PAPER # 5
PRODUCING LIVING THEORIES:
Questioning Schön's commitment to propositional forms of theory
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 http://www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw)
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
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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