What is theory? Why bother?


Theory explains how some aspect of human behavior or performance is organized. It thus enables us to make predictions about that behavior.

The components of theory are concepts (ideally well defined) and principles.

A concept is a symbolic representation of an actual thing – tree, chair, table, computer, distance, etc.

Construct is the word for concepts with no physical referent – democracy, learning, freedom, etc. Language enables conceptualization.

A principle expresses the relationship between two or more concepts or constructs.

In the process of theory development, one derives principles based on oneÕs examining/questioning how things/concepts are related.

Concepts and principles serve two important functions:

1) They help us to understand or explain what is going on around us.

2) They help us predict future events (Can be causal or correlational)

That’s what theory is: the summary and synthesis of what is known about a field. It is the reduction of our knowledge to the basic ideas, presented in a way that shows their underlying patterns and relationships. (Moore, 1991:2)

A theory is a related set of concepts and principles

– about a phenomenon

– the purpose of which is to explain or predict the phenomenon

Why theory is important

1. Theory provides concepts to name what we observe and to explain relationships between concepts. Theory allows us to explain what we see and to figure out how to bring about change. Theory is a tool that enables us to identify a problem and to plan a means for altering the situation.

2. Theory is to justify reimbursement to get funding and support – need to explain what is being done and demonstrate that it works – theory and research

3. Theory is to enhance the growth of the professional area to identify a body of knowledge with theories from both within and with out the area of distance learning. That body of knowledge grows with theory and research. Theory guides research.

The theory also helps us understand what we don’t know and, therefore, is the only guide to research. Relating to theory, it increases its ability to solve other problems in different times and different places. (Moore, 1991: 2)

Development of theories

Theory is constantly revised as new knowledge is discovered through research.

There three stages of theory development in any new science.

1) Speculative

– attempts to explain what is happening.

2) Descriptive

– gathers descriptive data to describe what is really happening.

3) Constructive

– revises old theories and develops new ones based on continuing research.

Theory development process

1) Theory-practice-theory

e.g., take existing theory in education, apply to distance learning, develop new theory

2) Practice-research-theory

e.g., see what is happening in distance learning, submit to research, develop theory from results

3) Theory-theory-research/practice

e.g., build on an initial theory to develop a second theory, then apply and test it





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