Theory and Educational Research

“…theories should be seen as ‘spotlights’ that illuminate specific aspects of a topic while leaving many other surrounding areas in the darkness”(Selwyn, 2012).

When most graduate students become excited about research, I find that they are really interested in a specific topic or research question, or how the potential findings can be applied to a problem or situation. When I ask them what set of theories they are basing their research on, I usually get a response along the lines of “I’m not interested in theory, I am interested in XYZ topic,” or “thinking about theory spoils all the fun!” Sometimes I just get a quizzical look or a simple “huh?”

In his editorial piece on technology and educational research, Selwyn (2012) explores a number of factors that might improve the impact of this expanding area of research. One is a “broad and rigorous engagement with theory.” Selwyn calls not only for application of cutting edge technological theories now in use within the tech-ed world, but also for use of more traditional theories used in educational research. It is within these more traditional theories that we might find a context for the rapidly shifting landscape of technological applications and uses, and thus build on previous findings in a coherent and logical manner.

Even as we anchor our research to these theories, we must be mindful of the blinders we each wear, and how these affect our selection of theories and applications. Citing Talcott Parsons, Selwyn cautions us to be aware that our theory choice might only illuminate one aspect of our topic, while leaving much else in the dark. If more of us, graduate students included, built stronger connections between theory and research, we would be able to apply more light to the ed-tech issues that concern us all.

Selwyn, N. (2012): Ten suggestions for improving academic research in
education and technology, Learning, Media and Technology. DOI:10.1080/17439884.2012.680213

2 thoughts on “Theory and Educational Research

  1. Thanks Val, your last paragraphs summed up beautifully what I found to be a difficult text. Being objective and mindful of the bigger picture will be the difficult part of writing a dissertation when the focus can be narrowed down so much that it consumes you. Remembering to take regular steps back from the detailed analysis may indeed shed more light.


  2. Thank you for drawing attention to this particular point, Val! I have also been in the kinds of discussions you’re talking about – and I think the perception that theory and practice are two totally different realms is part of the problem – we are all operating with theories of knowledge, learning, society etc, so the difference is whether we work to be clear about these, so we can subject them to some scrutiny, and discuss them with others, or leave them in the background as assumptions. In terms of engaging with ‘the theory’ – I think there’s nothing more exciting than reading or hearing something that tries to explain how things work and thinking “YES” – but not everyone has had this experience in their studies. Hamish often quotes Kurt Lewin, who said “There is nothing so practical as a good theory”, and I agree.


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