Edev_502 wk1_1

The second module has started with a discussion on “the value of learning theory”. I doubt that the choice of phrase was deliberate as the tutor reminded us during the week to focus more on the benefits that theories of learning bring to our teaching. As you’ll see, I focussed on the benefits of knowing about theories of learning initially. Here is my essay.


In the generation of new knowledge, researchers “follow their noses, doing the work of science … without extended rationale or public explication” (DiSessa & Cobb, 2009, p. 78). The decision to present a direct elucidation of underlying theoretical bases remains at the researcher’s prerogative. The dominance in presentation of methodology over epistemology can be explained practically; journal and article titles often indicate theoretical stances, and the demands of replicability in quantitative designs must be satisfied (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2011). Wells and his colleagues (2015) only looked at research design—methodology—in their discussion of the epistemologically titled, “How we know what we know” (p. 171). Nevertheless, “there is no such thing as a neutral education process” (Thompson, 1980, cited in Mayo, 1999, p. 5), and all social science studies are “intrinsically value-laden” (Wallace & Poulson, 2003, p. 5). In an article where the theoretical foundation and underlying values are omitted, the onus falls on the reader to discover them, but the hermeneutic cycles involved this discovery, in uncovering the meaning of another, are fraught with interpretational difficulty (Eagleton, 1996). A choice opens up to the author to include or not their theoretic stance, and from this, the question arises: what does the inclusion of stated theoretical bases add or detract from an article?


The six articles from the resources are analysed against the typology of theories presented in 2007 Merriam, Caffarella and Baumgartner (2007) and Svinicki (1999).


Article classified according to typology of theory


Theory specified?

Theoretical bases






Cohen et al.

Yes: motivation theory

Cognitive III: Learner-centred

Humanist/ Cognitive

Dar-Nimrod & Heine


Cognitive III: Learner-centred

Social cognitive

Marton & Pang

Yes: Design experiment theory

Cognitive I


Nelson et al.

Yes: Freire’s critical pedagogy

Social constructivist

Social constructivist

Smith et al.


Social constructivist

Humanist/ Social constructivist



Cognitive III: Learner-centred

Humanist/ Social constructivist


The classification into the typology presented many issues and categorisation was not straightforward, reflecting Miller’s shrewd observation that a “theory, in its tidy and polished form …, bears only a faint resemblance to the way theory guides the behaviour of real people doing real research” (Miller, 2011, p. 5). One such issue arises because both overviews of theoretical areas themselves were framed in a historical perspective. Theory pervades yet differs from research design which in turn has a similar relationship to methodology. These three concepts interconnect and also they must be simultaneously synchronous and asynchronous. Knowledge production is done often by questioning the extent, nature, validity and so on of current or synchronous beliefs. At any given time, an emerging theory will be predicated on the perceived shortcomings of an established one. Humanism, for example, answers questions that behaviourism avoids. Over time, gaps in knowledge are filled in with the expanding store of growing knowledge. Subsequently, new questions are able to be asked: one answer derives two questions. Asynchronously, whole new paradigms of thought emerge when new situations suggest novel approaches (see for example, the discussion about connectivism by Kop & Hill, 2008; and that on design-based research by Dede, 2004). Theories develop historically as rejections of earlier perceived incomplete, insufficient, or ill-focussed theories. Also, broad characteristics of theories may over lap wider categorisations precisely because of the need to add more explanatory power to an existing theory. Svinicki and Merriam et al. understand the a/synchronous malleability required to discuss the notion of theory, and placing modern research under their criteria is problematic.

A possible framing of their summaries that neither Svinicki or Merriam et al. adopt is to classify theories into ontological positions. A fundamental question rests on the positioning of social reality as “external to the individual … [or] the product of individual consciousness” (Cohen et al., 2011, p. 5). To this, collective consciousnesses may be added to extend the view of social reality to include distributed knowledge (Kop & Hill, 2008) and situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Each of these frameworks offers insights into possible natures of reality and, as such, into possible knowledge production.


Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2011). Research Methods in Education (7th ed., Vol. 55). Abingdon: Routledge. http://doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2011.643130

Dede, C. (2004). If Design-Based Research is the Answer , What is the Question? A Commentary on Collins, Joseph , and Bielaczyc; diSessa and Cobb; and Fishman, Marx , Soloway in the JLS Special Issue on Design-Based Research. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 105–114. http://doi.org/10.1207/s15327809jls1301

DiSessa, A., & Cobb, P. (2009). Ontological Innovation and the Role of Theory in Design Experiments. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 77–103. http://doi.org/10.1207/s15327809jls1301

Eagleton, T. (1996). Literary theory: An introduction (2nd ed.). Minneapolis: MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Kop, R., & Hill, A. (2008). Connectivism: Learning theory of the future or vestige of the past? International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(3), 1–13.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Learning in doing (Vol. 95). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mayo, P. (1999). Gramsci, Freire and adult education: Possibilities for transformative action. London and New York: Zed Books.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, P. H. (2011). Theories of Developmental Psychology (5th ed.). New York: Worth.

Svinicki, M. D. (1999). New Directions in Learning and Motivation. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1999(80), 5–27. http://doi.org/10.1002/tl.8001

Wallace, M., & Poulson, L. (2003). Learning to read critically in educational leadership and management. London: Sage.

Wells, R. S., Kolek, E. A., Williams, E. A., & Saunders, D. B. (2015). “How We Know What We Know”: A Systematic Comparison of Research Methods Employed in Higher Education Journals, 1996-2000 v. 2006-2010. The Journal of Higher Education, 86(2), 171–198.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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