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. 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 ­– 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.


  • Deficit Model of the Learner
  • Nativist Model of the Learner
  • Strength Model of the Learner
  • Sufficiency Model of the Learner

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

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