Theory-in-use and Saint-Exupery's drawing

I am reading a new (old) book* and found a couple of nice things in chapter 12- "Learning to See the Boa Constrictor Digesting the Elephant: Preservice Teachers Construct Perspectives of Language, Literacy and Learning through Art" by Marilyn J. Narey.

Narey starts the chapter with a bit about this picture:

― Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ryThe Little Prince

Saint-Exupery ends this piece by saying "and thus, I gave up what could have been a brilliant career as a painter."
Narey points out that the adults in this story ignore the "visual traces of critical thinking and problem solving" that the child was revealing. I really loved this little illustration of the way adult assumptions can supersede children's intentions, and shut down not only their creative process, but their learning process as well.

This is something I work to check in myself as I reflect on my daily practices. It seems worthwhile to practice this, and to try to model for other adults, be they parents, new teachers or policy makers, as we all strive to become less trapped in our own point of view and to learn to be able to see the point of view of people who are different than us, including children.

The second thing I really liked in this chapter was the concept of theories-in-use. This comes from Donald Schon, who I didn't know coined the term 'reflective practice'. Theories-in-use can differ from espoused theory, which is how we say (or think) we do things. Theories-in-use are what we really do, not what we say (or think) we do. This seemed to me to be a new way to think about the image of the child. Does my espoused theory, how I say I view children, childhood and learning, match what I actually do and how I plan for and treat children? How many ways do our own experience as school children subtly subvert the theories we think we go by each day. This term has reframed my reflections lately. Am I doing what I think I'm doing?
It seems to me that the phrase theory-in-use could be really useful when talking about the image of the child. You could poll teachers or parent groups about their theories about school and children. Then those groups could analyse their behavior to see if the two match.

In the chapter Narey talks about theories-in-use about art in education. Some common theories are that art is about feeling and expression and that teachers are wrong if they interfere in children's artmaking process. However, we know that sometimes, for instance if we are drawing to learn about the natural world in a scientific way, it is important to draw a bird or a tree using accurate colors. But even if you can talk about these two ways of using art in the classroom, you might hesitate to interfere when a child is coloring from imagination instead of reality.
An educator could think that they believe that drawing, building and other visual media are as important forms of literacy as language and writing, and that children have the right to make meaning in multiple ways throughout their lives. But what kinds of questions are they asking about the work? Are they really enacting a different idea with the children they teach? "Language and literacy development remains focused upon written language, with emergent literacy seen as an early stage on the continuum." If "children's drawings and dramatic play" are seen as a means to the real end- verbal and written literacy, then the theory-in-use doesn't match the espoused theory.
So, this is my thank you to Marilyn J. Narey for providing me with food for thought this week.

*"Making Meaning: Constructing Multimodal Perspectives of Language, Literacy and Learning through Arts-based Early Childhood Education Springer 2009


  1. Thank you for your February 7 post, “Theory-in-use and Saint-Exupery's drawing.” Since my book, Making Meaning, was published, I have been delighted that so many people, like you, across the globe have found the volume valuable in some way to their thinking and teaching. Your posting is quite timely in that the second edition is ready to go to press. It will be published under a new title: Multimodal Perspectives of Language, Literacy, and Learning in Early Childhood: The Creative and Critical “Art” of Making Meaning and will feature 12 new chapters along with several updated works from the original edition. If you would like to know about the publication date or other information about the new edition as it becomes available, please consider following me on Twitter: marilyn j. narey @DrMJSN or Linkedin: Again, thank you for the kind words regarding my 2009 chapter. I am so delighted to have discovered your very interesting blog! Your work, in turn, gives me "food for thought!"

  2. New book now available:


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