Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Reflective Practitioner


Questioning Schön's commitment to propositional forms of theory

Jack Whitehead

The traditional view is that a theory is a general explanatory framework which can generate descriptions and explanations for empirically observed regularities and the behaviour of individual cases. The explanations are offered in the conceptual terms of propositions which define determinate relationships between variables. Piagetian Cognitive Stage Theory is a classical example of such a theory. By their nature concepts involve grasping principles thus ensuring that theories are presented in general terms.

A commitment to the propositional form can also be seen, surprisingly, in those researchers who are committed to a reflexive approach to understanding. For example, Kilpatrick's (1951) view on the importance of dialogue in educational theory is presented in a propositional form. A more recent example in the work of Gitlin and Goldstein (1987) on a dialogical approach to understanding shows the authors presenting their case within a propositional form. Whilst I can recognise the importance of what they say, about teachers forming relationships that enable school change to be based on a joint inquiry into what is really appropriate, I believe that the propositional form of presentation will prevent them getting closer to answering their final, dialogical question, 'How can we encourage the conditions necessary for teachers to enter into a dialogue aimed at understanding?'.

Even those academics one would expect to understand the need to create an alternative to the propositional form of theory remain within it. For example Donald Schön (1983) points out that:

"when someone reflects-in-action, he becomes a researcher in the practice context. He is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case."

Schön is however committed to the fundamental category of established theory in holding to the propositional form:

" Theories are theories regardless of their origin: there are practical, common-sense theories as well as academic or scientific theories. A theory is not necessarily accepted, good, or true; it is only a set of interconnected propositions that have the same referent - the subject of the theory. Their interconnectedness is reflected in the logic of relationships among propositions: change in propositions at one point in the theory entails changes in propositions elsewhere in it.

Theories are vehicles for explanation, prediction, explanatory theory explains events by setting forth propositions from which these events may be inferred, a predictive theory sets forth propositions from which inferences about future events may be made, and a theory of control describes the conditions under which events of a certain kind may be made to occur. In each case, the theory has an 'if...then....' form." (Argyris, C. and Schön, D. 1975)

I am arguing that the propositional form is masking the living form and content of theories which can generate valid descriptions and explanations for the educational development of individuals. This is not to deny the importance of propositional forms of understanding. I am arguing for a reconstruction of action researchers theories into living forms of question and answer which includes propositional contributions from the traditional disciplines of education.

Gadamer (1975) points out that despite Plato we are still not ready for a logic of question and answer. He says that Collingwood (1978) helped to move us forward but died before he could develop this logic in a systematic way. Collingwood points out that if the meaning of a proposition is relative to the question it answers, its truth must be relative to the same thing. I agree with his point that meaning, agreement and contradiction, truth and falsehood, do not belong to propositions in their own right, they belong only to propositions as the answers to questions.

In saying that my action researchers theory has a living form, I recognise that this creates a fundamental problem. The way academics think about theory is constrained by propositional logic. All academics working in the field of educational theory present the theory in terms of propositional relationships. However, the purpose of my own text is to direct your attention to the living individuals and the contexts within which a living theory is being produced (Lomax 1986) . Again I wish to stress that this is not to deny the importance of propositional forms of understanding. In a living educational theory the logic of the propositional forms, whilst existing within the explanations given by practitioners in making sense of their practice, does not characterise the explanation. Rather the explanation is characterised by the logic of question and answer used in the exploration of questions of the form, 'How do I improve my practice?'.

In developing such an approach I have had to come to terms with questions concerning an appropriate methodology for enquiries such as, 'How do I improve this process of educaton here?'. In looking at video-tapes of my practice I have had to confront the questions which arise on recognising the 'I' in the question as existing as a living contradiction. In the production of an explanation (living theory) for my practice I have had to question how to include living contradictions in claims to knowledge and to understand how to use dialogical forms of presenting evidence to show the meanings of values whose meanings can only be clarified in the course of their emergence in practice. I have had to face questions related to validity and generalisability. I have also had to question the power relations which influence the academic legitimacy of living educational theories (Whitehead 1989, 1993).

In such a short paper all I can hope to do is to stimulate discussion on the above issues by drawing your attention to the detailed work which demonstrates how living theories are being created and tested in descriptions and explanations for the learning of individuals as they ask, answer and research questions of the kind, How do I improve my practice?

(For those with internet access most of this work, in the theses below, can be downloaded from the Web at

Argyris, C. & Schön, D. (1975) Theory in Practice; Increasing Professional Effectiveness; Jossey Bass, London.

Collingwood, R.G. (1978) An Autobiography, Chapter 5, Question And Answer; Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Eames, K. (1995) How do I, as a teacher and an educational action-researcher, describe and explain the nature of my professional knowledge? Ph.D. Thesis, University of Bath.

Eisner, E. (1997) The Problems and Perils of Alternative Forms of Data Presentation. Educational Researcher, Vol. 26, No.6, pp.4-10.

Evans, M. (1996) An action research inquiry into reflection in action as part of my role as a deputy headteacher. See chapter 8 on Creating my own living educational theory. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Kingston.

Gadamer, H.G. (1975) Truth and Method: London, Sheed and Ward.

Gitlin, A. & Goldstein,S. (1987), A Dialogical Approach to Understanding; Horizontal Evaluation in Educational Theory, Vol. 37, No.1. pp. 17-29.

Holley, E. (1997) How do I as a teacher researcher contribute to the development of living educational theory through an exploration of my values in my professional practice? M.Phil. Theses, University of Bath.

Hughes, J. (1996) Action Planning and Assessment in Guidance Contexts: How can I understand and support these processes? Ph.D Thesis, University of Bath.

Ilyenkov, E. (1977) Dialectical Logic, Moscow; Progress Publishers. Kilpatrick, W. (1951), Crucial Issues in Current Educational Theory, in Educational theory, Vol. 1, No.1, pp.1-8.

Laidlaw, M. (1996) How can I create my own living educational theory through accounting to you for my own educational development? Ph.D. Thesis, University of Bath.

Lomax, P. (1986) Action Researchers Action Research; A Symposium, British Journal of In-service Education, Vol. 13, No.1, pp 42-50.

Schön, D. (1983), The Reflective Practitioner - How Professionals Think in Action; New York; Basic Books.

Shobbrook, H. (1997) My Living Educational Theory Grounded In My Life: How can I enable my communication through correspondence to be seen as educational and worthy of presentation in its original form.? M.A. dissertation, University of Bath.

Whitehead, J. (1989) Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, How do I mprove my practice? Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol. 19., No.1. pp.41-52.

Whitehead, J. (1993) The Growth of Educational Knowledge: Creating your own living educational theories. Bournemouth, Hyde.

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