Is it all just “Naval-Gazing”?

This blog post relates to my study of CCK11 and the study of learning theory.

One of the week 1 readings is a document titled “What is Connectivism?”  George Siemens uses Ertmer’s and Newby’s “five definitive questions to distinguish learning theory” framework to produce a table comparing and contrasting Connectivism with 4 other prominent learning theories:  Behaviourism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism.

I found this to be quite helpful in making sense of learning theories.

While I have studied, albeit in a very small capacity these other learning theories, it occurs to me that in some ways and in some contexts, each of these learning theories makes sense.

For instance, taking a look at how learning occurs in behaviourism, the idea of learning being a black-box and being focused on observable behaviour makes sense.  How do you determine learning without some observable action?  Kind of reminds me of the expression “does a bear shit in the woods?”  Everyone assumes so, but do we really know for sure? 🙂  Yet, if you look at Constructivism, learning occurs socially and meaning is created by each learner.  This too makes sense to me.  When I say it makes sense, it is something that resonates with me and fits with my experiences – previous patterns in my life.  I’m sure others will have different resonances with this matrix.  I’m interested to hear which parts of the matrix matches their life experiences if you are comfortable sharing as a comment?

If I work my way through the list, there seems very little amongst the learning theories that appear untrue and does not connect with my life experiences.  Some may take precedence over others, depending on the context, but most seem valid.

Taking a step back, does it make sense to have learning theories, or to state “this is how we learn?”  It’s a big call.  Beyond the chemical/physical exchanges and reactions that occur within one’s grey matter, is it really definable?  Are thoughts, ideas; is learning “real”?  I believe context has a vital bearing on how we learn and context, particularly in today’s society is so incredibly diverse, with infinite possibilities.  Is there a taxonomy for learning contexts?  Perhaps there is, I shall googleith and find out.  I’ll make a prediction in saying that if there is a taxonomy, it will be of formally structured learning only, and exclude informal, spontaneous learning.  But always happy to be proven wrong – what do I know? 🙂

Are all learning theories both right, and wrong at the same time?  I blogged previously about complexity in teaching and my uncertainty about complexity in learning.  Perhaps context is what brings about complexity in both teaching and learning?

Can any of these learning theories be proven right, or wrong?  I am guessing not otherwise theories would have been proven or disproven by now.  This is a social science, and so there are no absolutes.  In which case, is all this discussion of learning theories just naval-gazing and meaningless?

Note, this is a real question (not rhetorical) – I don’t know the answer, but I wonder why we try to categorise/frame/conceptualise/organise and all the other verbs when perhaps its just a futile exercise.  Or maybe I have just invented the defeatism learning theory. 🙂

Next, my discussion of the big bang theory. 🙂


8 thoughts on “Is it all just “Naval-Gazing”?

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  1. G’day Damo,

    You ask, “why we try to categorise/frame/conceptualise/organise.”

    I’d suggest its a type of knowledge generation. You said you found the extension of the Ertmer & Newby table to be useful in understanding theories. So it helps, it contributes some knowledge.

    Of course, academics do it a lot, probably too much.
    And the reductionism in some categorisation can also create problems.

    As for whether learning theories can be proven right or wrong. Probably not, at least in a way that can be broadly accepted. However, I’d argue that’s not the same as saying the discussion is meaningless.

    From my perspective, it’s a question of how useful they are. A bit like your comment about the context. Different learning theories can be more or less useful depending on the context.

    That said, it may be possible to argue that behaviourism, constructivism are simply “versions” of connectivism. i.e. neither really have any firm connection with how learning actually occurs in the brain, instead arising from observations of how people learn in some contexts. And do a reasonable job….more there…

    Thanks for blogging your experience. I wish I had the time to engage with cck11.


  2. G’day David,

    Great to hear from you and thanks for contributing to my blog.

    I agree that categorisation/framing/conceptualisation/organisation are methods of knowledge generation or sense making. But is this knowledge a construct of the human psyche, and being so like many man-made constructs, artificial, non-organic – abstract.

    It reminds me of the age-old categorisation of fruit and vegetables. Is a tomato a fruit or a vege? Does it have seeds? Are the seeds in the inside or outside? We are so caught up in trying to make edible flora fit into this category system – does it really make sense to do so? Does distinguishing fruit from vegetable contribute to knowledge?

    Can sense be made of everything? Or are there some phenomona that are simply too complex and inter-related?

    David said: “From my perspective, it’s a question of how useful they are. A bit like your comment about the context. Different learning theories can be more or less useful depending on the context.”

    I think that might be what it all boils down to. Thanks David. I recall a conversation with a colleague a few years ago, where I was told that I had to decide what my learning philosophy was before I could be an effective learning designer. I’ve since come to the conclusion that you choose the philosophy to suit the context of the instructor and learners. As an example, when I studied the Instructional Design course at U Manitoba, my professor said that there is no point pushing a constructivist learning design onto a subject matter expert who has been teaching for 30years with a behaviourist approach. The contexts don’t match. Changing people’s attitudes is something that takes time. I’m sure George could attest to this statement. 🙂

    I like your idea of the various existing learning theories being a form of connectivism. I believe George has described substrates of connectivism, which include the neurological aspects of learning. I’ve yet to engage with this material, but am interested to see how it all fits. Or whether its deciding if a pumpkin is a fruit or vegetable. 🙂

    I’ve really missed blogging in the past year – so busy with work projects. It’s nice to get back to it again.


    1. With your question about knowledge as a construct of the human psyche, you might want to take a look at a paper Sandy wrote a few years ago. It talks about fictionalism. It’s somewhat connected.

      Which also seems somewhat connected/resonant with a recent post from Stephen Downes.

      As for changing attitudes, this reminds me of a very good paper written by some smart fellas a few years ago. Especially some stuff about compatibility.

  3. Theories: People have ideas about stuff and create theories (as I understand it) to put these ideas into a form that can both be used as a test of their notions and put the ideas in a public form. A posted theory is a form of declaration of intent to work towards something and to take responsibility for it.

    I grew up in a university town where every new theory cooked up at the big U was tested out on us hapless school kids. None of them were particularly harmful because: first, their creators were mere innocents compared to us battle hardened school kids–impressing us was hopeless, influencing our attitude towards learning beyond anyone’s power. Second, our instructors, veterans as they were, reduced both new and old to a monotone snore-fest of epistemological oatmeal that was indistinguishable from the daily sop and therefore, unnoticeable. Finally, nothing useful got past the district offices populated by political appointees and the living dead.

    Theories of learning appear essentially as internal discussion documents confined to to mostly residing inside the walls of Schools of Education. Sometimes one escapes and it might be that great things come of this. Before, a theory fed into the school system was ground down to nothing by the needs of that system. In open distribution it may at least get a fair trial.

    Having many theories in itself doesn’t disprove anything. There are many types of learners. When I was in school there was one theory about who was in charge and education is what they called it.

    Cognitive Dissonance theory might help explain the overload we all feel by there being so many “versions” of every damn thing these days:

    “The theory replaces previous conditioning or reinforcement theories by viewing individuals as more purposeful decision makers; they strive for balance in their beliefs. If presented with decisions or information that create dissonance, they use dissonance-reduction strategies to regain equilibrium…”


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