In the early 1970s, as Robert Gagné was developing his theory of instructional design in the United States, the British cybernetician and psychologist Gordon Pask was working on new educational strategies that weren’t rooted in behaviourist psychology.

Pask was a prolific inventor and writer. His background in stage production and the arts lent itself to a theatrical communication style, and an intensity of presence that made his lectures compelling to watch — even if his audiences sometimes struggled to understand his more complex ideas.

The numerous machines that Pask designed and built for teaching played an important role in the development of his learning theories. His theories, in turn, inspired new iterations of machines in a mutually-supportive creative relationship.

We get a sense of Pask’s distinctive style in this recording of a lecture he delivered at Concordia University in 1979.


Distinguishing learning styles

One of Pask’s better-known inventions was the Course Assembley System and Tutorial Environment (CASTE), and a portable version of it called INTUITION. This was the first system of its kind to be designed around the realisation that “students fare very differently according to whether the teaching materials are or are not adapted to suit their idiosyncrasies” (Pask and Scott, 1972: 217).

This idea was based on the distinction Pask had made between two distinct learning styles among students. He referred to these as serial and holist styles. Learners with a serial learning style were those who preferred to process information in small sequential steps. Learners with a holist learning style tended to take a ‘big picture’ view of a concept, and could assimilate it as a whole. Learners who could do both equally well were described as versatile.

Learner choice

Through his experiments Pask demonstrated that learning was more successful when the teaching strategy was matched to the learner’s preferred learning style. For this reason, he argued, machine-based learning should be designed to offer students some control over the kind of teaching strategy they engaged with, so they could make a positive match between their own learning style and the type of instruction they received.

The idea that learners should be free to choose how they preferred to engage with the learning material was a sharp contrast to the tightly prescribed interactions inherent in the approaches of Skinner and Gagné.

It was through Pask’s insights that the concept of learning as conversation started to gain influence. He was one of the first learning designers to emphasise the importance of dialogue between teacher and learner. Within the context of his own systems, he considered this sort of interaction to be essential for recognising the individual learning style of the student and to negotiate an appropriate teaching strategy.

Conversation Theory

On a more general level, Pask believed that all teaching and learning interactions, whether conducted through technology or in traditional classroom settings, should be seen as a conversation. He formalised this idea in terms of what he called a Conversation Theory. It was based on the recognition that “the fundamental unit for investigating complex human learning is a conversation involving communication between two participants in the learning process, who commonly occupy the roles of learner and teacher” (Pask, 1976: 12).

But even Pask’s systems operated within fixed boundaries and structures that imposed some limitations on learner freedom. One example, which Andrew Ravenscroft later pointed out, was that the learner had to follow a specific rigidly-defined path through the learning materials. Also, the definition and scope of the subject matter was specified in advance, which “limited opportunities for more creative ideas and knowledge construction” (Ravenscroft 2003: 6).

Although his own instructional strategies may, in retrospect, appear to have had their limitations, Pask’s Conversation Theory has had a major influence on approaches to learning design. More recently, it provided the inspiration behind key aspects of Diana Laurillard’s Conversational Framework, which we will explore in a future article.

The film Paskian Artefacts: Machines and Models of Gordon Pask, presented by Dr. Paul Pangaro, offers some interesting insights into Pask’s major ideas and gives us a tantalising glimpse of the man himself.

If you’d like to delve more deeply into Pask’s work, you can download many of his publications — including his major 1976 book Conversation Theory — from the Pask Archive maintained by Paul Pangaro.


Pask, G. (1976) Conversational Techniques in the Study and Practice of Education. British Journal of Educational Psychology 46: 12-25.

Pask, G. and Scott, B. C. E. (1972) Learning Strategies and Individual Competence. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies 4 (3): 217-253.

Ravenscroft, A. (2003) From Conditioning to Learning Communities: Implications of fifty years of research in e-learning interaction design. ALT-J 11 (3): 4-18.