Gordon Pask

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Andrew Gordon Speedie Pask (June 28, 1928March 29, 1996) was an English cybernetician and psychologist who made significant contributions to cybernetics, instructional psychology, experimental epistemology and educational technology.


  • Cybernetics is the science or the art of manipulating defensible metaphors; showing how they may be constructed and what can be inferred as a result of their existence.
    • Pask (1966) The Cybernetics of Human Performance and Learning. Cited in: George J. Klír (2001) Facets of Systems Science. p.429
  • It seems to me that the notion of machine that was current in the course of the Industrial Revolution – and which we might have inherited – is a notion, essentially, of a machine without goal, it had no goal ‘of’, it had a goal ‘for’. And this gradually developed into the notion of machines with goals ‘of’, like thermostats, which I might begin to object to because they might compete with me. Now we’ve got the notion of a machine with an underspecified goal, the system that evolves. This is a new notion, nothing like the notion of machines that was current in the Industrial Revolution, absolutely nothing like it. It is, if you like, a much more biological notion, maybe I’m wrong to call such a thing a machine; I gave that label to it because I like to realise things as artifacts, but you might not call the system a machine, you might call it something else.
    • Pask (1972) in: Mary Catherine Bateson Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on the Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation. New York : Alfred A Knopf. Quotes in: Usman Haque (2007) "The Architectural Relevance of Gordon Pask" in: Architectural Design. Vol 77, Issue 4, p.54
  • To summarize the matter, teaching systems ought to be conversational in form and so devised that strategies are matched to individual competence.
    • Pask (1975) The cybernetics of Human Learning and Performance. p.222 as cited in: Andrew Ravenscroft (2003) "From conditioning to learning communities: implications of fifty years research in E-learning design"
  • Complex human learning is a concept involving communication between the participant in the learning process, who commonly occupy the roles of learner and teacher.
    • Pask (1976) "Conversational techniques in the study and practice of education", In: British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 46, p. 24

An Approach to Cybernetics (1961)[edit]

Source: Pask (1961) An approach to Cybernetics with preface by Warren S. McCulloch (4e ed. 1972)
  • Cybernetics is a young discipline which, like applied mathematics, cuts across the entrenched departments of natural science; the sky, the earth, the animals and the plants. Its interdisciplinary character emerges when it considers economy not as an economist, biology not as a biologist, engines not as an engineer. In each case its theme remains the same, namely, how systems regulate themselves, reproduce themselves, evolve and learn. Its high spot is the question of how they organize themselves.
    A cybernetic laboratory has a varied worksheet - concept formation in organized groups, teaching machines, brain models, and chemical computers for use in a cybernetic factory. As pure scientists we are concerned with brain-like artifacts, with evolution, growth and development; with the process of thinking and getting to know about the world. Wearing the hat of applied science, we aim to create what Boulanger,' in his presidential address to the International Association of Cybernetics, called the instruments of a new industrial revolution - control mechanisms that lay their own plans.
    • p.11. Partly cited in: A.M.E. Salazar, A. Espinosa, J. Walker (2011) A Complexity Approach to Sustainability: Theory and Application. p.11
  • Observers are men, animals, or machines able to learn about their environment and impelled to reduce their uncertainty about the events which occur in it, by dint of learning... [We] shall examine human observers who, because we have an inside understanding of their observational process, belong to a special category. For the moment, we shall not bother with HOW an observer learns, but will concentrate upon WHAT he learns about, i.e. what becomes more certain.
    • p.18
  • By definition, a pair of inherently unmeasurable, non-stationary systems, are coupled to produce an inherently measurable stationary system.
    • p.98
  • Development of an organism from a single germ cell into a multicellular entity is a self-organizing system from any point of view and I wish to contend that this self-organizing system is a subsystem of the self-organizing system called 'evolution'.
    • p.103-104, partly cited in: Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, Alessio Cavallaro (2004) Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History.
  • Cybernetics offers a scientific approach to the cussedness of organisms, suggests how their behaviours can be catalysed and the mystique and rule of thumb banished.
    • p.110

Learning Strategies and Individual Competence (1972)[edit]

Source: Pask, G. & Scott, B.C.E. (1972) "Learning strategies and individual competence" in: International Journal of Man-Machine studies vol.4 pp.217-253
  • Since human beings are highly adaptable it may be possible for an individual with any sort of competence to learn, in the end, according to any teaching strategy. But the experiments show, very clearly indeed, that the rate, quality and durability of learning is crucially dependent upon whether or not the teaching strategy is of a sort that suits the individual
  • There are two subcategories of holist called irredundant holists and redundant holists. Students of both types image an entire system of facts or principles. Though an irredundant holist’s image is rightly interconnected, it contains only relevant and essential constitents. In contrast, redundant holists entertain images that contain logically irrelevant or overspecific material, commonly derived from data used to "enrich" the curriculum, and these students embed the salient facts and principles in a network of redundant items. Though logically irrelevant, the items in question are of great psychological importance to a "redundant holist", since he uses them to access, retain and manipulate whatever he was originally required to learn.
    • p. 258
  • Holists, either irredundant or redundant commit mistakes due to simple over-generalization (for example, that (β) always implies "Bushy Tail" which is true for only some subspecies) or systemic over-generalization to render the classification scheme more rational or symmetrical than it actually is (for example, falsely naming a subspecies "Bit QL" on the evidence that Q stands for "4-legged" and L stands for "Linear" together with the valid inference that a 4-legged linear creature exists.
    A serialst is prone to list the subspecies by examining picture cards in Class A. If he is to be successful, he checks the relevance of the information entering his list by forming single predicate hypotheses.
    • p.275
  • [A serialist]... checks the relevance of the information entering his list by forming single predicate hypotheses .... A structure is built up in orderly stages.
    • p.273 as cited in: IEEE (1982) International Conference on Man/Machine Systems, 6-9 July 1982. p.85
  • Serialists fall into difficulties if they fail to distinguish the wood from the trees and consequently try to assimilate masses of sparsely related irrelevant information
    • p. 276
  • Holists are distinguished from serialists in terms of the number of inferential statements they produce... It is possible to distinguish the serialist from the holist by a tendency, on the part of a serialist, to preserve the order of the programme presentation format which is absent in the holist. Presented with a holist programme the serialist is unable to preserve the complete order but he does manage to preserve sequentially arranged fragments.
    • p. 284 as cited in: Nigel Ford (2000) "Cognitive Styles and Virtual Environments" in: Journal of the American Society for Information Science. Vol 51, Is. 6, p.547

Conversation, Cognition and Learning (1975)[edit]

Source: Pask (1975). Conversation, cognition and learning. Amsterdam: Elsevier
  • If cognitive processes can be realized in a general machine then it is possible to execute mental operations in artifacts that are not necessarily subject to the embarrassing spatio-temporal limitations and structural frailties of a biological processor.
    • p.2
  • There is a theory of learning and teaching together and that is all. Results from many studies support this point of view as, also, does the evidence of commonsense. So, to be dogmatic (but with confidence) learning implies teaching and teaching implies learning. Sometimes the teacher and learner responsible for th joint process are obvious (a student at a desk and another person wearing an academic cap and gown). Sometimes, the teacher and learner are not so obviously distinct and turn out to be unexpected but, once-indicated, intuitively plausible entities.
    • p 33 as cited in: D. Psillos (2003) Science Education Research in the Knowledge-Based Society. p.44
  • Given a realistically sized task (and assuming that he cannot already perform it), a student is unable to generate the required performance strategy all at once. Instead, he directs his attention to various facets or subtasks and musters subroutines that build up a performance strategy bit by bit. The process is carried out by a learning strategy which, in the free learning subject, may be innate or acquired and which, for the student, is imposed externally by a teacher or learning system.
    • p.261
  • A learning strategy is comparable in kind with a performance strategy. Each sort of strategy entails decomposing goals into subgoals and applying mental subroutines to achieve the subgoals concerned. The necessary difference between learning strategies and performance is in the domain upon which they operate. Whereas the performance strategy solves problems posed by states of the (usually symbolic) environment, the learning strategy solves the problems posed by deficiencies in the current repertoire of relevant performance strategies; the solutions produced by a learning strategy are performance strategies.
    • p.261 as cited in: K.V. Wilson (2011) From Associations to Structure. p. 200
  • It is worth stressing that once the entailment structure for a subject matter is available, together with its task structure, these can be used to design any kind of course or curriculum.
    • p. 395

Styles and Strategies of Learning (1976)[edit]

Source: Pask (1976) "Styles and Strategies of Learning", in: British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 46, II, 128-148, 1976.
  • An earlier paper (Pask, 1976) introduced conversational techniques, some involving a human participant in dialogue with a student, others involving a mechanically or computer implemented 'participant' through which the student 'talks to himself' under restrictions imposed by the device. In either case (human or mechanical monitoring) the subject matter of a conversation is represented in a liberally conceived, but standard, fashion, as a conversational domain consisting in an entailment structure (embodying one or more description schemes and indicating the many ways in which one topic may be known in terms of or derived from others) and behaviour graphs (one for each topic in the domain) that prescribe what may be done to model or explain the topic in question. Within this framework, the conversational techniques secure, or approximate, a standard condition for experiments on learning.
    • p.128: Pask is referring to the article: Pasc, G. (1976). "Conversational techniques in the study and practice of education". In: British Journal of educational Psycholy, Vol 46, p. 12-25.
  • The' holist/serialist' distinction (Daniel, 1975; Pask and Scott, 1971, 1972) is an example of different learning strategies, rather than the more generally exhibited learning style. The holist or serialist strategies are exhibited in a , strict conversation,' and are thus insufficiently refined to account for learning in general. Holism and serialism appear to be extreme manifestations of more fundamental processes, which are induced by systematic enforcement of the requirement for understanding which is as strong as, or stronger than, the requirement for' deep-level' processing.
    • p.133

Conversation Theory (1976)[edit]

Source: Pask (1976). Conversation Theory: Applications in Education and Epistemology '. Amsterdam: Elsevier
  • We now come to the underpinning contention of the previous monograph. Psychological phenomena, especially those involved in learning and education, stem from or are related to states of consciousness. Using the argument which relates the information available about conscious processes to the type of experimental situation, we maintain that the basic unit of psychological /educational observation is a conversation. In order to test hypotheses and explicate the conversational transactions, it is necessary to invoke various tools and explanatory constructs. These are coherent enough to count when interlocked as a theory, and this theory was dubbed conversation theory.
    • p.3

Microman: Computers and the Evolution of Consciousness (1982)[edit]

Source: Gordon Pask and S. Curran (1982) Microman: Computers and the Evolution of Consciousness. New York: Macmillan
  • A computer that issues a rate demand for nil dollars and nil cents (and a notice to appear in court if you do not pay immediately) is not a maverick machine. It is a respectable and badly programmed computer... Mavericks are machines that embody theoretical principles or technical inventions which deviate from the mainstream of computer development, but are nevertheless of value.

Learning Strategies, Teaching Strategies, and Conceptual or Learning Style (1988)[edit]

Source: Pask (1988) "Learning Strategies, Teaching Strategies, and Conceptual or Learning Style". In: R. Schmeck Ed. Learning Strategies and Learning Styles: Perspectives on Individual Differences. New York, NY: Plenum. p. 83-100
  • Conversation Theory is a summarization of our assumptions and rationale from this early period. Conversations are behaviors, but special kinds of behaviors with hard-valued observables in the form of concept sharings, detected as "understandings." Conversations are, we believe, the first basic data of psychological, social, or educational theory. We see later that people can even have conversations with themselves. Conversations which may lead to concept sharing need not be verbal. Often they are gestural, pictorial, or mediated through a computer interface.
  • A [learning] style is a disposition to adopt one class of learning strategy.
    • p.85
  • Consistency of the person's strategic preference across tests (and subject matters) is curiously high.
    • p.85. as cited in: Colin A. Hardy, Michael Mawer (1999) Learning and Teaching in Physical Education. p.62

About Gordon Pask[edit]

  • Gordon Pask... spent his life developing an elegant theory of learning that stands without peer. His achievement was to establish a unifying framework that subsumes the subjectivity of human experience and the objectivity of scientific tradition. Sponsored by governments and industries on both sides of the Atlantic, his life-long research spanned biological computing, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, logic, linguistics, psychology, and artificial life. His was an original approach to age-old questions of how the human organism learns from its environment and relates to others through language.

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