At first glance it seems that the answer can be attributed to a simple accident of history. For a complex mix of reasons, in the late nineteenth century education aligned itself with the then-emerging science of psychology. At the time both psychology and education were emerging as serious domains of research and theory building, so it seemed a natural ‘fit’. After all, psychology was (and still is) broadly defined as “the science of mental behaviour” and as education and learning to read were (and still are) perceived by most to be something that involved “mental behaviour of animate beings”, this sense of fit has been continually reinforced. This meant that educators tended to use the discourse of psychology when they communicated and/or discussed their theoretical issues and concerns.
First glances however can be deceiving. Some eminent theorists in the field hint that the pedagogical confusion which characterizes Reading Education goes deeper that mere historical accident. In 1983 Frank Smith upset the experimental psychology and educational psychology establishments by claiming that "education backed the wrong horse when it backed psychology", arguing that "psychology has never been comfortable with learning" . Smith’s assertions are strongly supported by some indirect but very compelling evidence, namely, the sheer abundance of extant (often conflicting) learning theories which have continually emerged from experimental psychology before and since Smith wrote his essay. (See Figure 1).
FIGURE1 LIST OF EXTANT LEARNING THEORIES CURRENTLY VIABLE IN PSYCHOLOGY URL <http://home.sprynet.com/~gkearsley/tip/theories.html>
Such an abundance of extant competing learning theories provides a mute but powerful testament that something is seriously wrong with the way psychology (and therefore education) has conceptualised and researched learning over the last one hundred and twenty years.
Support for the existence of some kind of inherent conceptual malaise within the discipline has recently emerged from within the domain of psychology itself. In 2001 the author of the recently published “Ecological Psychology in Context” Harry Heft wrote this in his preface. "Has there been a moment since its formal founding in the late 19th century when experimental psychology was not in a state theoretical conflict? Select any historical point during its first 120 years and you will find psychologists embroiled in some theoretical squabble".
A closer look at the history of psychology shows that the majority of these theoretical squabbles are either directly or indirectly related to the umbrella concept of “learning”. Why? Why after more than a hundred years of research and theory building is there still such an abundance of competing (and sometimes conflicting) theories of learning? If the basic umbrella concept of learning is so conflicted within education’s chosen foundation discipline is it any wonder that derived theories of learning such as learning to read might also be in conflict?
In more established theoretical domains such as physics. biology , astronomy, etc., after more than century of research and theory building , broad “umbrella” theories which lack either internal and/or external validity are usually eliminated from further consideration. New theories evolve and converge toward a single set of derivative, explanatory principles. Why hasn't this happened with respect learning theory within psychology? Why after more than a century of experimental research and theory building can the field still list such a confusing array of theories of learning? Shouldn't there have been a convergence toward a more universal, narrower range of complementary learning theories?
Something seems to have hampered psychology's evolution as a domain in which to locate learning theory. Those who did the research which produced the theories shown in the figure above are not scientifically incompetent or illiterate. There's something beyond professional expertise and scientific "know-how" intervening here. What could it be?