Theory is integral to human life and society and is the foundation of practice. This is nothing new. The question of the relationship between theōría (θεωρία) or epistēmē (ἐπιστήμη) and technê (τέχνη) or prāktikḗ (πρᾱκτῐκή) has occupied the western mind since the Ancient Greeks.
Generally speaking, science as such arose out of a cultural context whereby educated people believed that reality was intelligible. It was intelligible because its source was considered to be generative of purpose and it was purposeful because it was ordered to a transcendent end. Through theory, then, there has historically been a belief that aspects of the universe could be observed, measured, understood, and explained, and that this knowledge could be used for the betterment of the human person and community.
The fact that theory is integral to education, and that it influences instruction and learning, is the consequence of education being an activity which arose in a specific cultural context, with a distinctive view of human nature, a distinctive epistemology, and a distinctive cosmology. The purpose of this short paper is not to examine all of these presuppositions, but simply to argue that theory, in particular good theory of education (or more specifically learning), is essential to effective practice and influences it in positive ways. As I do this, my own theory of learning may become evident, but as I conclude I will more explicitly delineate some essential features of my theory.
In Toward a Theory of Online Learning, Anderson (2004) points out that, “(t)heory has both been celebrated and condemned in educational practice and research.” He notes that proponents argue for its capacity to give us a more comprehensive understanding and broader perspective of education while opponents point to problems associated with too rigid of adherence to a particular theory (2004).
Briefly, I think it is important to consider why some people might grow skeptical of theory as such. Anderson (2004) pointed out that critics of educational theory fear that there is a problem when theories are too rigidly adhered to. There is also the potential that theory is bad, i.e. that it isn’t reflective of the reality it seeks to explain or achieve. And who hasn’t experienced when the latest and greatest theory becomes a commodified gimmick? However, I would argue that discussing potential pitfalls of particular theories, or approaches to theory as such, is actually an extension of the practice of theory into a more comprehensive domain. Hence theory needs to consider pitfalls of theorizing as such, and of bad theories. This helps theory to become more comprehensive and robust.
For theory to translate into practice that is helpful both for the instructor and the learner it must be good. But what does it mean to say that a theory is good? Anderson points out a perspective that a good theory is one that helps us envision new worlds, helps us make things, and keeps us honest (2004, pg. 32-33). While not a bad explanation of what a good theory is, I am going to present a definition of one that is more robust.
- Good theory is borne of the experience of wonder.
- Borne of the experience of wonder, good theory seeks to understand the causes of what is wonder-ful.
- A good theory actually corresponds to or is reflective of the being that it seeks to explain. Here is am using the term being in the metaphysical sense. Being, in the metaphysical sense is something that exists or could potentially exist.
- As something that corresponds to or is coherent with what actually is, or what potentially could be, good theory orients practice to its understanding.
- Good theory is humble. It always is written and taught in such a way where it never sells itself as having exhausted understanding or meaning from the reality it seeks to describe.
- Being humble, proponents of a particular theory link it to practice in a way that is always somewhat experimental and also experiential. For good theory to be linked to practice there must be proponents of it who are willing to participate in its explanatory power and meaning.
While the above points are not exhaustive of what a good theory is, they provide a good starting point. It should be more evident, after reading the above points, how good theory is essential to effective practice. Effective practice should: a) be based in understanding borne of good theory (1 & 2); b) correspond to and receive its orientation from what is discovered as containing truth-value in the theory (3 & 4); c) not be based in a deceptive presentation of the theory’s truth-value (5), d) be linked to good theory by proponents who identity with its meaning and potential consequences for instruction and learning.
In Psychology of Learning for Instruction, Driscoll (2005) defines learning theory as, “a set of constructs linking: Results-Changes in performance; Means-Hypothesized structures and processes responsible for learning; Inputs-Resources or experiences that trigger learning”(1). Elsewhere, Driscoll (2005) defines learning theory as, “a set of laws or principles about learning”(2). Later, Driscoll (2005) defines learning theory as a “set of constructs linking observed changes in performance with what is thought to bring about those changes”(9). Importantly, Driscoll (2005) explains that she defines constructs as concepts (such as memory) that theorists invent to identify psychological variables (9). Part of her introduction to theories of learning includes explaining the role of epistemology in the history of learning. Primary perspectives on the source and content of knowledge are defined and traditions of knowledge are explained.
To close this paper I will introduce three similar ways of defining knowledge traditions (in western philosophy) because this will contribute to my own fledgling theory of learning by setting part of the foundation. Instead of three knowledge traditions I will say that there are three primary perspectives that dominate western philosophy in terms of its understanding of what we mean when we say something is true. Pragmatism identifies truth as something that ultimately works, or is useful toward a certain end. The correspondence perspective is what Driscoll refers to as objectivism (2005, pg. 12). People who adhere to a correspondence theory of truth believe that it is possible to know facts about the way human persons learn that correspond with an objective reality. Note: this does not mean a position that absolutizes facts. People who adhere to a correspondence theory of truth recognize that it is not possible to exhaust truth or meaning from any object of study, thus there is still a sense of theory as provisional. The coherence theory of truth is what Driscoll identifies as interpretivism. People who adhere to a coherence theory of truth believe that theory is that which rationally coheres with culture, context, psychology, etc., but isn’t necessarily reflective of an objective reality. Driscoll (2005) is in the coherence school as far as I can tell by her definitions.
I am in the correspondence school, I believe that, as I said above, good theory translates into effective practice precisely because it is reflective of what is actually true in terms of how persons learn and how instruction best takes place. And when I say true I mean it in the objective sense, i.e. that there is an objective reality that human persons can understand and know, and report facts about. This doesn’t mean I absolutize any one theory, instead that when we are doing theory we are interacting with an objective reality, and good theory can and does present facts.
I do believe, though, that to do learning theory well we must first examine our view of human nature. Our view of human nature, what a person is, what the purpose of human persons are, how they flourish, etc., will influence our learning theory. It is from our view of human nature that we define education in the broader sense and from there narrow in on a theory of learning. This is beyond the scope of this paper.
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Elloumi, F. (Eds.), Theory and practice of online learning, (pp. 3-31). Retrieved from
Anderson, T. (2004). Toward a theory of online learning. In Anderson, T., & Elloumi, F. (Eds.), Theory and Practice of Online Learning, (pp. 33-60). Retrieved from
Driscoll, M.P. (2005). Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson. Chapter 1
Harasim, L (2017). Learning theory and online technologies (2nd ed.). New York, NY:
Routledge. Chapter 1 “Introduction to Learning Theory and Technology”