Putting theory to work in educational research

Year: 2012

Author: Torrance, Harry, Green, Bill

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Using theory to interrogate value positions, design research studies, test ideas and analyse data is what social scientists do.  Yet the role of theory can be taken-for-granted in educational research, with particular theories or theorists invoked without much explicit discussion or justification. This paper explores the role that different sorts of theory have had in the design and analysis of empirical educational research studies. The paper explores why one theory or combination of theories might seem more relevant than another to a particular investigation, and what work different theories might do in empirical design and analysis. The paper asks when and how might we refer to theory explicitly as 'theory', qua theory, as the explicit theoretical resource that we are deploying at a particular juncture. The paper also asks what sort of 'theory' are we talking about: social theory  (how societies function and change); educational theory (how children/people learn); philosophical theory (how we apprehend and comprehend the world); or some combination of all three? The paper explores these issues and illustrates the choices made by reference to a particular investigation of how children understand formative processes of classroom assessment. The paper will demonstrate how theory was used to analyse a particular data set and say something useful about the social construction of success and failure in a particular educational setting. The paper will also demonstrate that, at one and the same time, the research was trying to understand how certain forms of agency are recognised and enabled to act, where others seem not to be; how the discursive connects to the material to produce particular outcomes.  Thus other sorts of questions can be begged by specifically educationally focused analysis, and these can be pursued by different theoretical means.