4. Learning

“Everything said is said by someone.”
– Umberto Maturana & Francisco Varela (1987), “The Tree of Knowledge”, p.27

“I have never faced a problem which was more than the eternal problem of finding order.”
– Frederick B. Skinner (1956), „A Case History in Scientific Method“, quoted in Edward G. Rozycki (1995), „A Critical Review of B.F. Skinner’s Philosophy with focus on Walden Two“

“I have never faced a problem which was more than the eternal problem that every order encountered is someone’s order.”
Combination of Skinner (Behaviorism), and Maturana & Varela (Radical Constructivism).

How do we learn? What do we learn, when we learn?

Theories on learning, teaching and knowledge represent contemporary cultural ideas and ideals; they represent also scientific and technological advances, and socio-economic needs of their eras. Learning theories are forms in the cultural medium, and they also establish a medium to form concrete educational practices within them. Like any medium, each has its shortcomings and strengths, and may be also seen as a reaction to its predecessors.
It is common to name three influential theories – or paradigms – of learning: Behaviorism (early 20th century, e.g. Frederic B. Skinner), cognitivism (mid 20th century, e.g. Jean Piaget), and constructivism in its moderate and radical form (late 20th century, e.g. Seymour Papert or Heinz von Foerster).


As an example: Behaviorism approaches teaching and learning as something which resembles a mechanic imprint, with one objectivly best way of delivering topics. This view may be frowned upon today; but in the time from 1900-1940, with an existing bias for genetically determined cognitive capabilities, behaviorists were quite revolutionary by promising that with the right method anyone could learn anything to fit any role of society. Of course the demand for an effective method to train a huge amount of laborers and soldiers for for factories and war efforts helped in the acceptance of behavioristic methods. New technologies and trends that supported Behaviorism were e.g. mechanic data processing (objectivity), the assembly line (linear and granulated presentation of content) and the efficency movement (there’s one best way to do something).
Watson stated:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”
John B. Watson (1930), “Behaviorism”

Another quote by Henry Ford expresses quite well the spirit of (behavioristic) learning designs:

„Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.“
– Henry Ford

Learning theories always carry ethical imperatives within their workings – e.g. “all men are equal”; “there is only one correct way to do things”; “be responsible for what you do” or “be aware that culture influences cognition, and cognition determines action”. If we create a learning environment (or teach within the assumptions of one), we also decide upon an ethical background for the decisions the learner can, may or should make.


Constructivism, as the youngest of the three theories, can be divided into 1.) a pragmatic, moderate constructivism that is related to cognitivism; and 2.) into a radical, self-referential constructivism which takes a critical view not only on learning, but on e.g. why each epoch or culture seem to establish their own learning paradigm.
Radical constructivist approaches – e.g. by Bateson, von Foerster, Watzlawick, Luhmann – are thus better suited to the needs of this course. Though Behaviorism, Cognitivism and moderate Constructivism deliver a view on how culture defines – or defined – “learning”, “learner”, “teaching” or  “knowledge”, the learning theory itself as specific cultural practice is seldom seen as contingent from the contemporary point of view: It just seems to be natural, resonating to its contemporary technology, trends, needs.

Texts to read:

Ertmer & Newby give an overview over the important learning theories from an instructional design perspective.
Bateson, as radical constructivist, tries to differentiate the very broad, everyday term “learning”. The english language makes no distinction between “learning that 1+1 equals 2” (Learning type 1), “learning how to pass exams” (Learning type 2) and “learning why you do not get a  job though you’ve done everything right” (Learning type 3).
Note that Bateson’s text on “The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication” was written in the same year as McLuhan’s “Understanding Media”, in 1964.
2009 I wrote a very short summary of Bateson’s categories in my M.A.Thesis, from a Game Based Learning POV. This text might be more accessible than Bateson’s original, but also more directed and – well, very, very shortened. If you have problems with the original text, you should take a look at the summary and try again.
For supplemental texts, Brown et al. coined the influential approach of “situated cognition”, a moderate constructivist concept that sees learning as the integration in a culture of knowledge and practice, and thus describes an ideal setting for Bateson’s learning type II. If you’re interested in the concept of the “technological singularity“, you should also take a look at Bateson’s learning type IV.

  • Peg A. Ertmer & T.J. Newby (1993): “Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective.” [XXX]
  • Gregory Bateson (1964): “The logical categories of learning and communication.” [XXX]; paragraphs “4.8.2 “The “Learning” of Computers, rats, and Men” to “4.8.5. Learning III”
  • Wey-han Tan (2009): “Playing (with) Educational Games: First and Second order Gaming”, paragraph “3.1.3 Bateson: Contexts and the choice between sets of choices”, pp. 29-31. [X] (focused summary of Bateson’s categories of learning)
    (the single chapter can be found in the Dropbox)

Supplemental texts:


Since the projects are getting more concrete, and also the different approaches and interest – edcuational, artistic, therapeutical – we’ll handle the tasks in a freeform, personalised mode.

Some quotes for/on learning

It looks like a classic multiple choice question, but Bateson seemed to choose this form to create awareness for a cognitive contradiction. Don’t always try to answer questions, sometimes question the answerability itself.

„A certain mother habitually rewards her small son with ice cream after he eats his spinach. What additional information would you need to be able to predict whether the child will:
Come to love or hate spinach, love or hate ice cream, or love or hate the mother?“
– Gregory Bateson (1972), „Steps to an Ecology of Mind“

The problem of a medium becoming culturally and technically transparent, invisible, may be seen in this statement by Siemens:

„Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism are the three broad learning theories most often utilized in the creation of instructional environments. These theories, however, were developed in a time when learning was not impacted through technology.“
– George Siemens (2005), „Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the digital Age“

Maturana and Varela, as some of the ‘founders’ of radical constructivism, sum up what may be seen as one starting point for the perceptive-reflective side of Pedagogical Media Theory.

“Reflection is a process of knowing how we know. It is an act of turning back upon ourselves. It is the only chance we have to discover our blindness and to recognize that the certainties and knowledge of others are, respectively, as overwhelming and tenuous as our own.”
– Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela (1987), “The Tree of Knowledge”, p.24

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