Folk Theories


Naïve Theories


Popular, uncritical beliefs about learning – and the practices that go along with them

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … pre-existent, stable truth
  • Knowing is … one’s mastery/awareness of knowledge
  • Learner is … a receptacle; incomplete being
  • Learning is … acquiring; attaining; inputting
  • Teaching is … relaying, shaping, shepherding, illuminating




Folk Theories exist within every realm of human engagement. They are, in effect, principles of action and interpretation that are woven through everyday language and broad cultural sensibilities – which is not to say that they’re “wrong.” On the contrary, many Folk Theories have been refined across millennia of practice and revision. Thus, some Folk Theories about learning are adequate to frame action and generate modest – if not consistent or pervasive – improvements. However, some Folk Theories are based in Fringe Science:
  • Fringe Science – variously defined, but always associated with a departure from the standards of modern scientific inquiry. Associated notions include:
    • Pseudoscientific (various, late 1700s) – a descriptor applied to claims and practices that are presented as factual and scientific, but that have been disproven or otherwise fall short on such standards as replicability or falsifiability. Prominent shortcomings in this regard include assumptions that are unstated or unproven, assertions that are not open to evaluation by other experts or that are framed in ways that render them untestable, and unproven claims that refute evidence-based knowledge. Specific examples include:
      • Anomalistics (Roger Wescott, 1970s) – the use of scientific methods to study anomalies – that is, phenomena that don’t seem to be well described or explained by either common sense or conventional science
      • Protoscience – meaning “first science” or “before science,” a term that is applied to efforts to generate and validate knowledge that preceded the development of formal criteria for methods and conclusions that are currently understood as “scientific”
    • Quasiscientific – having the appearance of being scientific (by e.g., invoking technical language, or offering selective supporting evidence), but lacking the rigor of empirical knowledge. This meaning is based on definitions of “quasi” that have to do with “resemblance due to possession of certain attributes” and “nearly; not far from.” Specific examples include:
      • Junk Science – a derogatory term applied to false claims that are made to sound scientific by commercial, ideological, or other interests
In effect, most of the past 150 years of research into learning has been focused on exposing Folk Theories and exploring more conscious and scientifically robust alternatives. In the process, entrenched practices based on uninterrogated beliefs about how one learns, what one should learn, and so on, have been shown to be rooted in and continue to be almost entirely framed by Folk Theories. Associated discourses include:
  • Causal Theory of Learning (Causal Theory of Memory) – the perspective that experience causes learning. (An alternative perspective is that learning is dependent on but not determined by experience.)
  • Commonsense Psychology – a catch-all notion to collect commonly held ideas about psychological matters that may or may not be consistent with empirical evidence
  • Folk Psychology – commonsensical and largely implicit beliefs and assumptions used to interpret and explain personal and social phenomenon
  • Pop Psychology (Popular Psychology) – understandings of psychology across the general public that are typically rooted in research, but that might be outdated, oversimplified, misinterpreted, or misapplied
  • Urban Legend (Contemporary Legend) – a narrative asserted to be fact and/or from a reliable source that is used to support and perpetuate uncritical suspicions, prejudices, or habits
  • Zombie Theory (Zombie Idea) (Paul Krugman, 2010s) – an idea that refuses to die, despite being repeatedly refuted by extensive and robust evidence. Zombie Theories are typically sustained by Folk Theories. Prominent examples in education include Learning Styles Theories and Differentiated Instruction.
Regarding learners, most Folk Theories are associated with:
  • Deficit Model of the Learner – Typically assumed among Folk Theories, the Deficit Model regards the learner is lacking, and thus casts teaching in terms of filling (see Acquisition Metaphor) and/or completing (see Attainment Metaphor) the learner.
Notably, a range of "opposites" to the Deficit Model of the Learner have been proposed, including:
  • Nativist Model of the LearnerNativism asserts that personal knowledge, understanding, and ability are innate rather than acquired or attained. Hence the teacher’s role is drawing out the learner’s tacit knowledge.
  • Strength Model of the Learner ­(Strength-Based Education; Strength-Based Teaching) – Typically associated with the Construction Metaphor, the Strength Model refers to a teaching attitude whereby the focus is on identifying and building on what the learner already knows.
The above alternatives to the Deficit Model of the Learner continue to maintain limiting assumptions of Folk Theories and other Correspondence Discourses. "Opposites" that steps outside these frames include:
  • Sufficiency Model of the Learner – Among Coherence Discourses, learning is typically interpreted in terms of adequacy or fitness. That is, the learner is seen a dynamic agent that is always and aleady sufficient – continuously adapting in ways to ensure that its actions and associations are “good enough” to maintain viability in its context(s).


Perhaps the most significant problem faced by educators seeking to better understand the subtle complexities of learning (and to develop appropriate teaching methods based on those insights) is that everyone has a well-developed and resilient theory of learning. Few, however, can explicitly state their theory, apart from invoking popular (and mostly indefensible) metaphors and images. Naïve theories thus conceal and perpetuate themselves in everyday analogies and commonplace practices. Concisely, Folk Theories are perhaps the greatest challenge to meaningful change in formal education, as they infuse (and usually dominate) discourse at all levels and in almost all locations.


  • Anomalistics
  • Causal Theory of Learning (Causal Theory of Memory)
  • Commonsense Psychology
  • Deficit Model of the Learner
  • Folk Psychology
  • Fringe Science
  • Junk Science
  • Nativist Model of the Learner
  • Pop Psychology (Popular Psychology)
  • Protoscience
  • Pseudoscientific
  • Quasiscientific
  • Strength Model of the Learner (Strength-Based Education; Strength-Based Teaching)
  • Sufficiency Model of the Learner
  • Urban Legend (Contemporary Legend)
  • Zombie Theory (Zombie Idea)

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Folk Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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