When learning about a new or complex area, it is often difficult to know where to start to make sense of different observations, to identify which components are important, and how to link similar things together.
Knowledge itself is often complex and multi-faceted; consisting of information we read, hear, observe or experience. Reading about or listening to something new may encourage us to look for more information to confirm or disconfirm what we have read or heard. Many of us like testing out new ideas with respected peers. Perhaps this is why listening to and engaging in debate is so popular. However debates can be critical, informed and reflective, and at other times there may be hidden biases of assumptions, assertions and political aspirations!
Theories and theoretical frameworks can be useful to deepen and develop knowledge. Most commonly, they are defined as coherent sets of statements, concepts or ideas that organise, predict and explain phenomena. Often, they guide us to think about complex topics in new ways; as they highlight what their originators consider to be key aspects of a topic or situation. They can help us to focus more quickly to understand and integrate new knowledge. Sometimes there is an ‘a-ha’ moment, where a theory explains things in a way that you have not thought of, but which makes sense!
So can theories help us to learn for the future?
Can we use theories to shape our thinking so that we don’t need to rethink new problems from basic principles? If we take time to investigate theories around a new situation, will they help us to integrate this new knowledge, so that when faced with a similar dilemma in the future, we will have learned to understand and manage the situation more efficiently and effectively?