There is no way to approach theory other than to be critical of it. I mean, you’ve got to understand it first before you can be critical of it. So, you have to delve into the books. But once you understand it then you should critically analyse it and ask whether it’s actually of any use. Often it feels very reductionist. It suggests the world works in a particular way as though it always does – or at least that’s sometimes how we teach it and sometimes how students grasp, and then, sometimes how practitioners apply it. A parent uses drugs, a child goes on to use drugs – oh well there you are then – learned behaviour – missing all of the other things like poverty, housing, education and more that contribute to why people do what they do. Because people often don’t do what the theory says they will do.
Sometimes though we, as educators, we perpetuate this. In teaching people about theory I wonder if we are too simplistic, so some students fall in to the trap of thinking what we say is the sum total of it and don’t go and find out for themselves? I love Taleb’s analogy (in Antifragile) of education in Universities – we teach birds to fly. We take baby birds and educate them in the mechanics of flying and then when they fly we claim victory. We taught them to fly. They would have flown anyway. Education should be about people discovering for themselves, or at the very least we should just point them in a general direction – like the library – and leave them to it. They’ll learn to fly themselves because they have it in them.
Taleb (in the same book) says he was asked by one of his students for a rule on what to read and I applaud his view. “As little as is feasible from the last twenty years”, he says, and I agree, go back to the original text, don’t use what someone else has written about it. They won’t have the passion or nuanced understanding of the originator. You want to know about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Read what Maslow said. You want to know about Marxism, read what Marx said…. simple.
The problem with how we use theory is that we apply it in the wrong direction. I can’t for the life of me find where I’ve read this recently – so I’ll have to tell you when I find it! We take a theory and apply it to the individual. Social Learning Theory says this, so now I will go and observe the person, and oh yes look – clearly Social Learning Theory in action. Of course if you start from a premise, from an answer, you will find what you want. Explore people and their presentation the other way. What can I see, what do I observe? What might help me understand that? At least this means you start with the individual and look at things from their subjective position not simply through the lens of a favourite theory.
I have the same problem with models of practice. We use model x here! Oh right…. what if model x doesn’t help this person or fit with the way you should practice with them from their point of view, from what they need from you? Have a dominant model, maybe, but don’t be afraid not to use it.
I’m of the view that the days of big structural theories are numbered. The days of using attachment theory or social learning theory, for example, as ways to fully explain are limited. It is not by being driven by some big overarching way of being that we support people but in the individual interactions that we have with them. It’s how we treat people or how people are treated that fuels behaviour not some compliance to a particular ‘way’ born in the 60’s (often) and largely irrelevant to life in the 2020’s. If we were still using IT concepts from the days of flower power we would still be waiting for the machine to boot up. How we act towards each other individual to individual is the root of cause and effect, and everyone is different, everyone’s environment and history is different – so, one size doesn’t fit all – but it often feels like we think about theory from the assumption that it does.
Maybe it’s time for a clear out?