Charles Reigeluth offers a definition of what a learning theory is. He states that learning theories are descriptive, describing how learning occurs. They are descriptive in the sense that they attempt to provide a deeper understanding of the effects that result from phenomena.
In contrast, theories that are design oriented are usually prescriptive in nature offering guidelines as to what method(s) to use to achieve a particular goal. Instructional design theories are design oriented. Like George Siemens writes ” Theory informs and gives rise to practice (even legitimates it). Practice in term evaluates and extends theory”, Reigeluth comments that descriptive theories are very useful to practitioners because they provide an etiological basis for understanding why a particular design oriented theory works or provide a basis for the creation of a new design theory where none exists.
George has already provided us with Ertmer’s and Newby’s “five definitive questions to distinguish learning theory”:
a. How does learning occur?
b. What factors influence learning?
c. What is the role of memory?
d. How does transfer occur?
e. What types of learning are best explained by this theory?
The answers to these questions are descriptive in nature. For example, let us look at Stephen’s comments to each of the five points:
- learning occurs as a distributed process in a network, based on recognizing and interpreting patterns
- the learning process is influenced by the diversity of the network, strength of the ties
- memory consists of adaptive patterns of connectivity representative of current state
- transfer occurs through a process of connecting
- bets for complex learning, learning in rapidly changing domains
It is important to understand that these can guide and inform the creation of design oriented theories (such as for the current course) and specific methods. For example, aspects of a possible design theory for the course could include critical reflection, connection forming and strong motivation (whether intrinsic or extrinsic). Consequently, methods such as creating blogs and wikis could be seen as components of the learning experience that guide the learners to an end goal.