7.3 Contributing to theoretical knowledge
The third element of practitioner research, as defined by Lin Norton(2009), above, is that it should contribute to theoretical knowledge. As such, theory is integral to practitioner research.
At the same time, however, there have been complaints made about practitioner research, and SOTL in particular, that it does not make sufficient reference to educational theories.
This section looks at what theory means within the context of practitioner research, and how you can both relate to and contribute to theory.
What is theory in practitioner research?
Criticisms of the lack of engagement with theory by practitioner researchers have focussed on their lack of reference or knowledge to the "theoretical armature of education and other learning science fields" (Huber and Hutchings, 2008, p. 227).
However, this gives a view of theory in education that is somehow disassociated from the practice of teaching and learning. Instead, Whitehead (2009) distinguishes between propositional and living theories in generating explanations for the actions and learning of individuals. He describes propositional theories as being derived from "conceptual abstractions of relations between propositions" and living theories as those whereby individuals generate their "own explanations" (Whitehead, 2009, p. 87).
Given this distinction, it is clear that the criticism of practitioner research, mentioned above, is based on a propositional view of theory. Huber and Hutchings (2008, p. 227) argue that the role of theory in practitioner research is a more situated one, "emerging from, engaging with, connexting to, and under-writing wide-rangingly different disciplinary styles of inquiry and interpretation".
As a result, theory in practitioner research may be as much about generating your own theories as it is about being aware of and learning from existing theories of teaching and learning.
Finding out about relevant theories
There has been a lot written about different theories of relevance to education, some of it very much of the propositional nature identified by Whitehead and others more related to living theories of education.
More information about the use of theory in context can be found in the next section on understanding the literature. This section deals specifically with the more general, propositional theories of education.
The interenet is also a good source of information about educational theory. The Encyclopedia of informal education is a good starting point for information on theories and approaches to education and learning:
Contributing to existing theoretical knowledge
As Norton's definition, cited earlier, made clear, one of the key points of practitioner research is that it should contribute to theoretical knowledge.
By acknowledging the wider research and theoretical context upon which your own practitioner research project is based, or at least bears parallels, you can start to identity to contribute to theoretical knowledge.
Developing theories from practitioner research
The point made by Whitehead, above, is that practitioner researchers can generate their own theories based on their findings, rather than appropriating them from other sources.
Unfortunately, Whitehead does not state how to do this, and so grounded theory, explained in the Analysis section is probably the best place to start. Here, theory is developed through constant comparative coding of the data, moving from each line to the whole data set.