Systems and Conversations:
Pask and Laurillard

The Process of the Learning Conversation

Two levels of the conversation

Gordon Pask's work stands rather outside the mainstream of the psychology of education, but is immediately recognised by many learners and teachers in adult education as being very significant. He was a cyberneticist rather than an educationalist, and developed a systems approach to learning which is highly abstract and difficult, although rewarding: it is reflected in the �conversational� models of learning of Laurillard and Thomas and Harri-Augstein.

More (Pask�s obituary) And the TIP account And the technical angle in Wikipedia

His most accessible work, however, is based on the recognition of two different kinds of learning strategy: "serialist" and "holist". Note "strategy" rather than "style".

  • When confronted with an unfamiliar area, serialists tackle the subject step by step, building from the known to the unknown with the simplest possible connections between the items of knowledge.
  • Holists, on the other hand, seek an overall framework and then explore areas within it in a more less haphazard way, until they have filled in the whole.


  • Build up their knowledge sequentially 
  • May lose sight of the broader picture 
  • Are impatient with "jumping around" 
  • May be more comfortable with inherently "linear" subjects




  • Pick up bits and pieces within a broad framework 
  • May leave gaps, or repeat themselves 
  • May make mistakes about the connections between things 
  • May over-generalise 
  • May be more comfortable with "topic" based learning

As with most models of learning style, most people are more or less "versatile", but the implications of the Pask model do not stop with labels for learners. As a systems thinker, he was interested in matches and mismatches within the whole. Thus he found that matched style on the part of both learners and teacher promoted learning, while mismatches inhibited it. Moreover, there are some subjects which lend themselves readily to serial learning on the one hand, or holistic on the other. Thus the initial stages of learning arithmetic must follow a serial sequence�they do not make sense any other way�whereas history or literature need a more holist approach. These different assumptions have led, for example, to quite different ways of learning foreign languages: structural (serialist) and communicative (holist). You can see some parallels with convergence and divergence, but don't push them too far.

Note that while this whole site is occasionally (!) guilty of over-simplification, this is nowhere as true as here: Pask�s work is both complex and ingenious, as well as being firmly empirically based � to see it in terms of  �just another pair of learning styles� is extremely unfair.

Or of course it may just be a case of imperial tailoring! I do tend to get suspicious of what appears to be any wilfully obscurantist style.

Nevertheless, this work does present an interesting angle on current approaches to teaching, which, in their attempt to "ensure quality" and standardise the "delivery" of learning, force practically everything into a Procrustean serialist mode. You can find some associated issues discussed in a downloadable conference paper here

Conversational Approach

The conversational approach to learning and teaching is slightly different from others we have considered, because like Pask, it is based on discussion of the teaching/learning system. While this is a feature of some of the humanistic approaches, they are largely interested in the values underpinning teacher/learner interaction. Other approaches focus on learning as an attribute of the learner (as the person who is changed by the experience), and separate out the teaching as simply a process of facilitation, a means to an end.

The conversational approach looks at the on-going learner-teacher interaction, and particularly in Laurillard's model, at the process of negotiation of views of the subject-matter which takes place between them in such a way as to modify the learner's perceptions. From this she develops a set of criteria for the judgement of teaching/learning systems, particularly those based on educational technology. Thomas and Harri-Augstein derive the basis for the learning conversation from an analysis of the personal construct system of the learner.

The Process of the Learning Conversation

In Laurillard's view, the pattern of the conversation needs to be: 

  1. The Teacher can set the task goal
  2. The Teacher can describe her conception of the subject (or that aspect of it being taught)
  3. The Learner can describe his conception of it
  4. The Teacher can re-describe in the light of the Learner's conception or action
  5. The Learner can re-describe in the light of the Teacher's re-description or Learner's action
  6. The Teacher can adapt the task goal in the light of the Learner's description or action.

    And so on.... 

    based on Laurillard 1993

This requires the following features of the teaching-learning system

  1. The Teacher can set the task goal
  2. The Learner can act to achieve the task goal
  3. The Teacher can "set up the world" (i.e. control the learning environment) to give intrinsic feedback on actions
  4. The Learner can modify his action in the light of feedback
  5. The Learner can modify his action in the light of the Teacher's description or his (the Learner's) re-description
  6. The Learner can reflect on interaction to modify re-description
  7. The Teacher can reflect on the Learner's action to modify re-description

(based on Laurillard, 1993: 119
note that this has been slightly modified in the 2nd [2002] edition)

Two levels of the conversation

So the learning conversation operates on two levels:


cf. Laurillard 2002: 87

At the "lower" level (on the diagram) the student is engaged in the goal-oriented behaviour of trying to master the topic of learning, while the teacher is providing the experiential environment within which this can happen, including managing the class or tutorial, setting tests, delivering resources, etc. As this is going on, the teacher and learner are engaged in a conversation about it, exchanging their representations of the subject matter, and their experience of the lower level, and adapting each to the other. This process of talking about what you are doing is one of reflection, and modification of what you are doing in the light of the talk is adaptation.

The critical feature of Laurillard's model is the way she uses it as a means of evaluating technologically-supported teaching, asking of ever-more sophisticated technology just how much it can rise up to the challenge of doing what comes naturally to involved teachers and students. It may not be a simple or intuitive model like, for example, Kolb's experiential learning cycle, but it is powerful and does repay study.

I have made some use of this in a discussion of the process of tutoring, on my other site.


To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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