#PLENK2010: Proliferation of Learning Theories

In today’s elluminate session, Stephen continued his Twitter rant about

“why we have so many learning / educational theories. Shouldn’t we have just one, that works? And the rest rejected?”.

See the recording at 33 – 44 mins. My “theory” about the proliferation of learning theories is as follows.

Many educators won’t admit to themselves that their own cognitive style is not the only best one that leads to the most effective learning. So naturally, there are problems to reconcile some students’ real learning processes with the predicted progress. And therefore, ever new theories are needed to describe the apparent discrepancies.

Even worse: When studies are conducted to reject a particular theory of underlying principles, the bias underlying the study setting and the bias of the experimentators, is likely to skew the results or yield the notorious “no significant evidence” (thanks to Glen for the bias video link!) One striking bias is already the measuring of short-term outcomes of a limited study period, which clearly favors a certain type of knowledge that is not typical for the gradually growing understanding of real-world relations.

Stephen observed that the “underlying principles” sort of theories are less frequent than the theories of taxonomies that merely describe the surface, and that the latter are the easier way. Given the pressure of young researchers to publish much and publish scientific evidence for their theories, it is understandable that this type of theories proliferates.

(Admitted, my above “theory” is very simplistic, and I won’t be able to provide statistical evidence for it!)

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4 Responses to #PLENK2010: Proliferation of Learning Theories

  1. Interesting points. So we have three possible sources of the multiplicity of theories:
    – belief one’s own learning style is universal
    – study bias
    – pressure to publish

    This is probably a good case, though it should indeed be supported observationally.

    How would this be supported observationally? There are two approaches:

    1. Conduct a study, asking people how they reach their theories, bolstered by redactive accounts of theories proposed in the literature. This is the usual method.

    2. Put the idea out there, and ask whether it accords with other people’s experience. In a network of sufficient breadth and diversity, if it reflects most people’s experience, it may be said to be supported observationally.

    I think that it is interesting that, if we follow the second approach to theory identification and confirmation, we are less likely to result in a multiplicity of theories, since the theories produced by the three possible sources will accord with only a small number of people’s experiences, while deeper theories will be more universally experienced.


  2. jadekaz says:

    Being a current student and going through each learning theory, the takeaway we had as students was that each theory out there has merits and that there are best times to use the different theories. I believe this means that we do the best with what we have and that we haven’t arrived at the final answer. We have yet to fully understand how the mind works.


  3. x28 says:

    Thanks, Jadekaz, for mentioning another benefit of the “diversity of theories” view.

    This view seems to accord with a large number of people’s experiences, just like the “diversity of styles” view on the other hand. But the number alone is probably not sufficient.

    Thanks, Stephen, for the convincing argument about the diversity, the diversity of the theories’ recipients, which was not as obvious as the necessary diversity of the theories’ creators / study


  4. Bob says:

    I am reminded of the story of 7 blind men trying to describe the elephant. What I see from the student perspective is that in many cases the “theorist” are trying more to stake claims to history than to get it right. Like the seven blind men they argue as to what is obviously in front of them rather than trying to understand that there may be a greater picture to be understood.


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