Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory

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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