Education Opinion

Naming the Theories in Use

By Tom Vander Ark — July 20, 2015 4 min read
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Theories have experience, they define causality, they help human beings create agreements and move forward.

Harvard professor Clay Christensen explained how human beings use theories to address problems after receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Agilix Personalized Learning Summit (#PS2015) in Provo on Wednesday.

Called by the Secretary of Defense, Christensen found himself presenting to four dozen highest ranking military officers in the country. But he wasn’t sure
why since he, by his own admission, didn’t know zip about defense. The Harvard prof outlined his theory of the innovator’s dilemma where innovation often outstrips the ability of traditional
markets to adopt it leaving room for new entrants to serve non-consumers with inexpensive new products.

In this and hundreds of other conversations, Christensen observed that his theory about disruptive innovation gave wide ranging incumbents a useful
language to discuss how the world was changing. Theories create shared understanding and an opportunity to build consensus on a path forward.

After a wonderful tribute to Clay’s contributions, a graduate student at BYU asked me, “What other theories are being applied in education?” That may be
the best question of the year and one that every school and district leadership team should ask themselves.

As David Sundahl, who works with Christensen, said, “Naming the theories at work is critical to understanding any situation.”

What theories are being applied to public education? Education theorists are far better suited to answer this question, but it a few theories that appear
to be at work include:

1. Theories of preparedness (the job-to-be-done by K-12)

  • College prep-for-all is a dominant theory embraced in the last ten years but it’s based on an old credit-based definition including the path to

  • Selective sports for a few dictates the size, schedule, location, and policies of most U.S. secondary schools.

  • Theories of juvenile justice (incarceration rather than education) impact many young people.

2. Organizational theories (how school districts work)

  • Common in public delivery systems is what Jane Jacobs called the Guardian Syndrome based on loyalty, hierarchy, and
    tradition. She suggests the alternative Commercial System values competition, initiative and inventiveness. Conflicts in public education are often
    a clash of these competing but unexpressed value systems.

  • Similarly, Steven Hodas describes the District Operating System (DOS), the web of systemic
    procedural practice that results from unexamined sedimentary layers of policies and traditions that become “the way we do things here.” He notes
    that the craft-based practice of school staff are very different from those of central DOS workers. Both effectively resist top down initiatives
    and efforts to promote what he calls dynamism, which is an openness to new ideas and an embrace of change when change is called for.

3. Theories about complex systems (how this all gets resolved community by community)

  • One Best System: many educators believe in common schools and see alternatives as an attack on public education.

  • Portfolio of options: most urban areas benefit from multiple operators providing alternative visions of education.

  • Hybrid approaches, including Compact Cities,
    offer a mixture of district and charter schools with many options.

4. Theories of human development (how people learn)

  • Freud’s psychosexual, Erikson’s psychosocial, Vygotsky’s sociocultural, Maslow’s hierarchy, and Piaget’s stages of cognitive development all
    represent grand theories of human development.

  • Competing philosophies of education include perennialism (teacher and curriculum centered), progressivism (student-centered), critical thinking,
    and democratic education.

  • Despite many theories of development, 200 year old Prussian theories of management still apply to the basic organization of schools with age
    cohorts progressing through bodies of content to earn time-based credits.

  • Blended and personalized
    learning is the emerging pedagogical hunch (advanced by both Christensen Institute and Getting Smart).

While this list is illustrative more than exhaustive, Michael Horn of the Christensen Institute, notes that many theories of these theories have
limitations in that they haven’t progressed to the point of identifying causality to explain why what they predict should occur. They aren’t adequately
predictive to provide guidance to say, “If in this situation, then doing X will cause the right results, but in this circumstance, do Y instead.”
(Disruptive innovation, on the other hand, has proven rather robust across many sectors over several economic cycles.)

As Clay argued in forward to

Horn’s new book
, blended learning is a paradigm shift that renders past limitations moot. Personalized is an early attempt to build on and unify those pedagogical
theories to say different students have different needs at different times, and as a result, simply following the prescriptions from the prior theories
regardless of desired learning outcome or the particular student is what leads to some students doing well, but many not. Horn adds, “Personalized learning
says there’s wisdom in the various competing pedagogical theories and the key is to deploy the right element at the right time.”

Whether you buy our grand unifying theory of personalized learning, the important lesson is to be explicit about the theories at work to build shared
understanding. And, if Christensen is right, better theory leads to better outcomes.

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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.