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Ontological Innovation and the Role of Theory in Design Experiments


Journal of the Learning Sciences Volume 13, Number 1, ISSN 1050-8406


The motivation for this article is our belief that theory is critically important but currently underplayed in design research studies. We seek to characterize and illustrate a genre of theorizing that seems to us strongly synergistic with design-based research. We begin by drawing contrasts with kinds of theory that are relevant but, we contend, by themselves inadequate. A central element of the type of productive design-based theorizing on which we focus is "ontological innovation," hypothesizing and developing explanatory constructs, new categories of things in the world that help explain how it works. A key criterion to which we adhere when discussing ontological innovations is that theory must do real design work in generating, selecting and validating design alternatives at the level at which they are consequential for learning. Developing and refining an ontological innovation is challenging and requires the kind of extensive, iterative work that characterizes design experiments more generally. However, the pay-off in terms of clarity of focus and explanatory power can be great. We present two case studies that illustrate the development, refinement, extension, and instructional application of ontological innovations.


diSessa, A.A. & Cobb, P. (2004). Ontological Innovation and the Role of Theory in Design Experiments. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 77-103. Retrieved July 14, 2020 from .

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