What is theory and why use theories?

The following is an edited version of something used in a course I teach that’s currently hidden away in the LMS. I’m adding it here because I’m using it with another group of students.

It’s a quick attempt to cover what I perceive to be a reasonable whole for many education students. i.e. what exactly is a theory and why the hell would I want to use them? My impression is that not many of them have developed an answer to these questions that they are comfortable with.

This is a complex and deeply contested pair of questions. I’m assuming that if you lined up 50 academics you’d get at least 50 different sets of answers. My hope that this is a useful start for some. Feel free to add your own pointers and answers to these questions.

If you want a more detailed look into the nature of theory then I can recommend Gregor (2006).

What is theory?

I take an inclusive and pragmatic view of theory.

An inclusive view, because there is a huge array of very different ideas that can be labelled theories. A pragmatic view is taken because the reason we use theories in this course is to make it easier to do something. To understand a particular situation, or for most reading this figure out how to design some use of digital technology to enhance or transform student learning.

Hirst (2012, p. 3) describes educational theory as

A domain of practical theory, concerned with formulating and justifying principles of action for a range of practical activities.

i.e. educational theory should help you teach and help your learners learn.

In the context of this particular course we touch on various ideas such as: the Computer
Practice Framework, TPACK, Backwards Design, the RAT framework, the SAMR model, The TIP Model, constructivism, and many more. For the purposes of this course, we’ll call these things theories. They help with “formulating and justifying principles of action”.

There is huge variability in the purpose, validity, and approaches used to formulate and describe these objects called theories. A theory isn’t inherently useful, important, or even appropriate. That’s a judgement that you need to make.

A theory is just a model and All models are wrong, but some are useful (Box, 1979).

Why use theories?

Thomas (1997, p. 78) cites Mouly (1978)

Theory is a convenience a necessity, really organizing a whole slough of facts, laws, concepts, constructs, principles into a meaningful and manageable form

These theories are useful because they help you understand, formulate and justify how and what to do. In this course, these theories will help you plan, implement, and evaluate/reflect upon the use of digital technologies to improve your teaching and your students’ learning.

Learning and teaching are difficult enough. When you add digital technologies to the mix even more complexity arises. The theories we introduce in this course should hopefully help you make sense of this complexity. Guide you in understanding, planning, implementing and evaluating of your use of ICTs.


Gregor, S. (2006). The nature of theory in information systems. MIS Quarterly, 30(3), 611–642.

Hirst, P. H. (2012). Educational theory. In P. H. Hirst (Ed.), Educational Theory and Its Foundation Disciplines (pp. 3-29). Milton Park, UK: Routledge.

Thomas, G. (1997). What’s the Use of Theory? Harvard educational review, 67(1), 75:105.

One thought on “What is theory and why use theories?

  1. Pingback: What is “netgl” and how might it apply to my problem | The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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