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I was following a Twitter conversation recently between @tomwhyte1 and @injenuity about learning theory construction. I expect it had been spawned from CCK08.

Tom asked the question “If the basic core of a learning theory requires other learning theories to have happened or exist, is it an actual learning theory or tool?” I was about to enter the conversation when I realized I couldn’t explain what a learning theory was. This week I’m reading Psychology of Learning for Instruction by Driscoll and have an answer to both questions. To paraphrase, a theory is a hypotheses that has been validated through data collection. More formally, Driscoll describes a learning theory as “a set of constructs linking observed changes in performance with what is thought to bring about those changes” (p.9).

A theory isn’t a theory though until some sort of proving has occurred. Which leads to Tom‘s question. Driscoll has a perspective on that as well: “any new theory must reinterpret all the previous findings as well as account for the anomalous ones that prompted its invention in the first place” (p.7). So Tom, I think the answer is It depends. If it meets the definition of a learning theory, that is seeks to explain a phenomenom, then not only is it a theory but it must build upon or refute past theories. If it doesn’t meet the definition of a learning theory, then perhaps it is describing a single construct (in this case perhaps node).

I’m going to like this book.

Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction (Third Edition ed.). Boston: Peason Education Inc.