Biesta G, Allan J and Edwards R (eds) Making a Difference in Theory: The theory question in education and the education question in theory. London: Routledge

216 pages

In creating a space for scholars from across the English-speaking world as well as those situated in Continental modes of education research and education practice, this book considers the role and function of theory from historical and contemporary, cultural, political and moral perspectives.

The first in a new series entitled Theorizing Education, Making a Difference in Theory is structured in three sections (The contextual presence of theory; The practice of doing theory; Refractions on and agendas for theory).  The book generates the context for further conversations around the role and function of theory in both research and practice.  In this, the Editors make the case for the dual focus of the book as ‘the theory question in education and the education question in theory’  – which is also the subtitle of the book.   The Editors amplify the relationship between theory in education and the educational dimension in theory, opening up a consideration of whether education is an academic discipline, or should be situated and understood as an applied field of study.

By way of an introduction the Editors trace the origins of theory and its genesis in the Greek tradition of observation, experience and witnessing.  They show, briefly, how Platonic and Aristotelean influences shifted the concept of theory from an empirical device to one that is positioned behind the reality of the empirical world.  They highlight the ways in which theory can provide a means by which understanding can be enriched, emancipation can be achieved or re – description explored.  They propose that theory has two unique functions – to enable the researcher or practitioner to conceptualise the phenomenon under investigation and, at the start of any research, to provide the means by which the construction of the object of the research is strengthened.  In all of this, the Editors acknowledge the shift away from theory by other distinguished scholars, thus situating the book within both an evolving but also contested field.

Section 1, The contextual presence of theory, situates theory within a neoliberal education landscape of surveillance, market value and performativity.  In this, the possibilities of teacher work , the emergence of a knowledge-based economy and ‘technical models of professional action’ provide the  context from which theory evolves.  This section presents the evolution of German education theory against a backdrop of Lutherian influence  and again, in this the reader is presented with  political, cultural and religious  influences from which theory has emerged.  This is also considered from a contemporary German perspective where the political  philosophy of Chancellor Merkel is establishing a Bildungsrepublik, thus constructing multi-disciplinary contexts in relation to education practice and education research.  This section, in situating a consideration of theory within the politics of schooling, also brings to the fore the cultural theses of identity, as theory as a style of thought and theory as a means by which to ‘disturb’.

Section 2, The practice of doing theory, explores the potential consequences when  moral and political engagement with   education issues is rejected in favour of superficial short-term solutions – the ‘false promises’ of so called scientific education theory.  It is in this section that the cultural and political notions of self are also considered, alongside the theoretical limitations of education systems.

In Section 3 – Refractions on and agendas for theory – the potential for, and problems with, critical theory are interrogated.  Theory and its excess is analysed, the challenges of ‘speaking educationally about teacher education’ are mapped out and the potential for teaching and teaching theories are considered.  The final chapter in this section, Towards an agenda for theoretical interventions in education, is written by the Editors.  In this they reflect upon the key themes to have emerged from a consideration of all chapters, and finish with the concept of the book as a ‘provocation to theorize education’.

This is an important book. It situates the concept, purpose and potential of theory within historical, political and cultural contexts.  It is both conceptually rich and practically situated, never shying away from the problems of theory.  By bringing together such a diverse range of voices, the Editors have achieved a book that is vibrant, engaging and informative.

This book will appeal to all education professionals  – academics, researchers, practitioners engaged in enquiry and postgraduate students.  This should be a core text on professional doctoral programmes.

Hazel Bryan
Head of the Department for Professional Development
Canterbury Christ Church University