
  • In helping to promote best practice in classrooms
  • Allow teachers to argue for and against different classroom strategies from an evidence based stance. 
  • A 'theory of learning' should allow teachers and educators to be able to explain what they are doing and why to parents, employers and other professionals.
  • It will be an excellent resource for new teachers.
  • I think it will give teachers and leaders much more clout and ensure that we are taken seriously. We always seem to come across as whingeing when we challenge the government.
  • make teaching learning process more effective, students have better learning
  • It will educate teachers & help them to gain an awareness that their profession has been hijacked by managers & bureaucrats, most of whom have no vision or understanding of, or interest in, pedagogy. And it will improve teaching & increase impact on children's learning.
  • Helps to bring teachers together and equip us with the collective resources to fight off quackery - and to learn from each other.
  • It will help to underpin planning, and also help those teaching SEN students to look at new ways of delivering lessons.
  • In terms of teaching we must make provision to include the learner. This will also mean developing a suitable language with which to share the mental and emotional impact of learning.
  • I think a theory of learning can serve as a lens through which teachers can make decision about what constitutes best practice. 
  • Informing inspection and lesson observation processes. 
  • Contributing to a shift on the educational landscape! 


  1. Your approach and raison d’etre look entirely coherent, clear and convincing.

    1. Good to hear we are on the right lines, David.

    2. Some good, logical ideas here. Lots to share with my teacher education students.

  2. We should also more easily combat Government initiatives which cherry pick parts of findings or completely misrepresent the "facts" for their political purposes in line with dogma. Researchers such as Prof. John Hattie, for example, should be given prominence.
    We could also ensure that creativity is given as much real attention as the policy in Scotland and Australia.

    1. Is that sufficiently covered in 2.3 above, Peter?

    2. Probably ... but having Govt's pet experts doesn't cover the misrepresentations of scholarly works which have been used in the past... overall though I think the statement"With a shared, evidence-based theory, teachers could say "No" with a united voice." is helpful

  3. I found one typo: Insistence the phonics is 'the answer' for all pupils. I think it should say 'that'. Interesting reading the comments - you can already see some differences on how we see the 'evidence'. For example the comment 'Too many teachers still talk to the children instead of providing investigative opportunities' is interesting as I thought there was evidence to suggest that teacher talk and direct explanation is okay!

    1. Typo fixed - thanks.
      Re. "differences on how we see the 'evidence'" - The evidence of 'what works' is compiled in the main section of the ebtn website.

    2. Appreciate your respect for differences, while realizing a set "dogma" can always be manipulated. It is so true children in a classroom do not pay attention after even just a few minutes of teacher talking away at the front. Tomorrow I'm going back to one of my tried and true approaches - teaching from the back of the room with two students leading in turns from the front giving examples.Thanks for that reminder!

  4. I am very happy with all of this Mike.

  5. Interesting comments that show there will be a wide variety of views and thoughts. A theory of learning must not become a one-size-fits-all theory of how to teach (even though that's what the government of the day always seems to believe it will find!)

    1. The theory will simply explain the evidence. 'How to teach' can be chosen by professional teachers who are aware of 'what works' and can explain the learning process using the theory.
      'Germ theory' doesn't tell doctors how to treat their patient.

  6. For me theory could then lead to a model which is proven to work which could help to cut work load. No teacher should be constantly reinventing the wheel.

    Also type 1.2 most other profession I think it should have a S

  7. What gets me when reading this, you are expecting to create one theory in the premise of one size fits all. Yes, in many professions they have a set of ground rules
    or theories (plural) that may be the basis of their professions but these evolve into different theories based on the approach of that particular sub-group. Clear evidence of this in medicine, engendering etc. Learning and teaching is a complex process that needs to be fully understood and not just categorised by one theory. Yes there are a lot of fads that are introduced into teaching with no clear evidence that they work but have the appearance that they do, pseudo-theory. Stepping back to the basics of teaching and what is all about maybe a better option for the professional body of teachers. Rather than just another theory.

  8. You say "Stepping back to the basics of teaching and what is all about maybe a better option for the professional body of teachers. Rather than just another theory."
    Could you explain the difference between "the basics of teaching" and a theory?

    1. I have enjoyed being an international migrant teacher in well over 200 urban and rural schools in different English speaking countries over a course of 40 years. This gives me remarkable stepping back perspective to see into the heart of different teaching approaches. The most active participants in classrooms readily discuss their learning and have teachers who encourage all student contributions using novelty and humor to advantage. Witnessing and participating in vibrant classroom learning reveals a focus upon discipline and controlled outcomes is most often rigid. How to convey the value of spontaneous-off schedule teaching responsive to our student's interests and understanding? Are we looking to define process or structure in education?

  9. My gut feeling is that I agree with the ideas proposed and I strongly agree that we need to dispel the myths. However I just wonder how the myths were taken on board by so many in the first place? As you say, "learning is a very difficult thing to understand"; how are you going to make sure that the evidence this time leads to the correct conclusions and not to another set of myths? Could it be that the theory will change over time?

    1. The myths are very easily dispelled by the evidence - but remain because they are consistent with the teachers internal model/theory of learning. If/when we make the theory overt and evidence-based we will see that it dispels myths.
      This is the same process which happened in medicine in the late 19th century. Gradually the myths about humors, blood-letting and bad-air all faded.

  10. This seems to be quite a comprehensive list of reasons as to why the education profession could benefit from a shared theory.

  11. There were points in history that the established authorities did publish and education promoted single minded information determined as evidence by those with and without authority. In 2018 one way the information explosion has promoted education is by allowing diversity to reach further with immediate communication and images. It would be impossible to make reality stand still without stifling innovation, which is necessary for survival. My best teaching moments are when my students use their creativity to reach conclusions and peak their interest with curiosity. My hope always is that my students will take their best potentials to exert positive, lasting influence that is responsive to changing needs; I can only teach by example.