The two threads in a theory of action (pt 2 in a series)

Two distinct trains of thought make up the theory of action – those of the individual and those of the wider organisation. In part two of our series, we look at how by combining the two, we embark on a structured process of improvement.

Theory of action – The work of Argyris and his colleagues

Within this overarching context, to solve the problem of school improvement, we will need to define our action in terms of the why, who, what, where, when and how. To do this we need to create a personal and corporate theory of action. Our adoption of theory of action is derived from the work of Chris Argyris, who was a faculty member at Yale and a Professor at Harvard Universities.  He, along with his colleague Donald Schӧn, published Theory in practice: increasing professional effectiveness in 1974. Over a distinguished career, Argyris’s works focused upon how organisations learn.  He, like myself, was a teacher, although by 1989 I had moved from teaching students to school leaders. 

In their work examining how individuals and organisations learn, Argyris and his colleagues drew the distinction between contrasting theories which made up their theory of action.  

 Those theories that are implicit in what we do as practitioners and managers, and those on which we call to speak of our actions to others.”

They called the former “theory-in-use,” and the later the “espoused theory.” Our theory-in-use contains assumptions about ourselves, others and the environment. These determine our actions. They ‘constitute a microcosm of science in everyday life’ (Argyris & Schön 1974: 30). They are often by nature implicit and can be idiosyncratic.  On the other hand, our espoused theory is explicit and often shared. Argyris and Schӧn proposed a theory of action incorporating these two theories, which can be extrapolated from an individual through to organisations. 

Argyris, C, & Schӧn, D. A. (1974) The in practice: increasing professional effectiveness. Jossey-Bass.

Translating Argyris’s theory of action into an educational context

In order for a school to improve the performance of its students, the leadership would need to make explicit their espoused theory and facilitate the development of their teachers’ theory-in-use.  In doing this over time they would bridge the gap between the school’s intention and their staff’s performance.  

To do this, teachers would need to:

The school’s leadership would need to: 

These sub-theories concern the teacher, the school and how teachers connect with one another to improve.  They define the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of our problem. 

Implicit in adoption of Argyris’s work is that in order to improve, teachers have to accept where they are now, that the basis on how they make decisions might be faulty and , that they can improve with a few adjustments. In moving forward they are still likely to fail, but this might be mitigated if they collaborate with their peers – either to share experiences or to learn from them.  The leadership of the school must be prepared for this potential failure of its teachers to allow them to learn and improve their actions.   

The school’s leaders must determine if the gap between their teacher’s performance and the school’s espoused theory can be closed with the knowledge and skills they already have in their school.  If not, they need to encourage staff to access new knowledge. Once this issue of knowledge capacity has been addressed, they then have to ensure that they have provided the conditions in which their staff can work collaboratively to share it across the school.  

In this way all the staff adjust their selection of what to do next based on a blend of their own best practice and that of their peers and in doing so close the gap between their performance and the espoused performance of the organisation.  This is a complex task and requires an understanding from teachers and school leaders – the who – of not only what action should be taken but also when, where and how. 

The political context

It’s one thing to adopt a theory of action to frame an approach to school improvement but in doing so, we need to take into account the political context within which our educational establishments sit.

Governments determine what schools should achieve, how they will account for their performance, and where their resources come from. All of the schools we report upon, with the exception of Dubai, are state funded.  Thus, all the actions we take are made within a political context. In the current context in which the schools we report on are operating, we know that political involvement in education is at the forefront.


In this blog we have identified that school improvement takes place in a political context.  Then we have provided an introduction to Argyris and his colleagues’ work and how we have adapted it to frame our approach to school improvement. 

We hope you recognise the description we have given of the tasks teachers and school leaders have to undertake if a school is to improve by learning how to do their tasks better.  

Take care and stay safe