Theory and Practice in Education

Education is one of several soft technologies that share an interesting trait: The scholars who discover the science behind the natural phenomena that are the basis of the technology and the practitioners who apply that science to the human purpose are different people. Other examples of human technologies marked by this trait include agriculture (botanists, plant scientists, and agronomists versus farmers) and medicine (medical researchers versus general practitioners). In education we can contrast educational scholars and educators.

A typical educational scholar works in a university that is funded by diverse sources (grants, the institutional endowment, tuition, and—in the case of some public institutions—taxes). The university is typically governed by the board of trustees who expect each scholar to conduct research (which includes securing grants to support the research) as well as to teach and to contribute to the academic culture of the school, which includes both sitting on institutional review committees and taking an active role in developing new courses. In these responsibilities are activities that define the field of education as well as activities that prepare the next generation of educators (and educational scholars).

A typical educator works in a school that is funded by the taxpayers. The school is usually governed by a board elected by and from the citizenry, and they expect each educator to work primarily delivering instruction to students. Many decisions about curriculum and instruction are made by people other than the educator. Although educators may serve on committees that recommend those decisions, such committees are advisory and the decision-makers are frequently under no obligation to follow the recommendations of the group.

Educational scholars work in the domain of educational theory. Through systematic data collection, they both generate and test theories. When designing data collection and analysis, educational researchers typically choose from a wide range of research methods; qualitative data and inductive analysis is common compared to the methods used by natural scientists who rely almost exclusively on quantitative data and deductive reasoning, but quantitative studies in education are also common. Through the theories that are generated and tested, education scholars attempt to predict and explain observations in controlled settings and also in the Naturalistic settings of classrooms. Like all scientists, the research produced by educational scholars is judged by a community of their peers which today includes scholars from around the globe. Peer-reviewed publication is an essential aspect of the work of educational scholars. Because educational research is science, the problems faced by educational scholars are ultimately tame, and disputes within the field (even those that are very contentious and upon which reputations, careers, and millions of dollars worth of grant funds depend) are resolved by empirical observation and logic.

Educators, on the other hand, work in the domain of instruction. They deliver curriculum through instruction; instruction can include both prescribed and approved practices as well as informal actions and interactions. The quality of educational practice is typically evaluated by a wide range of locally-defined criteria. Educators work in highly politicized institutions and many of the political arguments educational practitioners face arise from outside the profession. Decisions about what schools can and should do are affected by a number of stakeholders, and frequently the decisions made at one time or to satisfy one group of stakeholders are contradictory to the decisions made previously. Educators in the United States are frequently faced with differing and contradictory political, pedagogical, and personal goals and expectations which illustrate the wicked nature of the problems faced by educators.

Although communication between educational scholars and educators can help each to achieve their goals, there has long been a wide gap in communication between educational scholars and educators. Some of this can be explained by the physical separation of universities and schools and the different job expectations of each group. Some of this can be explained by the separation between researchers and educators that is necessary for each to function in his or her primary role. Scholars can only work when they have a level of detachment from their subjects that allows them to make objective observations, so any previous interaction between researcher and subject can pose a threat to data collection. Similarly, educators who seek to gather data about their students have great difficulties in obtaining data unaffected by the existing student-teacher relationship, but that relationship is essential for an effective classroom.

Educators do engage in action research through which they seek to be systematic in their assessment of initiatives in local schools. The action researcher seeks to learn about the unique features of his or her setting, to explore and evaluate new practices, and to more deeply understand curriculum, instructional practices or organizations, including his or her epistemology and its implementation in the classroom and through systematic study. Because the research is undertaken by an individual (or group) seeking to understand education in a particular location, the conclusions reached by action researchers cannot be generalized to other populations or settings. Because of this, the research is typically published in journals that specialize in action research and the audiences for action research and academic research are different.

The different skills and languages they use in creating their work also create a barrier to communication between the educational scholars and educators. Scholars work in a world of expanding information as the number of research articles published is growing at terrific speed and the professional knowledge that scholars consume and create is dynamic and constantly under revision. This requires constant access to sophisticated literature and analysis of varied studies. Educators, on the other hand, work in a world in which the professional knowledge is easily perceived as cyclic; skills and knowledge used in one unit of study may be little-used until the same unit is encountered in the following school year. Even while educators continue to learn, many perceive their work as highly recurring and limited by the sophistication of their students and the content they teach.

Although the separation between educational research and educators is understandable and necessary in many situations, it is reasonable to conclude that greater communication and collaboration between these two groups of professionals will be essential to the development of the 21st century education paradigm. When describing the relationship between scholars and designers of solutions to wicked problems, Buchanan (1992) observed, “discussions between designers and members of the scientific community tend to leave little room for reflection on the broader nature of design and its relation to the [science]” (8). He concluded, “the result is often confusion and a breakdown in communication, with a lack of intelligent practice to carry innovative ideas into objective [and] concrete embodiments” (Buchanan 1991, 8). Through frameworks, the gaps between educational scholars and educators can be bridged. For 21st century education, bridging these gaps will result in scholars who conduct and communicate research that more clearly elucidates the details of human learning and the design of classrooms that facilitate learning, and educators will more clearly communicate to researchers those aspects of classroom practices that remain uncertain. This communication will take on increased importance as the paradigm shift is completed; new research problems, new methods for solving them, and new exemplary practices will be identified and disseminated across the profession.


Buchanan, Richard. 1992. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Issues 8(2): 5-21. doi:10.2307/1511637