The importance of a good theory

by Katherine Lippa | December 18, 2018

There is nothing as practical as a good theory. – Kurt Lewin

This blog is inspired by my recent experiences guiding my kindergartener through her first science fair project. My five-year-old has enjoyed reading about electricity and putting together the hybrid lemon battery, potato clock she designed. But, she is struggling to use the explicit knowledge that she has obtained by reading to coherently explain why her device works and (sometimes) doesn’t work. She knows that batteries store electricity and that making things work requires a complete circuit but does not understand the chemistry that the battery relies on enough to understand that electrical flow is directional. Her current theory of electricity treats it as a type of matter where electrons flow like water through wires that should function bidirectionally. When this theory fails to explain her experience that the wires can be ‘backwards’ she becomes frustrated because she no longer has a firm basis for deciding how to fix things. No matter how many times I explained electrical potential with her nodding along she was no less confused. It wasn’t until I told her to think of one direction on each component as down and that the electrons could only flow down hill that she was able to make sense of what was happening. I could not force her to replace her theory with something more sophisticated, but I could help her to elaborate it in ways that would be more functional. This experience has led me to reflect on the importance of theories for our daily understanding of the world and how crucial it is to teach children to use theories effectively.

Often times when people talk about theories they think about the grand theories, relativity or evolution, or they think about theory as disparagingly divorced from anything in practical experience, a castle in the sky created by academics with nothing better to do. Because of this many people believe that theories and the art of theory development are not something we should teach to children. Hence, elementary education is heavily fact based. But the ability to effectively create and use theories is actually incredibly important and imminently practical. A theory is simply a coherent system for organizing the components of a domain and understanding how they relate to each other in a way that both explains past experiences and allows for predictions about future behavior. Theories are what let us make predictions and informed decisions. Whether we are aware of them or not we all use theories every day.

From very early childhood, people start to form basic theories about the world around them. For example, children develop an early concept of fundamental biology. By 7 months of age, most children conceive of things that move in a goal directed fashion as alive (Opfer and Gelman, 2011). And by age 4, most children believe that the internal structure of a rock will be uniform or random but that the internal structure of an animal will show clear components with organized relationships (Keil, 1994). In other words, they have a theory that living things have an internal structure that is organized into vital systems. These ‘naïve’ theories continue to develop in a variety of areas through out childhood until by highschool students hold many coherent theories that may compete with what they are being taught in basic science courses (DiSessa, 2014).

And yet, in most educational settings, very little attention is paid to the theories that students already hold. Teachers work from the premise that the student is a blank slate to be filled with appropriate knowledge and concepts. The assumption is that teaching is communicating information from the teacher to the student. When students' pre-extant concepts do surface, they are typically treated as isolated misconceptions or mistakes that can be easily replaced. The problem with this of course is that learning requires that this information be internalized in a way that is comprehensible and productive. When we fail to consider students' prior theories, incompatible information may be rejected as incomprehensible and counter intuitive. Or new information may only be utilized superficially to answer problems that are directly comparable to those presented in class. Real learning requires not just regurgitating information or even applying it to specific known categories of problems, but using new knowledge to improve, correct and elaborate the systems of understanding we us on a daily basis to understand the world. In other words, learning is often about improving and developing theories rather than absorbing them de novo.

Rather than ignoring students' existing theories so that they become as a source of dissonance with new learning, we should see their robust capacity for theory development as a resource and teach them to use it effectively. I would suggest that we teach students the following series of steps to consciously develop their own theories.

  1. What is the topic I am interested in?

Whether they are making an observation, choosing a subject for personal inquiry or looking specific course topic, students need to begin by defining the nature and scope of the phenomenon of interest. This is a non-trivial step since students frequently are tempted to look at an area in a way that is too broad – trying to address an entire field of study – or too narrow – looking only at a trivial instantiation without seeing connections to a broader topic.

  1. What is my theory?

Since students rarely start with no concept of an area they are interested in, it is important to take the time for them to become conscious of their starting point. Depending on the area and the student’s personal propensities, trying to draw a diagram of the key phenomenon, writing a story about an instance of how something works or brainstorming everything he knows on a topic and looking at underlying connections can all be good ways to start looking at existing theories. These early efforts can then be elaborated until a full picture of their current understanding emerges.

  1. How good is my theory? Is my theory internally consistent? Do the pieces make sense together? Does my theory fit with what I am observing?

Once a student is conscious of their own theory it becomes easier to analyze the places where it is deficient or dysfunctional. The student may find key areas that are completely missing, places where core assumptions contradict on another or realize that her theory cannot explain key observations.

  1. How can I improve my theory?

In finding her own deficits, the student can become more open to new information and conceptual structures. She knows where to focus efforts to resolve problems with her theory. In addition, having a clear, consciously articulated theory creates a basis for improving the theory by making connections to other areas of knowledge, finding places where it may be useful to deepen understanding of concepts, etc.

  1. How can I use my theory?

Not only would teaching students to use their own theories more effectively provide a more effective way to learn and add depth to understanding. A good theory becomes a practical tool for predicting outcomes and making decisions. And perhaps most saliently to our mission at STEMed labs, a well-constructed theory adds the possibility for innovation.

At STEMed labs we talk a lot about innovation. Our major educational programs are called innovation learning pathways and we hope that by participating in the students learn to be innovators. Fundamentally, innovation is about change. An innovative idea changes the way we think about some aspect of the world around us while an innovative technology changes some way that we interact with the world. We delight in watching and helping them develop their amazing creativity and intelligence. But, making such changes is not just about innate creative potential. It requires a deep understanding of the relevant domain and a fluid enough theoretical model of the domain that allow the innovator to see underlying flaws and/or opportunities for improvement. Teaching students to be able to really innovate requires embracing their creativity and amazing intelligence but it also requires helping them learn the discipline to harness that creativity and intelligence to create clear, well developed theories. Because, there really is nothing as practical as a good theory.


DiSessa, A. A. (2014). A history of conceptual change research: Threads and fault lines. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Keil, F. (1994). The birth and nurturance of concepts by domains: The origins of concepts of living things. In L. Hirschfield & S. Gelman (Eds.), Mapping the mind: Domain specificity in cognition and culture (pp. 234-254). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Opfer, J. E., & Gelman, S. A. (2011). Development of the animate-inanimate distinction. The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of childhood cognitive development, 2, 213-238.