Theories, Policies, and the Improvement of Educational Practice

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    Theories, Policies, and the Improvement of EducationalPracticeGraham W. F. Orpwood aa The Ontario Institute for Studies in EducationPublished online: 09 Jul 2006.

    To cite this article: Graham W. F. Orpwood (1979) Theories, Policies, and the Improvement of Educational Practice, TheReview of Education, 5:3, 203-214, DOI: 10.1080/0098559790050306

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  • Theories, Policies,and the Improvement ofEducational Practice

    Joseph D. Novak. A Theory of Education. Ithaca, New York: CornellUniversity Press, 1977. 295 pp. $15.00, cloth.

    Graham W. F. OrpwoodThe Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

    "Substantial improvement in educational practices," writes Pro-fessor Novak in the opening chapter of A Theory of Education, "[is]not likely to occur without a workable theory of education andwithout the new educational practices that can be derived fromsuch a theory" (p. 17). Clearly, his belief in the corollary is theinspiration for this scholarly if unusual attempt to synthesize acomprehensive educational theory.

    It is scholarly in that it weaves threads from a variety of traditionsof studyphilosophy, psychology, sociology, curriculum and instruc-tion, and school administrationinto a rich fabric in whicheducational theory and practice are systematically and thoughtfullyreconceptualized. It is refreshingly unusual, since comprehensiveworks such as this seem to be attempted only rarely these days; toooften, educational writing is so intensively specialized in narrowareas of research, that its connection with the problems ofeducational practice seems somewhat tenuous. Novak's book, bycontrast, is concerned with a broad range of educational issues, andhis attempt at a theory which can attend to all of them is, to use hisown word, "audacious."D

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  • 204 THE REVIEW OF EDUCATION / Summer 1979

    The book addresses two potential audiences. First, it is designedto speak directly to educational practitioners, and especially tothose responsible for planning curriculum and instruction inschools. Second, it is addressed to the author's colleagues in theacademic world of education, specifically "to encourage a morescientific study of educational problems" (p. 20). As a curriculumresearcher, based in an academic environment but presentlyworking with school-based practitioners, I find myself respondingto the book from both perspectives. First, however, it is importantthat the reader be aware of the scope and substance of Novak'stheory.

    I.

    The book is very carefully and clearly structured, and this aids thereader enormously in finding his way through an otherwisebewildering territory. For example, the entire book is summarizedin an opening chapter, and each of the sections which followexpands on the concepts introduced in this "overview." Forpresent purposes, the book can be seen as having four suchsections: a philosophical section in which the goals of educationare discussed; a psychological section examining alternative learn-ing theories; a section devoted to issues involved in planningcurriculum and instruction; and, finally, an autobiographicalsection entitled "Empirical Validation," in which the results ofsome twenty years' research in education are called upon toprovide support to the theory. The author's central argument linkseach of these sections into a complete theoretical structure whichis sufficiently complex that only the most outstanding features canbe described here.

    Although the theory is builtas Novak insists it must bearounda theory of learning, its logical foundation is a claim for the goalsand purposes of education. "Every culture," he writes, "has aframework of concepts and practices. The task of education is totransmit to the children in that culture the concepts and practicesthey will need as adults" (p. 17). The argument for this claim, whichis incorporated in an extended analysis of the views of selectedphilosophers of science, can be summarized as follows:

    (1) United States federal funding of curriculum development over theDow

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  • ORPWOOD / Theories, Policies, Educational Practice 205

    past twenty years has favored projects emphasizing the methods ofinquiry used by the disciplines.(2) This emphasis reflects the views of such philosophers of science asKarl Popper concerning the distinguishing characteristics of thedisciplines.(3) There is an alternative view of the disciplines set out by Kuhn andToulminthat the disciplines are characterized by their evolvingconceptual frameworks.(4) Popper's view is "outmoded" (p. 54); Kuhn's and Toulmin's are to bepreferred.(5) Federal funding was thus unfortunately misplaced; the goals ofeducation should be to transmit to students the evolving conceptualframeworks present in the culture.

    This line of argument raises some important questions which willbe attended to later. For the present, however, let us see how such afoundation enables the construction of the theory proper.

    Having established what he regards as appropriate goals for theeducational enterprise, Novak next moves to a consideration of thecentral part of his educational theorya theory of human learning.He has already stated (in the Preface) his firm belief that learningtheory must occupy the most important place in any theory ofeducation.

    An exposition of Ausubel's "assimilation" theory of learningthen follows together with an argument for its place at the center ofa theory of education. His designation of concept learning as theappropriate goal of education makes Ausubel's theory an easychoice, as it places the meaningful learning of concepts in a centralrole. This is, as Novak points out, in marked contrast to theemphasis of behaviorist theories on observable behaviors and onthe contingency of stimulus and response. Once the developmentof conceptual structures is selected as the goal, it is straightforwardto recognize the relevance of Ausubel's theory compared with thatof, say, Gagne. In addition, Novak points out that "many educa-tional issues can be resolved into factors that deal primarily with thequality and extent of progressive differentiation and integrativereconciliation of concepts" (p. 94), two "key ideas" of Ausubel'stheory. Behaviorist theories are dealt with somewhat more sum-marily. Skinner's, for example, whatever its inherent strengths andweaknesses, is held to be "almost useless as a source of guidance indesigning and planning curricula, instruction and research inschools" (p. 70). He goes on to argue that Ausubel's theory issimilarly preferable to those of Piaget or Gagne. Thus, Novak's

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  • 206 THE REVIEW OF EDUCATION / Summer 1979

    theory of education has both a set of goals and a set of psycho-logical principles to guide toward their attainment. The thirdsection attends to the practical application of these principles forplanning curricula and instruction in schools.

    For problems of planning curriculum and instruction, Novakadopts (with little criticism or argument) Johnson's systems modelof these processes. With Johnson, he claims that failure to dis-tinguish clearly issues to do with the curriculum (i. e., content) fromthose of instruction (i. e., teaching approach) amounts to c

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