Is theory just reflection?

February 28, 2020 by Joshua
in Education

In physics, where I got my PhD, there is a strong divide between theory and experiment. There’s no clear line between them, but generally everyone can tell them apart.

vitruvian man

The rest of academia and the world uses the term theory so loosely, I can’t tell what they mean and I doubt many of them can either. It’s on my mind because administrators keep looking at my syllabuses and asking where the theory and academic rigor are. Syllabuses of existing courses reveal what they mean—lots of reading and writing papers, as best I can tell.

Reading and writing papers doesn’t teach theory. Readings teach what other people reflected after doing—if they did anything, that is.

Am I overstating things to say that you have to do what they did to learn what they reflected. Reading their reflections and expecting to learn what they did seems like reading about weightlifting to build muscle.

We learn through experience. Don’t get me wrong—I see great value in reading, but I don’t confuse it with doing. Rather, the relevant behavior shows the behavior it teaches—reading and compliance. They’re teaching people to reflect on others’ reflections. Students learn about the subject, not the subject. Sharing reflections about something may have value, but they aren’t doing the thing.

I’m starting to conclude that academics assigning readings are teaching a meta subject. It may help introduce students to a field, but is it teaching the field?

To learn or create a theory, I think you need to do the thing.

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