Innovative Learning

Conversation Theory (Gordon Pask)

The Conversation Theory developed by G. Pask originated from a cybernetics framework and attempts to explain learning in both living organisms and machines. The fundamental idea of the theory was that learning occurs through conversations about a subject matter which serve to make knowledge explicit. Conversations can be conducted at a number of different levels: natural language (general discussion), object languages (for discussing the subject matter), and metalanguages (for talking about learning/language).

In order to facilitate learning, Pask argued that subject matter should be represented in the form of entailment structures which show what is to be learned. Entailment structures exist in a variety of different levels depending upon the extent of relationships displayed (e.g., super/subordinate concepts, analogies).

The critical method of learning according to conversation theory is "teachback" in which one person teaches another what they have learned. Pask identified two different types of learning strategies: serialists who progress through an entailment structure in a sequential fashion and holists who look for higher order relations.


Conversation theory applies to the learning of any subject matter. Pask (1975) provides an extensive discussion of the theory applied to the learning of statistics (probability).


Pask (1975, Chapter 9) discusses the application of conversation theory to a medical diagnosis task (diseases of the thyroid). In this case, the entailment structure represents relationships between pathological conditions of the thyroid and treatment/tests. The student is encouraged to learn these relationships by changing the parameter values of a variable (e.g., iodine intake level) and investigating the effects.


  1. To learn a subject matter, students must learn the relationships among the concepts.
  2. Explicit explanation or manipulation of the subject matter facilitates understanding (e.g., use of teachback technique).
  3. Individual's differ in their preferred manner of learning relationships (serialists versus holists).


Pask, G. (1i975). Conversation, Cognition, and Learning. New York: Elsevier.

Related Websites

Background information about Pask can be found at