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Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth
Engaging with postgraduate research: education, childhood & youth

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1 The meaning of theory

The first section of the course will explore the role of theory in research. But first, it is important to acknowledge that the word ‘theory’ conjures up some strong feelings for practitioners, not all of them positive. You will explore this in Activity 1.

Activity 1 Thinking about theory

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

What thoughts and feelings does the word ‘theory’ conjure up for you? Does it make you smile, groan, or something in between? And if so, why do you think that is? Make a note of your thoughts.


If the word ‘theory’ has negative associations for you, it may be because it suggests abstract ideas that seem to have little relevance to your day-to-day practice, or possibly it suggests ideas you find difficult to understand. Alternatively, if you are excited by ‘theory’, it could be because you find exploring complex ideas stimulating. Or it may be that you recall an experience of being introduced to a particular theory – for example about children’s learning or young people’s lives – that transformed your practice. However, it is probably true to say that most people have mixed feelings about theory, perhaps a combination of curiosity and wariness. At this stage, you may be interested in finding out more about what it means but may be a little sceptical about its relevance to the research that you want to carry out.

So, what exactly is meant by ‘theory’? The next activity invites you to reflect on the role of ideas and concepts in everyday professional practice.

Activity 2 Theory and practice

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes
  1. Think about the work that you do every day, whether it’s in education or with children or young people in some other context. Now think about some of the ways in which you are aware that practice has changed in that context over (say) the past 20 years or so.

    What are some of the things that a practitioner working in that kind of setting 20 years ago might do that today’s practitioners would not do? And what are some of the things that practitioners do today that would not have happened two decades or so ago? Make a note of two or three changes of this kind.

  2. Now reflect on why practice has changed in the ways you noted. What do you think led to those former practices being discontinued or new practices introduced? Make a note of your thoughts.


You may have reflected that the changes you identified occurred simply because former practices weren’t effective, and new practices were introduced because they were tried and found to be more beneficial. However, even if this were the case, it’s likely that behind these changes in practice were changes in thinking – for example about how children learn, or how young people develop. When you reflect on how practitioners in your context went about their work in the past, you probably reflected that they thought differently, for example about the nature of education, or the needs of children and young people.

Activity 2 demonstrated that practice often changes when ideas change. The next activity invites you to think about particular ideas or concepts that have been important in your own experience of professional practice.

Activity 3 Ideas in practice

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes

Think of one or two new ideas, or sets of ideas, that have become popular or influential in your practice context in recent years. Make a note of your thoughts.


You may have thought about ideas around children’s and young people’s rights, or the importance of children’s voices being heard in decisions that affect them. You may have thought of ideas about gender (see Section 1.1); about ethnicity and discrimination; about the purpose of education or the role of assessment in education; or about how approaches to leadership may have had consequences for your practice.

These ideas reflect theories, for example about how people learn, about children’s and young people’s lives and identities, about individual rights, or about power relationships in society. Ideas of this kind are the subject of constant debate, societal influences and continuing change, but are important because they inform our thinking about the world and shape our day-to-day work.

If you are tempted to think that, as a practitioner, you could manage without something called ‘theory’, and simply rely on common sense, then think how you would feel about a new recruit coming into your workplace without a grasp of the kinds of key ideas that you noted above, or who was still operating with the assumptions that you identified as common a couple of decades ago. Theory can be the building blocks of practice or it can lead and inform changes to practice. In the next section you will consider an example of theory in practice.