ATD Blog

From Theory to Practice

Friday, April 13, 2012

How do we make theory practical? When I teach adult learning theory to master’s level students, I am very invested in making sure they see the depth and usefulness of the academic grounding of our field. It can be tough, though, to get them to recall their course in adult learning as more than a litany of big names and fancy-sounding theories. One of the challenges we have in teaching the range of theories in adult learning is helping students to understand the theories in relation to one another.

Depending on which text we use to survey the theoretical landscape, we are likely to discuss the key concepts and implications of behaviorist, humanist, cognitivist, social cognitivist, constructivist, progressive, postmodernist, cognitive information processing, transformative and other approaches that can help categorize ways of thinking about adult learning (or human learning at any age). Students seem to want to think of these theoretical approaches as situational or on a continuum (perhaps from objectivist to subjectivist, or evolutionary from behaviorism to constructivism). I sometimes engage in discussions about the epistemological grounding of these theories which in some cases makes them actually incompatible with one another (e.g. agreeing with both cognitivism and constructivism is problematic because their assumptions are too different). For practical purposes, however, this is a discussion that simply doesn’t resonate with most students.

I’m wondering how you tackle this discussion with your students. I have heard some professors agree with a situational approach – encouraging students to embrace different theories for different kinds of training challenges. I have heard some professors take a strong stand, claiming that only one theoretical strand is right. I myself tend to talk about the debate, and I’ve have discussed that some of the same teaching or development activities would be embraced by theorists in seemingly opposing orientations – they would simply explain why the technique works in very different terms.


What are some of the ways you discuss with your students the contradictions of various theories and the debate on which is most accurate? How do you help them to take away useful insights?

About the Author

Catherine Lombardozzi is a lifelong learning and development practitioner and founder of Learning 4 Learning Professionals. She collaborates with people to align their L&D strategy and skill sets with their organization’s driving goals and initiatives. Her work focuses on supporting the professional development of designers, facilitators, faculty, learning and performance consultants, and learning leaders. As an active workplace learning professional with nearly 40 years of experience in corporate and academic contexts, Catherine often contributes to professional conferences and journals, and she teaches graduate-level courses in adult learning, instructional design, emerging technologies, and consulting. She is author of Learning Environments by Design (2015). She maintains deep interest in modern workplace learning strategies, learning culture, social learning, self-directed learning, design of online learning experiences, and scholarly practice. Catherine holds a doctoral degree in human and organizational learning from George Washington University.

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