Why Do We Need Learning Theories?

Connectivism seems a fancy word these days and is said to be as a new learning theory. I like the idea behind it. But when I was reading an article by Stephen Downes on Connectivism as a learning theory, I couldn’t help thinking: why do we need to have learning theories? Learning is such a complex process and the mechanism how human being’s brain works is so sophisticated. Can we simply put a name on each type of learning method?

Behaviorism, Instructivism,  Constructionism, Constructivism…, now Connectivism. I asked myself this morning: why do we need to “create” these of learning theories? In “hard” sciences, theories usually either lead to improving human being’s living standards or lead to discovery of undiscovered matter of facts in the universe. For example, theories related electricity helped thousands of inventions in household appliances. Bing Bang theory may help astrologists discover dark matters in the space, etc.  What are the purposes of having learning theories? To interpret the learning process? To predict learning outcomes? To better design and assist people’s learning in the future?

I can’t help but wondering: Is it possible and/or necessary to have learning theories?

First of all, can one set of learning theories interpret all the aspects of human being’s learning process?

My answer is: no. The mechanism of the way how human being’s mind is probably the most complicated and unpredictable process in the universe. Fields such as neural science, machine learning have achieved vast progress on understanding and simulating the process of human learning. However, we all have to admit that the results we’ve achieved thus far are merely the tip of the iceberg.

My opinion is: human beings learn in such a complex and unpredictable way that there is no single learning theory that can depict and summarize how human learn. Sometimes the way we learn can be interpreted with behaviorism, such as a child learning saying “thank you” after receiving help (maybe you as the reader could provide a better example). Sometimes the way we learn can be interpreted with the framework of instructivism, such as learning from teachers in the classroom. Sometimes it can be interpreted with constructivism, such as we build our conception of social etiquette. Sometimes we learn by connecting with others, such as learning new programing skills by asking questions on a programming online forum. But there is no single learning theory that can summarize all learning patterns and results.

Next, is that necessary to have learning theories, in order to design/support more effective/enjoyable learning experiences? How are various ways of learning with technology supported by each learning theory?

I don’t have an answer for this one yet, but the following is what I came up to help myself comb through my thoughts:


My next question: what the row of “Connectivism” will look like in the graph above?

6 thoughts on “Why Do We Need Learning Theories?

  1. I’m sorry, and do not wish to seem abrupt, but you have a lot of reading/learning to do about learning theories, before you try to share your knowledge.
    As a PhD student in Instructional Design, I would argue that all three of your examples for Behavorism/Instructivism/Constructivism are inaccurate and misleading to the uninformed.

    I design interactive online training scenarios (cognitive and affective domains) using primarily a blend of behaviorist and instructivist learning strategies… with absolutely zero lecture.

    Many learning strategies can be referred to as having a constructivist background or origin. However, Google search engine and YouTube videos are not one them. True constructivists abhor any non-interactive one-way exchange of knowledge or information (lecture, video, assigned reading, etc).

  2. On a second point, I would propose that if you dissect and analyze Downes’ theory of Connectivism, you may discover that it is less of a learning theory and more appropriately a communication theory. There is a subtle difference.

  3. Though I understand your conundrum with the need for learning theories, I would like to point out the without them there would be no forward progress in education. Learning theories promote curiosity and research to forward or refute the theoretical perspectives associated with each theories’ premises. Connectivism (Siemens, 2006) is one such example and I referenced Siemens in my dissertation literature review. My issue with Connectivism derives from the statement by Siemens that learning exists in nodes of information outside the learner in digital form. Being a constructivist, I believe that the mind is where all learning takes place. Piaget stated that novile stimuli combined with experiential knowledge promotes the learning process. I tend to agree with Piaget. I have developed yet another theorem where the learner develops meaning from technology (Technological Constructivism). In my new book published by NOVA Science Publishers (ISBN 978-1-62808-830-4) https://www.novapublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=44918
    I developed a working student-based, technology-enhanced educational model that outlines this new theoretical perspective. In my research into the shortfalls to technology integration into pedagogical practice K-12, the gap in the literature identified no strategies that align technology with classroom practices. It was this intensive research into learning theory that was the inspiration for the aforementioned architecture to use technology at every step of the educational process. Without learning theories I may never of discovered this model and certainly wouldn’t have been able to publish a book on the subject with NOVA.
    So you see learning theories promote the inquisitive nature of professional educators and may promote much needed interventions that may positively affect the outcomes students experience in modern education.

    Dr. Dale H. Eberwein Ed.D/ET

    • Hi Dr. Eberwein,
      Thank you very much for this inspiring comment. I like what you said here: “Learning theories promote curiosity and research to forward or refute the theoretical perspectives associated with each theories’ premises.” I believe this is what I’ve lost and forgot after being working as an instructional designer for almost three years without going back to academia. I would love to read your book sometimes. Thank you!

  4. I feel that there is sometimes a tendency to mix method with ideology. Quite a few methods are not specific to one specific view of learning; for example Skinner and some of the other behavioural scientists of the 1920s and 30s did not advocate exclusively repetitive learning or drill and practice; they saw it as an approach that could work in certain situations.
    Having a personal educational philosophy is important as it gives a basis from which to grow and experiment as a teacher.
    I think diagrams which pigeon-hole methods within particular schools of thought on learning are never very helpful.

    • Thank you very much Rich! I totally agree with you on the tendency of mixing method with ideology. Also thanks for reminding me about Skinner and others’ assertion on behaviorist is not exclusively repetitive drill and practice.

      Your words of “I think diagrams which pigeon-hole methods within particular schools of thought on learning are never very helpful.” also makes me think more about the graphics we see in educational research journals and articles: a lot of them tend to do this and seems it is not accepted by many practitioners.


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