Conversation Theory

Conversation Theory

Conversation Theory is a cybernetic and dialectic framework that offers a scientific theory to explain how interactions lead to "construction of knowledge", or, "knowing": wishing to preserve both the dynamic/kinetic quality, and the necessity for there to be a "knower".[1] This work is proposed by Gordon Pask in the 1970s.



Conversation Theory regards social systems as symbolic, language-oriented systems where responses depend on one person's interpretation of another person's behavior, and where meanings are agreed through conversations.[2] But since meanings are agreed, and the agreements can be illusory and transient, scientific research requires stable reference points in human transactions to allow for reproducible results. Pask found these points to be the understandings which arise in the conversations between two participating individuals, and which he defined rigorously.[3]

Conversation Theory describes interaction between two or more cognitive systems, such as a teacher and a student or distinct perspectives within one individual, and how they engage in a dialog over a given concept and identify differences in how they understand it.

Conversation Theory came out of the work of Gordon Pask on instructional design and models of individual learning styles. In regard to learning styles, he identified conditions required for concept sharing and described the learning styles holist, serialist, and their optimal mixture versatile. He proposed a rigorous model of analogy relations.


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.

Levels of conversation

Conversations can be conducted at a number of different levels:[4]

  • Natural language (general discussion)
  • Object languages (for discussing the subject matter)
  • Metalanguages (for talking about learning/language)


Through recursive interactions called "Conversation" their differences may be reduced until agreement—that is, agreement up to a point which Pask called "agreement over an understanding"--may be reached. A residue of the interaction may be captured as an "entailment mesh", an organized and publicly available collection of resultant knowledge, itself a major product of the theory as devotees argue they afford many advantages over semantic networks and other, less formalized and non-experimentally based "representations of knowledge".

The Derivation of a concept from at least two concurrently existing topics or concepts
Alternative derivations may be shown with conjunctive (AND) and disjunctive pathways (OR). This is logically equivalent to T1 = (T2 AND T3) OR (T4 AND T5)
Any two concepts can produce the third, shown as the cyclic form of three concepts --- note that the arrows should show that BOTH T1 and T2 are required to produce T3; similarly for generating T1 or T2 from the others.
Lastly a formal analogy is shown where the derivations of the concept triples are indicated. The diamond shape denotes analogy and can exist between any three topics because of the shared meanings and differences.

The relation of one topic to another by an analogy can also be seen as a restriction on a mapping and a distinction to produce the second topic or concept.

Cognitive Reflector

From Conversation Theory Pask developed what he called a "Cognitive Reflector". This is a virtual machine for selecting and executing concepts or topics from an entailment mesh shared by at least a pair of participants. It features an external modelling facility on which agreement between, say, a teacher and pupil may be shown by reproducing public descriptions of behaviour.[5] We see this in essay and report writing or the "practicals" of science teaching.

Lp was Pask's protolanguage which produced operators like Ap which concurrently executes, Con, the concept of a Topic, T to produce a Description, D. Thus:

Ap(Con(T)) => D(T), where => stands for produces.

A succinct account of these operators is presented in Pask[6] Amongst many fascinating insights he points out three indexes are required for concurrent execution, two for parallel and one to designate a serial process. He subsumes this complexity by designating participants A, B etc.

In Commentary toward the end of Pask[6] he states:

The form not the content of the theories (conversation theory and interactions of actors theory) return to and is congruent with the forms of physical theories; such as wave particle duality (the set theoretic unfoldment part of conversation theory is a radiation and its reception is the interpretation by the recipient of the descriptions so exchanged, and vice versa). The particle aspect is the recompilation by the listener of what a speaker is saying. Theories of many universes, one at least for each participant A and one to participant B- are bridged by analogy. As before this is the truth value of any interaction; the metaphor for which is culture itself.

Learning strategies

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.[4]

Pask identified two different types of learning strategies:[4]

  • Serialists – Progress through a structure in a sequential fashion
  • Holists - Look for higher order relations

The ideal is the versatile learner who is neither vacuous holist "globe trotter" nor serialist who knows little of the context of his work.

See also

  • Integrated learning
  • Text and Conversation Theory


  1. ^ Pask, 1975.
  2. ^ (Pask 1975, 1976)
  3. ^ Conversation Theory developed by the cybernetician Gordon Pask in Realizing the heavenly Jerusalem, Yitzhak I. Hayut, March 1995.
  4. ^ a b c Conversation Theory - Gordon Pask overview from
  5. ^ See Pask 1975.
  6. ^ a b Gordon Pask, Heinz von Foerster's Self-Organisation, the Progenitor of Conversation and Interaction Theories, 1996.

Further reading

  • Ranulph Glanville and Karl H. Muller (eds.), Gordon Pask, Philosopher Mechanic- An Introduction to the Cybernetician's Cybernetician edition echoraum 2007 ISBN 9783901941153
  • Aleksej Heinze, Chris Procter, "Use of conversation theory to underpin blended learning", in: International Journal of Teaching and Case Studies (2007) - Vol. 1, No.1/2 pp. 108 – 120
  • W. R. Klemm, Software Issues for Applying Conversation Theory For Effective Collaboration Via the Internet, Manuscript 2002.
  • Gordon Pask, Conversation, cognition and learning. New York: Elsevier, 1975.
  • Gordon Pask, The Cybernetics of Human Learning and Performance, Hutchinson. 1975
  • Gordon Pask, Conversation Theory, Applications in Education and Epistemology, Elsevier, 1976.
  • Gordon Pask, Heinz von Foerster's Self-Organisation, the Progenitor of Conversation and Interaction Theories, 1996.

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Conversation — This article is about human communication. For other uses, see Conversation (disambiguation). Banter redirects here. For the BBC radio show, see Banter (radio show). Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation (circa 1935) …   Wikipedia

  • Conversation analysis — (commonly abbreviated as CA) is the study of talk in interaction (both verbal and non verbal in situations of everyday life). CA generally attempts to describe the orderliness, structure and sequential patterns of interaction, whether… …   Wikipedia

  • Theory of Colours — Infobox Book name = Theory of Colours title orig = Zur Farbenlehre translator = Charles Eastlake [ m0422/is 2 82/ai 64573524/pg 6] image caption = Light spectrum, from Theory of Colours – Goethe observed that… …   Wikipedia

  • conversation analysis — A research method that takes conversations in real life settings as the object of study, and as a window on to the roles, social relationships, and power relations of participants. Derived largely from ethnomethodology and sociolinguistics , it… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • Communication theory — is a field of information and mathematics that studies the technical process of information[1] and the human process of human communication.[2] Contents 1 History 1.1 Origins …   Wikipedia

  • Argumentation theory — Argumentation theory, or argumentation, embraces the arts and sciences of civil debate, dialogue, conversation, and persuasion; studying rules of inference, logic, and procedural rules in both artificial and real world settings. Argumentation is… …   Wikipedia

  • Communication accommodation theory — The Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) explores the various reasons why individuals use speech and paralinguistics in order to try to emphasize or minimize the social differences between themselves and their interlocutors. It evolved from… …   Wikipedia

  • Conversational constraints theory — Conversational Constraints Theory, developed in Min Sun Kim, attempts to explain how and why certain conversational strategies differ across various cultures and the effects of these differences. It is embedded in the Social Science communication …   Wikipedia

  • Perceptual control theory — (PCT) is a psychological theory of animal and Human behavior originated by maverick scientist William T. Powers. In contrast with other theories of psychology and behavior, which assume that behavior is a function of perception that perceptual… …   Wikipedia

  • Dynamic awareness theory — (DAT) offers an alternative to explaining the creation of awareness in distributed work groups. DAT highlights the important role of users and social practices in awareness creation. The theory further points to the dynamic nature of awareness… …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.