Understanding educational theory: vital or a waste of time for student teachers?

By Naomi Barnes

My student teachers often question the value of educational theory in their initial teacher education. Also often early career teachers tell me that the theory they were taught at university holds no value in their day-to-day practical lives.

I understand this point of view. The first years of teaching are largely about finding our feet and working out the system. The first years are also caught up in personal priorities such as finding permanent positions and railing against the casualisation of the workforce.

But this does not mean that theory does not underpin every decision a teacher makes. Theory even underpins the curriculum we are asked to teach. As I see it, understanding educational theory is a part of knowing why we teach what we teach and how. The theories that are taught in initial teacher education are aimed at helping beginning teachers understand who they are and why they want to teach. One of my motivations for wanting to teach History is so that I could work at helping students to be empathetic in their everyday lives. History is an excellent example of how this relationship works.

The Australian Curriculum Humanities and Social Sciences ( HASS) History strand is underpinned by what the curriculum writers have termed concepts (another word for theory). In the following, I am going to tease out some of these concepts to show how they are examples of theory in practice.


The location and interpretation of sources is the primary skill of an historian. There are many different types of sources, some more useful than others. Despite what you may think, there never is really a “bad” source. The decision to use a certain source or not is contextual. It may not be FACT but it can reveal a lot about a historical context depending on how the historian interprets the source within their study. So most sources are included or discarded according to the idea of usefulness, rather than whether they are good or bad. This is a subjective practice. The selection of a source is determined through the historian’s point of view of the world – theory. Furthermore, only a minuscule amount of human history has ever made it to the page or the gallery or the archive. Much has been destroyed. Much was never even recorded. So the job of an historian is to make connections between the sources available. This is a process of logical and rigorous imagination. The conclusions drawn are based on corroboration through continuity, change, cause and effect, but it is imagination none the less and subject to the historian’s theoretical point of view.

Cause and effect, and Continuity and Change

When historians use their imagination, they are using ideas of cause and effect, and continuity and change. For example, the reason we have the society we have at the moment is the result of cause and effect. It is very easy to trace the cause and effect through a lens of war and economy, but it is also through the concept of cause and effect that we can begin to show students that the deliberate forgetting of marginalized groups is in decision making and it is a reason that governments continue along the same homogenous pathways they have for centuries.

While society seems to be moving through a time of rapid change, the continuity of certain ways of knowing and understanding history have remained the same. The world seems to be speeding up but the way it has been governed has changed very little. White wealthy males, for example, are still the most powerful leaders, industrialisation and technological advancement are still seen by governments as the most important industries, and fear of other unknown people has been used as a method of mass control for centuries. Historians realise these theories of continuity and make their imaginative decisions about what happened in the past by through them.


There are too many events in the past to include them all and many history wars have been fought over which ones to include in the History strands of the HASS Curriculum. These history wars are most often about the inclusion and placement of histories of Aboriginal peoples, Torres Strait Islander peoples, and non-European peoples, and the theoretical lens through which those histories are taught. The choosing of significant histories can influence the civic attitudes of generations of people so is often hard fought.


The choice of those histories is influenced by theories often called perspectives. One of the more famous media and political wars fought over which perspectives are allowed within the Australian Curriculum was a stoush between prime minister at the time, Paul Keating, and John Howard in the early 1990s when Keating was pushing for the inclusion of Australian History which showed how the nation had been built on the blood of the Indigenous and non-white immigrant/indentured labour population. This view was pitched against Howard’s view that wanted children to know and celebrate the achievements of the Australian nation. What both these perspectives denied was the voice of the people who lived the histories they were talking about including or excluding.


A key reason for teaching History is the theory that it teaches children to have empathy which means that they will be able to more than understand other peoples’ points of view, they will know what it might be like to be another person. The theory is that students will only begin to understand historical empathy (and in turn social empathy) if they have enough exposure to differing perspectives, can interpret their own partiality, understand that their ideas may be based in modern thought, understand that there are gaps and silences in the historical record.

There are many interpretations of what it means to teach empathy in the classroom and some believe that it cannot be taught at all. But the personal theories that a teacher takes into the classroom will also influence their ability to teach students to be empathetic. For example, if a teacher’s personal viewpoint is that students do not need differentiation, it will be harder to teach students empathy because inclusiveness is based on empathetic thinking.

I hope this post opens up some clarifying statements and discussion about the usefulness of theory in Initial Teacher Education, but also educational training, qualifications, and professional development. I believe theory is a vital component but probably needs more clarity as to why and how (as I have demonstrated in this blog post). What do you think?



Naomi Barnes is an adjunct postdoctoral fellow at the Griffith Institute of Educational Research. Her key areas of research are transitions and social media in educational research.


24 thoughts on “Understanding educational theory: vital or a waste of time for student teachers?

  1. Paul Dufficy says:

    As someone has said: “there’s nothing as practical as a good theory”

  2. Peter Mcilveen says:

    Kurt Levin

  3. Naomi Barnes says:

    Ahhh. Thanks

  4. Naomi Barnes says:

    I would love to know who said that! Thanks for your comment

  5. Pete Goss says:

    Leonid Brezhnev also said something very similar: “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.”

    But I suspect that that he may have had a different historical context in mind…

  6. History is so important. Empathy and the understanding of others and their perspectives and motivations is important for moral reasoning too. Something that world needs more of, even for designing things such as technology systems.

  7. Naomi Barnes says:

    I’m please you picked up the “History is important” angle, Marten 🙂

  8. Dr. Maria Gindidis says:

    Just gave a lecture to over 500 new first year Bachelor of Education students and passionately included the importance of “understanding and embracing the importance of educational theory as it drives all the complex work of teachers” I am circulating this succinct paper as it eloquently covers the very reasons that educational theory should not be compartmentalised by pre-service teachers as a hurdle to the real work of teaching that they will engage with.To quote Paul Dafficy again “there’s nothing as practical as a good theory” – Great work! 🙂

  9. Naomi Barnes says:

    Thank you. I’m pleased you found it helpful. I found it helpful to write.

  10. Peter Mcilveen says:

    That this question is posed as a binary is an indictment. I cannot imagine other professions reliant on pure disciplines for their knowledge (e.g., health practitioners) even considering that they could practise without knowing the knowledge that underpins what they are doing. Reflexivity is not possible without theory.

  11. Naomi Barnes says:

    I agree. That we even is a debate is breathtaking IMO. Thank you for commenting. I would love to hear more of your thoughts

  12. Peter McIlveen says:

    Every person proceeds through his/her world with several theories for understanding, for deciding, for doing, for reconsidering, and so on. Theories are cognitive schema a person uses to make sense of the world. At this juncture, have a look into George Kelley’s “psychology of personal constructs”. A person’s theory can be affirmed or rejected by interpretation of experiences–and interpretation is the key factor. Over time, experience and interpretation and experience and interpretation, over and over again, a person’s schema become almost a collection of theories that cohere with one another, as if a paradigm, a personal epistemology, for ways of knowing, being, and doing.

    All good so far; but, when it comes t0 professional practitioners who are accorded roles and responsibilities in society, along with expectations for performance, theory becomes as more serious matter. Just talk to any person who has been to school about their school experiences and they will be an expert on teaching and learning–just ask. I’m sure they will give you a unique theory on how schools and teachers should operate entirely based on the interpretation of their experiences given as emotionally validated N = 1 case study–“it feels right to me therefore it must be true”. After all, politicians seem to do so on a regular basis.

    As for pre-service teachers, like everyone else who begins their professional learning journey, they will have their personal theories based on their N = 1 case study. But, just how valid is a particular case study for all of the other case studies sitting in your tutorial? It is not until practitioners come to realize that their N = 1 theory is not all that generalizable. And, this is when theory comes into its utility.

    A good theory is little more than a well beaten and polished idea. It’s an idea that evolves in the presence of evidence, subject to experiential and experimental scrutiny, metaphorically beaten into shape when it doesn’t quite match reality, and then polished and smoothed to better guide its users to understand and act in a new situation that needs an explanation and action. Over time, a good theory evolves on the basis of evidence gathered by hundreds, if not thousands, of practitioners and researchers all beating and polishing it into a magnificent mug to hold all manner of concepts.

    Now for the “pub test”. Let us ask a parent: Which would you prefer? (a) teachers who learn about and perform their vital craft on the basis of well and truly tested ideas beaten and polished by evidence generated by thousands of moments of scrutiny, or (b) an idea based on the experience and interpretations of one person validated by the same one person? I am not suggesting the N = 1 case study’s truthfulness and usefulness is invalid for himself or herself. No, not at all, as it is entirely valid and sane to believe one’s own personal truths. Instead, ethical practice–for all professions–requires partial suspension of one’s home grown truth and application of collective wisdom aka. theory.

  13. Ania Lian says:

    Peter, what concept do you think contributes to ed theory and has been “well and truly tested ideas”? Or what theory has been “well and truly tested ideas”? I ask to help clarify what we actually mean by what we say.
    kind regards

  14. Marcus Holmes says:

    As prelude to such considerations, imo Naomi Barnes should be questioning the prejudice, as a given, that schooling is tantamount to education?
    According to educational theory of the last few decades the answer is a resounding NO.
    Putting that aside (it should be front and center), understanding theories of pedagogy are important, though secondary imo since theory vacilates like fashion, seemingly never fully grasping that education is not independent of culture–that theory is not oblique or objective, but that education is complemented or confounded by culture. In Australia it’s the latter.
    I believe Australian schools are dysfunctional (reflecting Australian culture) and theory is not flexible enough to cope.
    So yes, theory by all means; but behaviour management, self defense and a good shrink are priorities.
    In a dysfunctional culture teaching remains an apprenticeship; learning what works in the real world, rather than ceteris paribus.

  15. Naomi Barnes says:

    I think you raise a really good point, Marcus. There is an assumption that education and schooling are sympatico, which is not true. Is schooling one part of the national employment machine? And all those points you mention (behaviour management, self defense and psychology) come underscored by their own theoretical agenda…so to choose a system or a shrink needs a cognisant understanding of theory (in my opinion). I think theory (while not secondary) is an undercurrent of everything. I don’t think there is a hierarchy…but that’s a theoretical standpoint in itself.
    Thank you for commenting. I like what your comment provokes and would like to hear more.

  16. Marcus Holmes says:

    Ah Naomi, I’m so happy to be free of the the need to massage the message and adopt professional parlance/pr: praise/encouragement, veiled criticism, while saying absolutely nothing (beyond promoting “theory”. (What could be more nebulous?)
    I notice you’re careful to avoid the “dysfunctional culture” stuff ( he’s obviously a crank), apart from acknowledging its vital importance within the homogeneity of schooling.
    I prefer literary theory, which begins by dismissing its premises.
    That aside. Humans work best with nature. Practice without theory can still be effective. Theory without practice is idealism.

  17. Naomi Barnes says:

    Hi Marcus
    I would love to discuss the dysfunctional nature of schooling. We don’t discuss it enough. In fact, my avoidance was because to do so would be to give you clicks through to my other various blogs and thus be a hypocrite about the nature of what education has become. I think to be taught empathy in teacher training is not just about teaching students but being gentle with each other.

  18. Ania Lian says:

    Thank you Naomi
    Can anyone explain what is an educational theory, please?

    All I read is that “people learn in groups” – is that a theory? Scaffolding is a term used for everything and I am still trying to find an explanation of the process that goes beyond the magic of mind reading.

    Naomi says “A key reason for teaching History is the theory that it teaches children to have empathy and … students will only begin to understand historical empathy (and in turn social empathy) if they have enough exposure to differing perspectives,” — I dont understand it. The idea somehow lost the student in all this it and left all the others who need to be felt for. Also, why “other perspectives:” – what if there are no other perspectives? Will learning still follow? Like when there was only one theory of the earth proclaiming that it was flat.

    I think the thoughts are important to be raised but they need some more reflection on what we do in education and why.
    best wishes
    Ania Lian

  19. Naomi Barnes says:

    Thank you for taking the time to comment, Ania. I agree with you on the “multiple perspectives” but from a different angle. What if the other perspectives are wrong? And who decides they are? Do we teach racist perspectives simply because they are different? What is our ethical position on this as we walk into the classroom?

    About losing the students, IMO we lose them the moment we generalise about their own culture. So we need to understand that each and every one is different, not simple a member of a generalised social category, and I suppose this is what I’m referring to in the differentiation comment.

    In terms of education theory, I write here as a History teacher who teaches theory every day to History preservice teachers. I am required to acknowledge the pedagogical theories but the curriculum theories are where my expertise lies. I would suspect this might be true of all discipline specific teaching.

    Your comment has me thinking. Thank you for making it. I’d love to hear more on this

  20. Ania Lian says:

    Dear Naomi,
    What if the other perspectives are wrong? – exactly so we need some other way of approaching the concept of critical. Who decides they are wrong? The same people who decide that the question is right   What is our ethical position on this as we walk into the classroom? I think we are regulated pretty well by general capabilities in regard to ethics, but the process needs explication, more than “motherhood statements” Regarding education theories, I often wonder what is the question that they ask and how do they include the students’ questions?
    Ania Lian

  21. Paul Dufficy says:

    Frequently when beginning teachers enter a classroom for practice teaching they are told to ‘leave that University theory at the door – this is the real world’. Problem is, as soon as the mentor teacher starts teaching, all kinds of theories come into play – theories of management, theories about learning, theories about classroom talk, theories about gender, theories about reading instruction and so on. Un-examined and under articulated practice of this kind can, as we have seen many times, lead to teachers following fashions rather than creatively constructing, in dialogue with others, learning for young people.

  22. Marten Koomen says:

    But there is an interesting tension between practice and theory. For example, I’m probably a better at physics than Cristiano Ronaldo (only guessing here), and would be able to do some pretty fancy calculations on ball trajectories. However I can’t kick a ball.

    In some ways, theory only comes into play when you want to change practices, and sometimes a coach, which knowledge of theory, may all that is required to change practice. The practitioner may not need to know theory.

    It’s an interesting tension.

  23. Naomi Barnes says:

    Someone made a comment about educational theories having their place in the Masters Of Education, which I thought an interesting statement and one which I think fits in here. In transition research, which is where I hear all these comments about relevance, there is a school of thought that you don’t take the time until people are ready to hear. It really comes down to whether we think that Initial Teacher Education is the final formalised qualification a teacher is going to do. I think in current popular discourse this may be the assumption so everything is crammed into 2-4 years. If formalised learning of theory is going to be left until later it needs public acknowledgement and system change to make sure it happens in PD, conferences and higher degrees. Will there be a stratification between those in the know and those not. I think to simply say, “do it later” is really complex. Thank you for sparking a discussion Marten and Paul. I think you both raise very interesting points.

Comments are closed.