A theory makes generalizations about observations and consists of an interrelated, coherent set of ideas and models. In science, a theory is a proposed model, explanation or description of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation. It follows from this, that for scientists “theory” and “fact” do not necessarily stand in opposition. For example, it is a fact that an apple dropped on earth has been observed to fall towards the center of the planet, and the theory which explains why the apple behaves so is the current theory of gravitation.
An abstract model (or conceptual model) is a theoretical construct that represents physical, biological or social processes, with a set of variables and a set of logical and quantitative relationships between them. Models in this sense are constructed to enable reasoning within an idealized logical framework about these processes and are an important component of scientific theories. Idealized here means that the model may make explicit assumptions that are known to be false in some detail. Such assumptions may be justified on the grounds that they simplify the model while, at the same time, allowing the production of acceptably accurate solutions.
So from these brief definitions models can be seen as particular kinds of theories–a theory about the components of a process for example– but in general both are attempts to explain something in a systematic way, and both can help us understand how something works by enabling predictions to be made. Then, one can test one or more components of a theory which can then be verified or refuted and reworked.
Without any theory of principled way of understanding phenomena, we can only describe what we see, but we don’t have a way of setting expectations or having useful heuristics or tools to understand what impedes or supports a learning process, for example. In education, simply having a list of say, best practices in online education, is helpful for an online educator, but less helpful for a researcher trying to explain why certain instructional practices work or fail to work.
Take collaboration as an example. It has now become part of received wisdom in education that collaboration is a “good thing”. But why is that the case? It has become trendy because constructivism has become trendy as a framework for looking at educational practice and collaboration and constructivism are often treated as synonymous. But how are those two concepts really connected?
In fact it is social constructivism which has its roots in Vygotskian ideas from Europe and Dewey in North America which emphasizes the importance of collaboration. Constructivism viewed from a Piagetian perspective is more about individual development–where the envirnment including other people is necessary for development but to a different level of emphasis and causality than when viewed through a Vygotskian lens. Through this lens, language is internalized thought–interacting socially is the actual process by which learning and development proceed. From this perspective, collaboration is not merely a useful instructional strategy, it is the engine of development.
From such a perspective, why collaboration might be effective instructionally can be linked back to a theory of how learning proceeds, but it doesn’t necessarily inform what kinds of collaborative learning situations or kinds of groups may be most effective for learning for particular groups. To inform this we look to more detailed theoretical components of learning theory, instructional theories and empirical, theory-based research of these issues in educational contexts.