Conference Papers

Goldilocks and the Theory Bears

“There’s too much theory in this bowl, not enough theory in this bowl and just the right amount in this one!” cried Goldilocks. Abduction (rather than deduction or induction) for the making of ‘perfect porridge’.

Despite the assertion that education is awash with theory (for example, Carr, 2006; Blair, 2011), many subscribe to the belief that there is a tendency for much of educational research to be under-theorised (for example, Lingard, 2015; Anyon, 2009). This paradoxical state of affairs may arise due to the multiple understandings attributed to the construct of theory itself (Blair, 2011; Biesta et al, 2011). Alternatively, it could be explained by the tendency of educational research towards naïve empiricism, where empirical generalizations are drawn from an accumulation of facts (Strong, 1991; Locke, 2010) and where theory is left to rise from the findings, much like “like steam from a kettle” (Marsden, 1982, p.234). What elicits less disagreement however, is the necessity of good quality, apposite theory (or the perfect porridge to borrow the title theme) for the discipline of education to thrive (Lingard, 2015) especially in today’s punishing climate of ‘what works’, performativity and accountability.

Whilst such a pronouncement rallies many supporters, how it can be achieved in practice remains less well articulated as I discovered during my doctoral research, experiencing my own ‘Goldilocks moment’ with educational theory. My review of the empirical literature on the use of brain-based educational devices unearthed the sensitising concepts of teacher knowledge and practice. Thereafter turning to the theory literature, I found upwards of 12 separate but similar theories for teacher knowledge. For teacher practice I struggled to find more than three, and some of these were extrapolated from disciplines other than education. The inadequate guidance available for the development of theoretical frameworks to establish the kind of theory identified above, coupled with the convention that theory recruitment is the researcher’s personal prerogative (Dowling, 2016) caused me to struggle with how to best proceed in terms of how and when to choose between these theory alternatives.

Although I am not so naïve to think that I am education’s answer to Newton or that I have discovered education’s equivalent of the Theory of Evolution, nevertheless I am keen to contribute maximally and optimally to the enhanced understanding of teacher knowledge and practice. My ensuing exploration of the relationship between theory and data forms the basis of this paper, wherein I consider more fully the notion of abduction as “…a way of relating an observation or case to a theory (or vice versa) that results in a plausible interpretation” (Schwandt, 2007, p.1). I further suggest that as part of the quest for improved educational theorising, abduction should be foregrounded as a viable replacement to the prevailing hegemony of inductive and deductive strategies amongst researchers (Shank, 2008).

Anyon, J. (2009). Theory and educational research: toward critical social explanation. New York: Routledge.

Biesta, G., Allan, J., & Edwards, R. (2011). The Theory Question in Research Capacity Building in Education: Towards an Agenda for Research and Practice. British Journal of Educational Studies, 59(3), 225-239.

Blair, E. (2011). Opening the theory box. Educational Futures, 4(1), 5-17.

Carr, W. (2006). Education without theory. British Journal of Educational Studies, 54(2), 136-159.

Lingard, B. (2015). Thinking About Theory in Educational Research: Fieldwork in philosophy. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 47(2), 173-191.

Locke, K. (2010). Abduction. In A. J. Mills, G. Durepos, & E. Wiebe (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Marsden, R. (1982). Industrial Relations: A Critique of Empiricism. Sociology, 16(2), 232-250.

Schwandt, T. (2007). Abduction. In T. Schwandt (Ed.), The SAGE Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry (3rd ed.). Retrieved from doi:10.4135/9781412986281

Shank, G. (2008). Abduction. In L. Given (Ed.), The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Strong, S. R. (1991). Theory-Driven Science and Naive Empiricism in Counseling Psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38(2), 204-210.

Elton, J. (2017) 'Goldilocks and the Theory Bears', paper presented to The 13th Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association (BESA), 29–30 June, viewed 21 January 2020, <>