Folk Theories


Commonsense Psychology


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. 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.


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.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Folk Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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