The Usefulness of Theories and Research for Explaining a Learning Experience

Can research and theories inform us about what is happening in a learning experience? How useful is the information a theory or a research study provides to us? As discussed in Noddings (2012), educational research extends beyond the scientific, empirical research we’ve discussed in some of our earlier readings. Qualitative research, borrowed from the field of anthropology, has been embraced by educators as a way to better describe the reasons one particular intervention might work better for a group of students with certain characteristics or traits. Other educators interested in using the same intervention could then compare their group to the group described in the qualitative research study to see how well their group compared, to see if the intervention might be effective in their particular situation. Education also uses the empirical, qualitative studies to take the results of an intervention and generalize them to a population of students which share the same characteristics as the group being studied (for example, all fifth graders). Because education uses both qualitative and quantitative research to explain a particular learning experience, we can often get a lot of information about that particular situation, and in some cases we can generalize it to all students with certain shared characteristics.
It is through the use of such research studies that theories have been formulated regarding the way learning happens. Although we can’t get inside the brain to determine the way learning really occurs we can try different interventions and create different scenarios intended to produce learning and try to determine the best approaches to stimulate learning and under what conditions learning tends to occur. As trends and patterns emerge, they are formulated into theories. The theories may then be restated as hypotheses and subjected to further research testing. Eventually the theories are either disproved or accepted as possible explanations for how we learn.
Unfortunately no research gives us a 100% accurate picture or explanation for what happens in a learning experience. This is because research is imperfect. We can only test a small portion of a population. Even if the portion is a representative sample, it may still vary from the population in certain important aspects which could influence the outcome of the research. Our results could be messed up by factors such as mortality (who dropped out before the study was completed) or the Hawthorne effect (the effect is caused not by the difference in intervention but by the extra attention received from the researcher).
Theories also give us an imperfect view of reality and no one theory completely explains learning. There are elements of truth in behaviorism, cognitive learning theory, and social-constructivism, but none of them corner the market on truth. Because these theories are only partial explanations of how we learn, they cannot completely explain a particular learning experience. They can, however, help us shed light on why a particular technique or intervention was successful or unsuccessful.
While we cannot give complete credence to theories or research, they are valuable tools that educators can use to evaluate their practice and explain the experiences of their students to others.
Noddings, N. (2012). Philosophy of Education: Westview Press.

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