Learn to love theory to find joy in your practice

15th April 2016 at 00:00
Why research could hold the safe words to free teachers from the shackles of malaise

We know that there is a teacher retention and recruitment crisis. Teachers are leaving schools and the number of people entering the profession is not enough for the roles we need to fill, either now or in the future. Can educational theory help the situation? You may laugh with incredulity, but it can.

I was recently teaching with a master’s level group of students and teachers in secondary and primary schools. One teacher – who has been in a post for four years – said in passing that most of the time she feels that she is going around the classroom with a clipboard, assessing and grading her pupils. She didn’t like it. It was not what she had signed up for.

Meanwhile, a school headteacher was quoted in a recent TES article (“Going, going, gone”, Feature, 27 November 2015) saying, “Teachers are simply tired of the lack of support from society in general for the profession. Physical and verbal abuse are now the norm in most state schools, and it is a highly demoralising system within which to work without the resources and support.”

As a teacher myself, I lament both of these situations. I feel sad for my son’s teacher. Has the bone-marrow and life been sucked out of education in schools on account of the “practice, practice, practice” mantra?

Why theory matters

Govian believers in education calling for craft and graft at the chalkface, neophytes of tradition with a desire for the “core” things in life such as Latin or ancient Greek, and the strange-but-true backlash against supposed Marxism-peddling academics in universities all come together here. They will not understand this theory of mine: that theory for teachers matters. They don’t have to live the teaching life, but we do, and we do self-care.

My theory is that the assessment protocols teachers have to deal with are mindless. Teachers now process figures for figures’ sake. These do not serve them in their desire to be there for their students and be excellent, intelligent professionals. Figures suck interpersonal relationships out of schools.

Figures also make the school experience less interesting for teachers than it used to be. Teachers are falling prey to what we previously thought was the complaint of students: school has become boring, meaningless and unconnected to their lived lives.

Fortunately, I believe that there is a solution. It may not be a revolution against testing, but it might just help liven up the staffroom and intrigue teachers into new forms of self and professional development; engaging them in their own vocation, should that need dusting down. The answer to the teacher retention problem could, rather surprisingly, be theory.

Usually theory is seen as dry and uninteresting, devoid of any practical knowhow or common sense. But I would suggest that, contrary to this, theory is pretty damn hot. To prove this, I will showcase some ideas used in education studies that I think might just help teachers get out of bed tomorrow.

Theory can explain the problems that we currently have in teaching. An article from 2009 in the International Journal of Learning, “Education as Initiation to a ‘Form of Life’: conceptual investigation and education theory”, by ZR Gasparatou, is a blast of relief.

The article discusses how, according to some, we live according to language games. When we speak we play a game of understanding about which we all (roughly speaking) know the rules. This creates a stable set of ideas amounting to “an existing everyday framework”. This “can help explain how education works”.

Why do we use a curriculum? Because we teach children what they need to know to live in the world. Why do we inculcate standards of behaviour? Because this is how people interact according to our understood framework. So far, so simple and obvious. But what if this assumption of shared understanding were to limit what is possible?

Gasparatou argues that this common educational sense of things – the shared and shareable world – can also act to stop new ideas. This explains why education is so conservative. When ideas that are fresh and different from shared understandings – ideas that some might call that innovation or change – come in, they are easy to dismiss. They are not part of our shared understanding, which is how we understand ourselves and others. So new ideas are seen as wrong: “A theory cannot make sense if it is against our worldview, it is contradictory or senseless.”

Ideas as sustenance

If the worldview is one that suggests testing is normal, useful, necessary, then any teacher who disagrees with that and has a critical opinion about what is going on is in trouble. It is not allowable to go much beyond what has become the worldview of the school as it now functions. This way of schools working “accounts for how critical thinking cannot go far beyond the ordinary framework”. Think again? You’re stuffed. This can leave teachers feeling powerless or bored, or both.

Another mental meal. If a school has no opportunities for teachers’ opinions to be heard, theory says that they will leave. Here’s the theory about that, from economics: Albert O Hirschman, in his 1970 book Exit, Voice and Loyalty, suggested that members of any sort of organisation or institution – such as a school – are either able to voice their opinions about how things are done, or they will leave. In effect, their choices are stark: voice or exit. Exit is to exercise free will, voice is political agitation of some form.

Loyalty plays a part in this dynamic. If there is loyalty to a school or even the idea of the school, then voice is more likely to be opted for as a solution to difficulties. Exit need not be a movement of the body; it can be mental and emotional. In the case of schooling and teachers, this might be seen in vocational disaffection. With the current issues around teacher retention, we are experiencing a real problem of exit.

Just as theory explains our troubles, it can also solve them. Sustenance comes from theory as thinking again. There are so many places that one can to go to get this kind of food.

For example: the idea that reading doesn’t need to be taught and instead just happens (complexity theory), the idea that doing nothing and doing it slowly can speed you up and make you more productive (silence theory), that gender is not a fixed binary (see work by Judith Butler), that telling children off and punishing them when naughty is counter-productive and not educationally valid (attachment theory), that being “good enough” is educationally fine (“good-enough theory”), that caring needs the cared-for to acknowledge the care in order for it to be care (Nel Noddings on care theory), and so on.

This is not a breaking down of worldview common sense and shared understandings. Nor is it the emergence of spaces for voicing concerns in ways that develop into better conditions of work.

Instead I propose the force of thought. It is not a case of acting against accepted views. Instead I offer here the idea that in order to stay in teaching with joy, thinking matters. To find purpose in the difficulties of the current school experience, thinking speaks loudly.

Thinking on the job with theory can revive, enliven and give purpose to teaching as a professional experience. So much so, in fact, that I wager it can – and will – save some teachers from leaving the profession.

Firing up a sense of intrigue

Can theory really be so life and school saving? Well, yes. Thinking that gives the mind juice, fuel, stimulation, enlightenment, joy, fire, interest and intrigue is similar to the impact of a CPD course, a promotion, a great new colleague whose conversation and company you enjoy, a flirtation, a successful day, term or year, a class of students who adore your subject or adore you.

I leave you with one of my own theories. This made some teachers rethink themselves as teachers when I presented it at an education conference. I hope you like it.

Education is a bit like BDSM: bondage and discipline/domination, submission/sadism and masochism. It is a sexual orientation to like and need BDSM sexual practices. It is similar to being either heterosexual or homosexual. School education is like BDSM because it uses submission, discipline and domination. But it is not like schooling in that schools and teachers dominate students and expect submission, without asking students if that is OK. There is no “mutuality”.

BDSM practices require, for safe and sane sexual activity to take place, strongly understood and negotiated mutual consent protocols. Getting consent is deeply important. To not have it is really bad.

If kinky sex can bother to get mutual consents for action in place, should schooling do so? It currently does not, really. Would that make schools more democratic? Better? I have written about this in a book, which comes out in May: The Palgrave International Handbook of Alternative Education (which has been edited by me and Noddings).

That’s got you thinking, hasn’t it? There are thousands of theories to choose from that will get you thinking, too. Think this: to think about and engage with theory is a kind of work. Not work protocols dictated by policy and government but the personal, intimately interesting work of the teacher. It may just inform your vocation. It may just give you back your dignity.

Critical consciousness

Derek Melser, in his 2004 book The Act of Thinking (The MIT Press), suggests we learn how to think and how to be conscious beings through acting and interacting with the world.

This has important ramifications for teachers stuck in the “world” of schooling. It means that their critical response to what goes on in the school can shape their thinking, setting them free within the setting. They do not need to leave their job to be able to think.

So long as they feed what Paulo Freire called their “critical consciousness” by responding critically, they are learning to think. But not according to a conservative worldview of what is already done, but according to personal views, learned as thought.

Suddenly personal views matter, at least to the person. In thinking, thoughts become action – against the system but also, if within the school, for the system. This time, on the teacher’s own terms, thought is power.

Where to find theory?

Most theory is on the internet, in some form. Articles behind a journal’s paywall can often be found to download free on an author’s research profile or on sites such as academia.edu.

Small book samples can be found through Google Books. Or feel free to email an academic author at their university directly – they will probably be happy to send you a PDF of an article you’d like to read.

Dr Helen Lees is a lecturer in education at Newman University, Birmingham

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