Archive for February, 2011

I’m finding Gordon Pask’s conversation theory pretty thick.  Bernard Scott, the author of this article, worked extensively with Pask.  But he does not give the theory in much simpler terms.  I’ll try to put together some of the key concepts here; my understanding is a work in progress, however!

(I’ve spent 6 hours today reading Pask and Scott…but haven’t yet waded through my notes to try to sift out meaning!  I’ll keep working on it on Monday night.)


Scott, Bernard.  (2001). “Conversation Theory: A Constructivist, Dialogical Approach to Educational Technology.” Cybernetics & Human Knowing. 8/4. pp. 25-46

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This article includes Bernard Scott as a coauthor (though third).  Scott has cowritten many articles with Gordon Pask on Conversation Theory.  I was excited to see how it was applied to Blended Learning.

The article reviews the basics of Pask’s theory, and then comments briefly on additions made to the theory by Harri-Augstein and Thomas (who have applied Conversation Theory to self-organized learners).  They then address Laurillard’s expansion of Conversation Theory and provide a diagram of the four elements and twelve stages that Laurillard fits into her Conversation Framework.  However, the elements and stages are never fully explained, so one must look to Laurillard to truly understand them.

What is most disappointing about this article is that they describe what methods they used in their research, and their findings/ interpretations, but never explain what they were really asking participants in the interviews, or looking for in the document analysis.  They seem to come away with a sense of how the blended learning class was experienced by students and by lecturers.  But it’s unclear what they asked them, other than something vague along the lines of “How was the experience?  What did you like and what did you not like?”  They share in their data section “topics [that] emerged as trends from the staff and student interviews” (p. 115).  But what questions were being asked of the interviewees and of the documents they interpreted.

So I walked away from this article without a clear sense of how this research might be replicated.  I hope other articles that address Conversation Theory in Blended Learning settings are more specific.


Heinze, A., Procter, C. and Scott, B. (2007).  “Use of conversation theory to underpin blended learning.” International Journal Teaching and Case Studies. Vol. 1, Nos. 1/2. pp.108–120.

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I will admit that I’m confused by a lot of what is here.  Not a good thing if I’m trying to understand conversation theories; Pask is foundational.  I need to do additional reading, watch again that 40 minute Vimeo vid that Gibbons said helped him, but I would also love to talk to someone who “gets” Pask.  Pask has a lot of definitions, many of them for terms which are commonly used but which he defines in a very specific way. That actually makes the reading harder, for my preconceived notion of the term fights with the new definition I’m trying to recall. In any case, some of his concepts I am clear on.  I’ll write about those for now, and continue to do more reading on his work.

Firstly, he establishes the importance of conversations to learning in this statement: “the fundamental unit for investigating complex human learning is a conversation involving communication (see McCulloch. 1965) between two participants in the learning process, who commonly occupy the roles of learner and teacher” (p. 12).  Later Pask explains further how conversation leads to learning: “Within conversation theory learning develops through agreements between the participants which subsequently lead to understanding by the learner” (p. 14).

As the last sentence implies, Pask does not believe that learning occurs only in the learner as unilaterally fed information by the teacher.  In Pask’s system of learning, “subject matter is broken down into its basic elements and reconstructed into an arrangement of topics which provides a ‘map for the students.  Rules cover the transactions made within the system, but the student is able to follow different paths and…is also free to adopt his own learning strategy within defined limits” (p. 24).  Even more importantly, when both participants (teacher and learner) are provided “with an external representation of the subject matter through which topics can be identified and discussed…, explanation can be initiated by either participant” (p. 15). Pask therefore argues that “the distinction between teacher and student can no longer be maintained” (p. 23).  He also claims that conversation may be held by one person, between two differing thought processes or opinions that person may hold.  I need to decide whether I agree with this.  On the one hand, I have definitely learned through such “inner conversations” (though it would seem most often they are sparked by some earlier “outer conversation.” Yet I keep going back to Gibbons’ definition of conversation as intentional and purposeful communication between two agents.  This definition would preclude reflection or “inner conversation” in the definition.

Pask has referred to understanding, and so further explains that concept as well.  He says that understanding “depends on the ability to reconstruct the concept of T” (p. 15).  In another reading (B. Scott), this is called “teachback.”  “The crucial point is that an understanding in the present strong and special sense is determined by a two level agreement: A and B agree about a derivation and, in the context of this derivation they also agree about an explanation of each topic.” (22)


Pask, Gordon.  (1976). “Conversational Techniques in the Study and Practice of Education.” The British Journal of Educational Psychology. 46. pp. 12-25.

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I blogged earlier about using Twitter in my Intro to Middle Eastern Studies course.  I have to say it’s been really exciting to be using this as a teaching tool for a course focused on the Middle East at the same time that revolutions in the Middle East are being pushed forward using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Last night I was working on my computer and noticed a tweet with the hashtags #feb17 and #libya.  It wasn’t yet the 17th of February, but anti-Gaddafi protests were already breaking out in Libya, two days early.  It was exciting to see a revolution breaking out as I watched — kind of!  Now I can’t get work done if I leave my Twitter notifications open with a search for #Feb17 — there are notifications about every couple of seconds.

I told my MESA 201 students to record any first-hand accounts they are hearing about these revolutions.  Some of them have friends in Cairo who provided them with first-hand information during the Tahrir Square uprisings.  In 1993 I taught English in Prague, Czech Republic.  One of my students took me on a walking tour of the areas where the Velvet Revolution protests occurred only two years earlier.  He had been one of the thousands of students who marched and brought about this peaceful revolution.  I now really wish I’d recorded his words — so neat to have had that inside perspective, but by not recording it, I’ve lost most of the details.

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Scardamalia & Bereiter argue that we now live in knowledge societies.  Therefore, it is critical that education “enculturate students into the knowledge-creating civilization” (p. 97).  This requires “a shift from treating students as learners and inquirers to treating them as members of a knowledge building community” (p. 98).  The authors feel that not only the older “knowledge transmission” view of education misses the point, but so do newer constructivist views.  Instead, they argue for a “developmentalist” view.  They list six themes that underlie a shift from treating students as learners and inquirers to treating them as members of a knowledge building community:

  1. Knowledge advancement as a community rather than individual achievement
  2. Knowledge advancement as idea improvement rather than as
  3. Knowledge of in contrast to knowledge about
  4. Discourse as collaborative problem solving rather than as argumentation
  5. Constructive use of authoritative information
  6. Understanding as an emergent

In regards to conversation: “Conversation” isn’t itself defined, but “discourse” is discussed as one of the six themes that underlie a shift to treating students as members of a knowledge building community: “Discourse as collaborative problem solving rather than as argumentation” (p. 98).  “Knowledge-building discourse, as we conceive of it, is discourse whose aim is progress in the state of knowledge: idea improvement” (p. 102).  It entails: a commitment to progress; a commitment to seek common understanding; and a commitment to expand the base of accepted facts. Knowledge-building discourse is not about argumentation and debate, which the authors think are over-emphasized in our schools today.

There is overlap between some of these ideas and those of “Accountable Talk,” it seems to me, though Accountable Talk might argue that accountability to knowledge is progress towards true or warranted belief, something that Scardamalia & Bereiter eschew.


Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C.  (2006). Knowledge Building: Theory, Pedagogy, & Technology.” The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.  ed.*** (pp. 97-115).

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Pangaro on Pask

Gordon Pask has an intimidating reputation as being incredibly difficult to understand.  He also has a theory of conversation which I want to understand well (and which I’ll write more about soon).  Dr. Andy Gibbons suggested this video as really helpful in understanding Pask’s basic concepts.

Paskian Artifacts—Machines and Models of Gordon Pask from paul pangaro on Vimeo.

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I first read this article last summer, and have returned to reread it as part of my work for Dr. Graham’s course.  Though it doesn’t focus on “conversations” specifically, the related terms of “discourse” and “talk” make it important to my project. I really like the concepts that the authors have featured in their model of “Accountable Talk.”  The stated goal of this article is to present classroom discussion practices (termed “Accountable Talk”) which their 15 years of prior research show leads to reasoned participation by all students and which support equity and access to rigorous academic learning. According to the authors, the practices of “Accountable Talk” have been shown to result in academic achievement for diverse populations of students. They tie this to Habermas’ (1990) concept of “deliberate democracy”; another reading I should look into!  They also base their theory in Vygotsky’s ideas of the “social formation of the mind,” constructivist principles, and sociocultural ideals.

These practices require that discourse is accountable to the learning community, to the accepted standards of reasoning, and to knowledge;  then, the authors argue, deeper levels of understanding can be reached and knowledge constructed by the learning community.

  • Accountability to the Learning Community is “talk that attends seriously to and builds on the ideas of others; participants listen carefully to one another, build on each other’s ideas, and ask each other questions aimed at clarifying or expanding a proposition” (Michaels et al., 2007).  In this manner, participants become part of a community of participation and are accountable to the ideas of one another, using others’ ideas to build their own contributions and to construct and reconstruct their knowledge.  Participants should ground their contributions in the ideas of others.  Such grounding can be explained in a rubric, and should also be modeled by the instructor.  Moreover, Michaels et al. give this advice for the instructor hoping to engage learners in Accountable Talk: “it is very important to note that in order for the students to begin using these forms of talk, there have to be interesting and complex ideas to talk and argue about. Implicitly or explicitly, teachers who have implemented these discourse strategies have shifted away from simple questions and one-word answers and opened up the conversation to problems that support multiple positions or solution paths” (Michaels et al., 2007).  In rubrics I have used in the past for discussion boards, this principle is reflected when students practice Etiquette in discussions and strive for Substance in their discussion posts.
  • Accountability to Standards of Reasoning “is talk that emphasizes logical connections and the drawing of reasonable conclusions. It is talk that involves explanation and self-correction. It often involves searching for premises, rather than simply supporting or attacking conclusions” (Michaels et al., 2007).  When students are encouraged to be accountable to logic, they further develop the skills requisite in the knowledge economy they will operate in.  In rubrics I have used in the past for discussion boards, this principle is reflected when students use Insight to make connections between themselves and the materials, or to draw conclusions from the material itself.
  • Accountability to Knowledge is talk that “is based explicitly on facts, written texts or other publicly accessible information that all individuals can access.”  Discourse is viable when “[s]peakers make an effort to get their facts right and make explicit the evidence behind their claims or explanations. They challenge each other when evidence is lacking or unavailable. When the content under discussion involves new or incompletely mastered knowledge, accountable discussion can uncover misunderstandings and misconceptions. A knowledgeable and skilled teacher is required to provide authoritative knowledge when necessary and to guide conversation toward academically correct concepts” (Michaels et al., 2007).  In rubrics I have used in the past for discussion boards, this principle is reflected when Specificity is achieved in student discussions.

Since I’m interested in conversation, I looked to see if they defined that term or a related one. Conversation is not defined, although they seem to imply that “conversations” are the informal “stuff” from which discourse is born.  Discourse it more trained or “deliberate,” following the practices of Accountable Talk; conversation can be analyzed to find the threads that make up formal discourse.

In what ways does “Accountable Talk” speak to Gibbons’ definition of instruction as conversation?  “Accountable Talk” are practices expected of students (and the teacher as model); Gibbons is proposing a metaphor for instructional designers. For Gibbons, the key defining characteristics of conversation are information exchange, mutual intention, listening & thinking before responding, and shared purpose.  Each of these concepts contributes to accountability to community.  “Listening & thinking before responding” leads to accountability to reasoning and to knowledge, as well.  “Information exchange” is only useful instructionally if that information is accountable to reasoning and to knowledge, too.


Michaels, S., O’Connor, C., & Resnik, L.  (2007).Deliberative Discourse Idealized and Realized: Accountable Talk in the Classroom and in Civic Life.” Studies in Philosophy and Education. 27:4. (pp. 283-297).

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