Gregory Bateson: learning, teaching, intervening

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind.
One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”
The other replied, “The wind is moving.”
Huineng overheard this. He said, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”
Zen Koan, 13th Century, from “The Gateless Gate”, applicable as analogy for Bateson’s Learning I, II and III

In “Logical Categories of Learning and Communication” Gregory Bateson introduces us to several concepts interesting to edcuators, artists and therapists:

  • error – You cannot learn without making errors. You cannot learn if you are not aware of making an error. You cannot be aware of having made an error if you do not have the means to develop a category for it (other than it being a quirk).
    Example from Watzlawick (in Brian van der Horst): French will attribute the ‘error’ to the ‘superficial’ US-Americans, while the US-Americans will attribute the ‘error’ to the ‘arrogant’ French. Experiences will reinforce cultural prejudices without being interpretable as errors in communication.
  • context – Context helps us to interpret (punctuate) our perceptions and let us decide on the actions appropriate for the stimulus.
    Example from general media usage: A murder encountered in a book or in a movie is handled different from a murder witnessed in the street. (p. 212)
  • context marker – To decide within a context, we need simplified means to recognize the current context. To do this, we need meta-signs that indicate what context we have to use.
    Example from “Improv Everywhere”: Encountering a black man in Aspen is different from encountering a black man in Aspen standing in a booth with a sign “Meet a black person”.
  • Learning I – ‘Classic’ school learning like vocabulary training, rote learning etc. There is one correct way to react to a stimulus.
    Example from Kaie: For something colorful I see in reality, I can identify the right corresponding artist’s color.
    Another example: Learning in a language to assign specific colors to items.
  • Learning II – “learning to learn”, getting into a culture of learning, building an identity on ones way to see and do things. “This is me”.
    Example from moderate constructivism: “Situated Cognition” (Brown, Duguid and Allen) states that knowledge is always embedded in a specific culture of application, that a mathmatician does not stop to look at the world like a mathematician just because there are – for other people – no obvious mathmatical problems around. (p.219)
    Example from Kaie: For anything colorful I see in reality, I must use the right corresponding color for drawing it.
    Another example: Learning (to expect) that any item can be assigned one specific color.
  • Learning III – therapeutic interventions, deep insights, deconstruction (and reconstruction) of personality traits. Quite a feat, seen from Bateson’s point of view. Broken down, this could be a longterm goal of “Bildung” or Pedagogical Media Theory: Getting aware that one’s culture and one’s self is shapable by and shaping reality. Bateson gives three practical hints how to possibly trigger this (I added a fourth):
    •    The creation of a paradox within a premise
    •    The creation of a contradiction between two premises, or between a premise
    and a concrete case of interpretation and action
    •    The creation of an exaggeration or a caricature of experiences based on
    •    Subverting the dominant point of view by showing that the own premises are just one set among many possible ones which are subjectively valid as well.

So our task as educators, artists or therapists will be somewhere around learning II and/or learning III: Stabilising culture, strenghtening selves; or irritate, confront, puzzle. Or maybe both. The sad thing is, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with learning II, no villain here:

“There are thousands of situations where living things must persist in certain sorts of behavior precisely because reinforcement is sporadic or improbable. Learning II will simplify the universe by handling these instances as a single category. But if Learning III be concerned with the contexts of these instances, then the categories of Learning II will be burst open.
Gregory Bateson, p. 222


Find examples for Bateson’s ideas in your own concepts, try to translate what you intend to do into the notion of errors, context, contextmarkers, learning types.

Avatar photo

About Wey

My name's Wey-Han Tan, I graduated 2007 as Diplompädagoge (educational scientist) in Hamburg, and 2009 as M.A. in ePedagogy Design. Currently I work at the project "Universitätskolleg" as scientific assistant at the Faculty for Educational Sciences, Psychology and Human Movement at the University of Hamburg. My research interests are game based learning, second order gaming, media theory and (radical) constructivist approaches. I like pen-and-paper-roleplaying, especially in contemporary horror settings like "KULT" or "Call of Cthulhu".
This entry was posted in artistic intervention, culture, education, schooling. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gregory Bateson: learning, teaching, intervening

  1. Pingback: Some notes on the chat session from Jun 11th 2012 | Shaping Media | Pedagogical Media Theory

Leave a Reply