chapter  4
8 Pages

The nature and scope of educational theory (2)

ByP. H. Hirst

In his initial discussion of the nature of educational theory in his book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, Professor O’Connor distinguished a number of different senses in which we use the term ‘theory’. One of these, contrasts theory with practice, the word referring to ‘a set or system of rules or a collection of precepts which guide or control actions of various kinds’.2 In this sense, it was suggested, educational theory consists of ‘those parts of psychology concerned with perception, learning, concept formation, motivation and so on which directly concern the work of the teacher’.3 The word ‘theory’ was, however, said to have another sense, in which it is used as it occurs in the natural sciences, where it refers to a single hypothesis or a logically interconnected set of hypotheses that have been confirmed by observation. In this sense, it was suggested, we have standards for judging the value of theories put forward by writers on education. Commenting on Professor O’Connor’s account in my paper ‘Educational theory’4 I argued for the importance of conceiving educational theory along the lines of the first of these two senses, when it is seen as producing rational principles for educational practice, but I rejected the claim that it will then consist simply of parts of psychology and other relevant sciences. I maintained instead that it would necessarily have to draw also on other quite different forms of knowledge and understanding, on for instance judgments of moral value, philosophical beliefs and historical knowledge. I argued in fact that the theory of a practical activity must, logically must, involve a concern for more than scientific knowledge. Of course I did not wish to suggest, and took care to make this explicit,5 that the term ‘educational theory’ could not also be used as a label to cover simply work in those sciences which conform to the criteria of Professor O’Connor’s second sense, insofar as it occurs in the study of education. Rather I wished to bring out the very complex character of the theory the practice of education must draw on, in opposition to any reductionist suggestion that the sciences alone are sufficient for this purpose.