Sunday, February 15, 2015

Theory & Practice or Never the Twain Shall Meet

Rachel Burnham writes: I am currently participating in the MOOC on Exploring Social Learning, which is turning out to be a fascinating learning experience .  I am writing this blog at the end of Week 2 (of 4), in which we have been exploring social learning theories.    This blog is a Working Out Loud post, which is just another way of me explaining that I am using it to make sense of some of my learning from the programme this week and I haven’t yet sorted through all my ideas & learning from this week and they may yet change & develop.

On Wednesday 11 February I participated in the weekly Twitter chat which forms part of the MOOC, which was based around the question ‘To what extent does social learning theory inform your practice?’   This brought out very different responses, with some people explaining that it was very much an important part of their practice, but with others expressing very strong views to the contrary.  Some people explained that the theory seemed to over complicate matters and others that social learning happens all the time, perhaps with the implication that therefore theory wasn’t really needed.   There were lots of challenges to this questioning of the value of theory and those not keen on theory were reminded of the risks of not working from an evidence base – the dreaded spectre of learning styles was mentioned more than once!   It seemed to me that there were some very strong views expressed.  

And it felt to me like there were differences between people from the different backgrounds participating – did our differing educational & professional backgrounds (country of study, field of study, professional focus (eg HR including L&D or instructional design) make a difference to our approach?  

I fell somewhere in the middle. I had started by saying that ‘most of the time I am not conscious of following social learning theories.’ which is rather different from rejecting this theory.  As the discussion went on, I explained ‘Something I have noticed from the materials for this week, is how 'distanced' I find the academic language from my experience’.  We moved into discussing how challenging academic language can be for those who are not academics and why this language is used.  

In this post, I want to explore a little more around these ideas.

I think we were using the term ‘theory’ to talk about three related but different concepts – evidence based approaches eg spaced learning; theory – generalised or abstract broader thinking; and models eg Honey & Mumford’s learning styles.

Evidence-based research
Research that produces evidence of what works or doesn’t work or works in particular circumstances seems to be relatively straightforward.  If the research appears sound then we can accept it and if it doesn’t than we don’t.  If it is sound we need to get on and use it.  Of course, it isn’t really that simple – I’ve not touched on context, which is a huge issue, both of where the research was done and where it is to be applied.

Theory is often based on this kind of research.   Some of the theories which have been around a long time and are often taken for granted eg Piaget’s theories of child development are based on research which we now question.   Theory may also come out of debate, discussion and disagreement with or refinement of other theories.   So, some theory may be useful and some may not.  And which is which may also be a matter of opinion. 

It was most interesting to read through the series of blog posts shared in week 2 of the programme which examined the key ideas of a number of leading social learning theorists.   Much of the language used by these social learning theorists (and other academics) is hard to understand.  Although this academic language aims for precision, at times it seems wilfully foggy! It was so interesting to read of many terms from the literature which seem vague and fuzzy even to other academics in this field eg DonaldClark identifies that what Bruner means by structure, sequencing or scaffolding is still rather unclear. 

It is no wonder that many practitioners get a bit fed up by it and end up rejecting theory for making things too complicated.  I find I can struggle through it and often make some kind of sense, but I do wonder why I should have to.  Shouldn’t academics be aiming for clear, simple language that can make their ideas open to a wider audience and be useful to practitioners?

With this backdrop, it is no wonder that sometimes theories are misused, over-simplified or used out of context in a way that makes them untrue.  If the original material is so hard to make sense of (and also sometimes is hard to get hold of) it is no wonder that practitioners sometimes misuse otherwise ‘good’ theory.

Another issue with theory, is that for it to be well thought through and so ‘good’, takes time and painstaking effort and this means that theory often can lag behind practice.  In our VUCA world, many of the situations in which practitioners may be working may not explored by relevant theory or evidence based research.

A model presents a simplified picture of reality.  They often focus on a particular aspect or aspects of reality in order to understand and make sense of it.  Models may come from evidence based research or be part of the theory discussed above.  Or they may come from a less reliable source and be more of a ‘back of an envelope’ creation.  So where they come from is important.   

Julie Drybrough @fuchsiablue recently discussed the value and limitation of models in a recent post and this inspired me to also write ashort post on the subject, so I don’t wish to cover this in detail again.   

The value of a model is that is simplifies reality and even if it is based on sound research and/or theory that is also its limitation.

So what?
This week’s discussions have brought home to me how important it is for academics and practitioners in L&D to be working together more closely.  I think there are lessons for each of us.

For Academics

  • The language papers are written in could be much simpler and more accessible.
  • It would be helpful if academics could be more practice orientated and focus on questions and issues that are current with practitioners in a timely fashion. Learning in organisations is different to learning in the formal education world and so often we are trying to apply learning from the formal education world to the workplace.

  •  There is a value in encouraging ‘translation’ of material into clear language and practical advice for practitioners.

For Practitioners

  •   We need to be much less quick to write off all theory and more willing to engage with relevant theory.

  • We need to be more questioning about where evidence, theory or models come from and what the basis is for the ideas that underpin our practice.  Failure to do so will only lead to more ‘learning style’ messes.

  • We need to be much more rigorous in understanding the background to the evidence, the theory and the models we chose to use and not apply them willy-nilly to situations that they were never intended for use in – unless we are consciously & openly experimenting & broadening their use.

I have some other thoughts more specifically around social learning theories, but I think I will save those for another post, as this has gone on quite long enough.  As always I look forward to hearing your comments and responses.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD


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