Conversation Theory - Gordon Pask


Background of Gordon Pask

picture of Gordon Pask

Pask’s  major work was the development of Conversation Theory and its applications in education.  This grew out of his work with cybernetics where he conceived human-machine interaction as a form of conversation, a dynamic process, in which the participants learn about each other.   He worked to build unifying bridges between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.  His wish was to develop a social cybernetics that would help combat terrorism, oppression, and social conflict.  His vision was of a healthy society, in which there is unity without uniformity, love, peace, and justice for all.




The Theory Behind the Model

Conversation Theory is based in Pask’s interest in cybernetics.  Cybernetics can be defined as the theoretical study of control processes in electronic, mechanical, and biological systems.  It comes from the Greek word meaning steersman.  Some define it as the science of communication and control in the animal and the machine, or the communication within an observer and between the observer and his environment.


Conversation Theory as developed by Pask originated from this cybernetics framework and attempts to explain learning in both living organisms and machines.  The fundamental idea of the theory was that learning occurs through conversations about a subject matter which serves to make knowledge explicit.


Conversations can be conducted at a number of different levels:

§      Natural language (general discussion)

§      Object languages (for discussing the subject matter)

§      Metalanguages (for talking about learning/language)


In order to facilitate learning, Pask argued that subject matter should be represented in the form of  structures which show what is to be learned.  These structures exist in a variety of different levels depending upon the extent of the relationships displayed.  The critical method of learning according to Conversation Theory is "teachback" in which one person teaches another what they have learned.


Pask identified two different types of learning strategies:

§         Serialists – Progress through a structure in a sequential fashion

§         Holists - Look for higher order relations


For students to learn a subject matter, they must learn the relationships among the concepts.  For teachers, the explicit explanation of the subject matter facilitates student understanding (e.g., use of teachback technique).   However, students differ in their preferred manner of learning relationships (serialists versus holists).