That's When I Gag
Over the last 23 years I've attended about fifty Quesnel School District's professional development days and heard many speakers advertise education-based theories. I've used some ideas from therein that have seemed useful for my students, but I've never put enormous faith in theories. They are theories by definition because they haven't been or can't seem to be proven. On the other hand, there is The Law of Gravity: you can prove that. Jump off a cliff. It's more than a theory. But the Theory of Evolution remains a theory because it remains unproven.1 It's simply not a law. Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity (I studied it in Physics 210 at the University of British Columbia in 1973) works great in math on paper; however, who can prove it with flesh and blood? It's not a law, except on Star Trek.
John Dewey, a firm advocate of evolution, seems humorous to me with regard to his irrevocable Darwin-stand, and yet he seems of serious worth when I consider his yen for the scientific method: "Dewey...[used] discovery procedures [to] mirror the scientific method...[as] a crucial component of...education" (Egan, 1997, p. 19). I certainly value that method of learning facts, even for presenting theories. But I don't appreciate zealots using rhetoric to "force" theories to look like laws.
I also value Jean-Jacques Rousseau's child-centered stand of "focus[ing] attention...on the nature of the developing child, concentrating less on what ought to be learned and more on what children at different ages are capable of learning and on how learning might proceed most effectively" (Ibid., p. 15). Perhaps he and Dewey would have shaken hands, if they could have met across time, over Dewey's "systematic attempts to base a course of study upon the actual unfolding of the psychology of child nature" (Dewey, quoted in Egan, 1997, p. 28).
In addition, I value Plato's passion for rigorous learning, especially given the drive of some students for learning logically, deeply, and critically, and in view of the extensive yet often narrow learning needed for university-bound students who want to do well on ministry-ordained government tests. Likely, these students will do well with "Plato-influenced teachers...who...[use] rigorous exams" (Egan, 1997, p. 23).
I understand the value of at least some of what Plato, Dewey, and Rousseau present to education, just as I understand the value of good learning research2 based on the fact-generating scientific method as a tool for educators to choose good methods of instruction for their students: "We need to give teachers time to reflect on their practice, to engage in substantive dialogue with others (including the researchers) about what they are accomplishing and why, and to assist teachers in carefully studying new research [and new theories] and innovations to determine whether they validate their practice, require them to rethink their practice, or both" (Wolfe, 1998, p. 64).
I like that. Good research can teach us, given certain students' circumstances, what instructional methods are better than what others. Some research can even lead to useful theories on educational methods. Just don't use rhetoric to try to convince me that Theory A = Law A. That's when I gag.
1 Sometimes we find ourselves misled by comments such as "evolution is a fact" (Gould, Luria, & Singer, 1981, p. 574), which implies a law has replaced the theory.
2 In "Chapter Six: A Plethora of Variables," I describe what many would term poor research.