May 24, 2024

Theory or Research?

Author: Clark
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There’s a lot of call for evidence-based methods (as mentioned yesterday): L&D, learning design, and more. And this is a good thing. But…do you want to be basing your steps on a particular empirical study, or the framework within which that study emerged? Let me make the case for one approach. My answer to theory or research is theory. Here’s why.

Most research experiments are done in the context of a theoretical framework. For instance, the work on worked examples comes from John Sweller’s Cognitive Load theory. Ann Brown & Ann-Marie Palincsar’s experiments on reading were framed within Reciprocal Teaching, etc. Theory generates experiments which refine theory.

The individual experiments illuminate aspects of the broader perspective. Researchers tend to run experiments driven by a theory. The theory leads to a hypothesis, and then that hypothesis is testable. There are some exploratory studies done, but typically a theoretical explanation is generated to explain the results. That explanation is then subject to further testing.

Some theories are even meta-theories! Collins & Brown’s Cognitive Apprenticeship (a favorite) is based upon integrating several different theories, including the Reciprocal Teaching, Alan Schoenfeld’s work on examples in math, and the work of Scardemalia & Bereiter on scaffolding writing. And, of course, most theories have to account for others’ results from other frameworks if they’re empirically sound.

The approach I discuss in things like my Learning Experience Design workshops is a synthesis of theories as well. It’s an eclectic mix including the above mentioned, Cognitive Flexibility, Elaboration, ARCS, and more. If I were in a research setting, I’d be conducting experiments on engagement (pushing beyond ARCS) to test my own theories of what makes experiences as engaging and effective. Which, not coincidentally, was the research I was doing when I was an academic (and led to Engaging Learning). (As well as integration of systems for a ubiquitous coaching environment, which generates many related topics.)

While individual results, such as the benefits of relearning, are valuable and easy to point to, it’s the extended body of work on topics that provides for longevity and applicability. Any one study may or may not be directly applicable to your work, but the theoretical implications give you a basis to make decisions even in situations that don’t directly map. There’s the possibility to extend to far, but it’s better than having no guidance at all.

Having theories to hand that complement each other is a principled way to design individual solutions and design processes. Similarly for strategic work as well (Revolutionize L&D) is a similar integration of diverse elements to make a coherent whole. Knowing, and mastering, the valid and useful theories is a good basis for making organizational learning decisions. And avoiding myths!  Being able to apply them, of course, is also critical ;).

So, while they’re complementary, in the choice between theory or research I’ll point to one having more utility. Here’s to theories and those who develop and advance them!

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