3 Revisiting Learning Theories from a New Learning Culture’s Perspective
“Each kind of human behavior in relationships results from learning-processes; which means that each change in behavior (aside from solely genetically determined mechanisms) can be traced back to learning-processes. Therefore in a methodology of change, learning-processes are crucial for thinking as well as for acting.” (Translated from Marc/Picard, p. 103)
It was already argued above that a new learning culture constitutes a claim for re-thinking learning-processes and understandings of knowledge and competence. This may lead to also claiming for a new learning theory, for a change of paradigm. Which in turn could result in regarding theories that have been developed before the increasingly raising impact of technology and digitalization as per se not being adequate and therefore not of relevance.
When George Siemens introduces Connectivism as a “learning theory for the digital age” (Siemens, 2005) this rapidly ran into opposition in scientific discourses. Most of them were – like the discourses regarding terminology – more about the claim to be a new theory or even more, a new paradigm than about the ideas and thoughts behind the name, which linked in most aspects Gregory Bateson’s ideas with the context and potential of digitalization and networks. Therefore a fusion of these theories can dispel both, the argument that Connectivism would not reach the level of being a learning theory, but just a pedagogical view on education (Verhagen, 2006), as well as possible objections on Batson’s theories not originary being educational theories, or not fitting because of their arousal in a time that did now allow to reflect on the impact and influence of today’s state of digitalization.
Therefore the following sections will not develop or claim a new theory, but emphasize that an embedding and fusion of already existing theories can help to compensate weaknesses, and to counteract criticisms to individual theories, by incorporating arguments and other aspects of balance, and thus to arrive at an emergence. Gregory Bateson’s theories and his levels of learning (3.1) constitute the theoretical frame upon which the ideas of Connectivism (3.2) and communication (3.3) are build and linked to.
It will be shown that the ability to learn to learn (Bateson’s Bateson, 1972 Learning II or Deutero Learning) that was described in section 2.1 as being characteristic for recent definitions of a new learning culture, is not sufficient to cope with a heterogeneity not only relating to different generations and new definitions of roles, but to formations of learning communities bringing together learners and teachers speaking different languages, and having different cultural and social backgrounds. Learning II implies a common appreciation of what learning is – which can no longer be postulated.
Taking these aspects in account, implies to make them conscious through communication, respectively meta-communication (section 3.3). And as the interrelationship between learning, knowledge and competence has been shown to be a spiral process, it is necessary to question the adequacy of the above described definitions and models of competence; what will be done in section 3.4. – but to start with, the following sections will go deeper into Gregory Bateson’s Theory on the logical categories of learning (section 3.1) and George Siemens’ idea on a new learning theory for the digital age (section 3.2).
3.1 Gregory Bateson’s Levels of Learning
“All species of behavioral scientists are concerned with ‘learning’ in one sense or another of that word. Moreover, […] ‘learning’ is a communicational phenomenon” (Bateson, 1972, p. 279)
Gregory Bateson published his theory of learning as an essay in 1968, while working at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, under a Career Development Award. The first paper dealt with the learning levels zero to II, the section on Learning III was added in 1971 (Bateson, 1972, p. 279).
Bateson’s theory of learning implies that experience, acting and communication – all of those crucial elements of learning-processes – can be punctuated; subdivided in sequences or contexts. He “emphasizes two aspects: Context is important; and learning-processes never proceed linear, but hierarchic, including breaks and discontinuity.” (Translated from Marc/Picard Reinmann & Sesink, 2011, p. 04) Another crucial aspect of learning is to be able to distinguish these contexts (ibid, p. 105). Which means to understand that a specific kind of behavior (for instance the learning of a given content by heart [rote learning], with the goal to be able to recite without mistakes) may be adequate within one context (for instance elementary school on the individual level, or some religious institutions on a social-cultural level) but not within another context (for instance academic learning on the individual level or developing social and intercultural competences on a social-cultural level). “The word ‘learning’ undoubtedly denotes change of some kind. To say what kind of change is a delicate matter” (Bateson, 1972, p. 283); but this is what Bateson tried, developing his Theory of Learning: The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication.
Bateson differentiates between different levels of learning, from which he described four levels in detail. Bateson choose to start its classifications with Learning Zero instead of Learning one, as he wanted to emphasize on the difference between Learning Zero and his definition of all other levels of learning which he will explain as kind of stochastic processes that “built upon a hierarchic classification of the types of error” (Bateson, 1972, p. 284) respectively on a conscious choose of possible alternatives to react (which could be alternatives within a set, or through other sets of alternatives, and so on – later described through the term »context«). Learning Zero in contrast to these takes place “in cases where the pattern of the response is minimally determined by experience and maximally determined by genetic factors.” (ibid, p. 284) Learning Zero leads to a changed response to a specific stimulus. The learned response will be an automatism, stereotyped and “incapable of learning by trial and error” (ibid, p. 284) which means, no corrections are possible, errors will not lead to a change in future responses on the same stimulus, or to considering contexts before reacting on information.
Learning I is a change in Learning Zero. The same stimulus does no longer per se lead to the same reaction. Habituation or dishabituation does no longer lead to giving the same response to the same stimulus, but will lead to different responses dependent on time (habituation, acting as matter of routine – the context does not change, change occurs solely through time). Rote Learning and all kinds of learning content (memorizing) can categorized in level I of learning processes. Learning that results from reward, reinforcement, punishment and avoidance also falls into this category.
Marc and Picard (1991) emphasize that human communication is more complex than this, as – depending on the punctuation (setting of context markers) of the interaction – stimulus and response or strengthening are interpreted respectively set in different ways. If “an organism responds to the ‘same’ stimulus differently in differing contexts, […] we must therefore ask about the source of the organism’s information.” (Bateson, 1972, pp. 291f). The percept or signal or symbol that helps to differentiate and classify contexts as being different is what Bateson called context marker. For the further development of this thesis’ ideas it is crucial that those percepts, symbols and signals do not have identical meanings to anyone, but differ in dependence on individual and social-cultural experiences, rules, and patterns. Therefore context-markers must always be seen as possible reasons for misunderstandings in communication-processes, in interactions, as long as they are not brought into consciousness. A tool to enable this is meta-communication – an aspect that is discussed in section 3.3.
Learning II (also named Deutero Learning or set learning or learn to learn or transfer of learning) (Bateson, 1972, p. ccxcii) describes “changes in the manner in which the stream of action and experience is segmented or punctuated into contexts together with changes in the use of context markers” (Bateson, 1972, p. 293) and enlarges the possible sets of alternatives, or modifies punctuation of reactions, in consequence of recognizing more/new/other sets of contexts, as sets within to choose alternatives. Learning on this level does not only mean to react within a specific context, but to recognize other contexts and to transfer learning to those: “LII is essentially about learning the pattern of the context in which activity takes place.” (Tosey, 2006, p. 7)). If the expectation, connected with this transfer, leads to success, the next similar problem would need fewer trials to come to a solution that works (improvement in Learning I = learned to learn). If not, processes of Learning I will be more difficult, take more time, in the next context transferred to (Bateson, 1972, p. 294). Bateson calls it a change of the familiar way to act and to experience by punctuating contexts, or by separating them into interactions.
From a psychological point of view traits of character are consequences of Learning II. They result from adaptions to contexts, they are a product of a specific context of relations of learning, as usually adjectives, used to describe character traits (as passive, competitive, anxious, curious and so on), are less a description of an individual, than a description of his behavior in relation to transaction between him and a specific situation (context).
“We suggest that what is learned in Learning II is a way of punctuating events. […]In fact, the propositions which govern punctuation have the general characteristic of being self-validating. […] It follows that Learning II acquired in infancy is likely to persist through life” (Bateson, 1972, pp. 300f). Learning II means remaining in an “economy of thought processes” (ibid p. 303); but only if, or as long as, learning on the level III is not reached. According to Marc/Picard (1991) Bateson says that most of these learning-processes were unconscious, as one seldom can explain how they came into being. A human being on the level of Learning II, as a part of a »system«, has no direct access to contexts of fundamental processes of learning.
This is what learning-processes of the level of Learning III change, they “throw these unexamined premises open to question and change.” (Bateson, 1972, p. 303) and are likely “to be difficult and rare even in human beings. Expectably, it will also be difficult for scientists, who are only human, to imagine or describe this process” (Bateson, 1972, p. 301).
On this level assumptions and patterns that rule and control Learning II become conscious and this way can be modified. One learns how one had learned to learn, gets confronted with one’s own premises, and learns to find reasons for one’s own premises, patterns, and resentments. Learning on Level III can modify, or fasten, or alter processes of Learning II. In order to act basing on reflection, a learner has to be able, to realize that and in which ways contexts (alternatives) differ; then his responses, respectively reaction on the same stimulus, will be different in reliance to the respective context. Reaching this level of learning, he will be free from automatism and able to change routines and – if necessary – to develop new automatisms adequate to the new context.
Learning processes of the level III are a kind of synthesis, or fusion, of roles and patterns one has learned to »play« in communication processes and sequences of interaction (ibid, p. 117). “But if Learning III be [sic!] concerned with the contexts of these instances, then the categories of Learning II will be burst open” (Bateson, 1972, p. 305).
Figure 2 resumes the above explanations on Bateson’s levels of learning and depicts their interrelationship with context, sets of context and context markers that are always interconnected with learning-processes. Bateson points out that “the hierarchy of orders of learning is presented to the reader from bottom upward, from level zero to level III […] but within the model it is assumed that higher levels are explanatory of lower levels and vice versa. It is also assumed that a similar reflexive relation – both inductive and deductive – obtains among ideas and items of learning” (Bateson, 1972, p. 308) – this amendment was included and tried to be visualized in figure 2 through the dotted lines, both between the levels of learning and between the inside and outside of the triangle (learning levels/contexts).
Figure 2: Learning Levels and Contexts (Source: Authors’ own compilation) basing on Bateson’s logical catego-ries of learning
3.2 Connectivism: Generating Knowledge in and Through Learning Networks
Learning in connectivism terms is a network phenomenon, influenced, aided, and enhanced by socialisation, technology, diversity, strength of ties, and context of occurrence. (Tschofen & Mackness, 2013)
George Siemens (Siemens, 2007) answers to the question what Connectivism is that it is “the network itself” which, “in the form of technology and people, holds and filters knowledge and information.” That fits Gregory Bateson’s statement “you cannot study one end of a relationship and make any sense. What you will make is disaster” (Bateson, 2010/2010).
George Siemens’ (2007) idea of “Rethinking Learning” expresses exactly what was explained above about the shift from Learning II to Learning III, and why the first does no longer fulfill today’s requirements to learning in complex and heterogeneous communities, and what the latter is about:
“Exponentially developing knowledge and complexification of society requires nonlinear models of learning (process) and knowing (state). We cannot sustain ourselves as learning/knowing beings in the current climate with our current approaches. Networked (social, technological) approaches scale in line with changes, but require a redesign of how we teach, learn (and see learning), and come to know.” (Siemens, 2007)
Downes (Downes, 2012) wrote, according to the paradigm of connectivism, knowledge can neither be transferred, nor produced or constructed. Knowledge is, what grows and enhances while individuals and societies enhance through and in networks. Eventually, this means nothing else than recognizing heterogeneity as a resource for enhancement. It means being enabled to include different contexts in innate experiences and therefore to become aware of premises underlying own and other’s actions, communication and expectations. This enables thinking on the level of Learning III.
Defining Learning III, and defining what kind of knowledge resultantly emerges, leads consequently to the question: What skills do learners need today? Connectivism’s answer to this question is: “Pattern recognition, Network formation and evaluation, Critical/creative thinking, Acceptance of uncertainty/ambiguity, Contextualizing” (Siemens, 2007).
Peschl (2010) gets down to a similar compilation of capacities. Necessary skills to generate knowledge are: Observing, making abstractions and inductions/classifications, profound understanding, developing and creating new knowledge and reflecting to find solutions; dimensions which „cannot be seen as separated from each other, as they are mutually dependent on each other.“ (ibid)
The proclamation of rethinking not only what learning is, but consequently also what the need of new “knowledge skills” (Siemens, 2007) means, is the next step before thinking about design, technology, didactics, or new learning settings. Fitting to Bateson’s ideas, and taking into account today’s level of technology, George Siemens assumes that “from an epistemological and cognitive science perspective one has to shift the focus of attention from particular skills or competencies to the underlying cognitive operations” (Siemens, 2007). Consequently following this thesis’ argumentation requires to go one step further and to say, the shift of focus has to go to the underlying patterns and premises which are responsible as well for the emergence of new (definitions of) competencies as for the ability to see a need for them.
Once these steps (rethinking learning, rethinking knowledge and rethinking competencies) have consciously been considered, one can start to think about learning settings, which – consequently – have to be “performed in a collective setting” (Peschl, 2010). Siemens and Downs consequently developed a theory of learning (and had to defend their claim to have done so), and as “we were both tired of arguing about connectivism (“is it a theory”). We decided that experiencing networked learning was important to understanding networked learning. Instead of talking connectivism, we wanted to create an experience that was essentially connectivist: open, distributed, learner-defined, social, and complex” (Siemens, 2012). 
Connectivism focuses the idea of network which enables learning and generating knowledge. Crucial for these processes is an active participation in and contribution to these networks. The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education) lists “Participation and contributing” as a key competence, and defines it as being able to be “actively involved in communities [… that] may be local, national, or global […] to contribute appropriately as a group member, to make connections with others, and to create opportunities for others in the group.” (Ministry of Education) The most important and at the same time most challenging and critical part of this definition is “may be local, national, or global” as this can easily be suggestive of these three scenario being the same with regard to preconditions and context – but they aren’t. The following section points out communication, respectively meta-communication, to be crucial part of each learning-process to meet this challenge.
3.3 Communication as »Social Matrix« of Learning-Processes
“It can be argued that all perception and all response, all behavior and all classes of behavior, all learning and all genetics, all neurophysiology and endocrinology, all organization and all evolution […] must be regarded as communicational in nature”. (Bateson, 1972, pp. 282f)
This section’s title was chosen with reference to Ruesch and Bateson’s (Ruesch & Bateson, 1951 (1st. ed.)) work on communication as social matrix of psychiatry. They used the term social matrix to strengthen out that participants in processes of interaction (communication) are integral parts of a larger scientific system (context, sets of context) and that communication takes place on different levels of complexity. The oxford dictionary defines matrix as “formal social, political, etc. situation from which a society or person grows and develops”, and so it seems adequate to use this term to describe communication, respectively processes of communications (interaction), as systems from which a person (individual learner), as well as societies (learning communities from groups up to learning societies), grow and develop (enhance).
Knowledge-based learning does not aim to recite given content but to generate knowledge. And knowledge-based learning in heterogeneous learning groups, constituting a new learning culture«, needs to make sure to start learning in a learning group or learning community, without risking to affect one another in an unintended and hindering way. But this is what is likely to happen as long as different understandings and definitions of what learning and knowledge is, remain unconscious. To bring these into consciousness needs meta-communication.
Wagner (2015), who did her PhD on »leeway to design global knowledge« (translated from German: Gestaltungsspielräume globaler Bildung), asked in a weblog post (ibid) if and how »Collaboration« can be described or defined as competence. The answer she finally preferred came from another weblog, »Cisco«, which posed a similar question (“Collaboration: What does it really mean?”) and came up with a definition of its own: “Collaboration is highly diversified teams working together inside and outside a company with the purpose to create value by improving innovation, customer relationships and efficiency while leveraging technology for effective interactions in the virtual and physical space.”
Transferred from the context of vocational workplace-learning to academic learning in online courses this lead to the following adoption, operationalizing Meta Communication and leading over to defining a holistic core competence for learning-processes on the level of Learning III in section 3.4: Enhancement-Competence.
Meta-Communication in Online-Courses is highly heterogeneous learner-communities cooperatively re-defining and putting in question definitions of »Learning« and »Knowledge«, in front of and while participating online-courses; with the purpose to set new commonly found context-markers to create value by generating knowledge while efficiently and consciously developing Enhancement-Competence in and for learning networks including individual, social-cultural and digital-technological network.
3.4 From Competence Development to Enhancement-Competence
“Relating to others is about interacting effectively with a diverse range of people in a variety of contexts. This competency includes the ability to listen actively, recognize different points of view, negotiate, and share ideas” (Ministry of Education)
The quotation from the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education) shows that countries and school curricula can get reach a point where heterogeneity is not regarded as something to be overcome and where the own symbol-system (see chapter two) is not premise and condition but has to be negotiated and (at least) to take different points of view into account. “Relating to others” is listed as key competence and defined as a competence that enables students to be “open to new learning and able to take different roles in different situations” (Ministry of Education) – that’s exactly what was described as new learning culture (see section 2.1).
As described in chapter two, the terminology of Learning, Knowledge and Competence is multifaceted, but nevertheless general connections, influences and relationships can be shown by stepping back from a point of view restricted by specific scientific disciplines and methods, and being conscious of the aspect that terminology is both, shaped by contexts (as goals, culture, language), and shaping contexts itself. Section 2.4 reasoned that recent models and definitions of competences or key-competences differ in many aspects, and are related to (and reduced on) specific contexts. They therefore do not really fit to be applied to learning-processes on the level of learning III.
Figure 1 (chapter 2) already visualized the general relationship between learning, knowledge, and competence on a general level. This intersection steps back from specific definitions to a general level, and includes individual as well as social-cultural dimensions. It carves out their interplay and finally comes to a new and more holistic definition and term: Enhancement-Competence. This terminology aims first of all to develop a deductive understanding of Enhancement-Competence, as a competence that enables a global understanding of heterogeneity, as indispensable pre-condition for all processes of learning and enhancing learning processes. Enhancement-Competence therefore is rather a process than a discrete set of skills. Enhancement Competence includes, respectively implies, recent key competences like intercultural competence (as a heterogeneity of all cultures represents the utmost width of contexts that is possible) and media competence (as they are constituted on networking, using and questioning and regenerating all kind of information).
Enhancement-Competence as a new terms fuses the terms learning (each learning-process leads to, respectively is, enhancement), knowledge (enhancement is change, and change implies a re-thinking of and re-generating of hitherto existing knowledge), and competence.
This thesis places emphasis on the aspect that terms are just symbols and have different meanings or at least connotations for everybody. So one could ask why to create a new term like »Enhancement-Competence«? And why creating a new term by fusing already existing terms, and not creating a really new, yet not existing, word?
It was explained that existing terminology does not mean the same for everybody – but that it has a specific meaning for everybody which is imprinted through culture, society, and all disciplines of science, as “the name, given to a human problem, can fix it or turn it into a chronical one” (Haley, op. 1977, pp. 13f)
But even if the terms learning, knowledge and competence do not mean the same for everybody using it; nevertheless there is an intersection between the different definitions that is shared and understood. This can be used to build upon this common understanding a new and enlarged understanding – to set new context markers. And while the use of unchanged »traditional« terms leads to the illusion that anybody is talking about the same thing, sharing the same definitions, and having the same expectations (learners), or objectives (teachers/coaches), a changed connotation through the new term brings about a process of reflection and consciousness. So using a new term, like Enhancement-Competence, that fuses familiar terms into a nevertheless new term, opens the chance to reflexion and meta-communication, and so hinders from the very beginning of a course (that claims to be open) that only a part of the participants (those sharing same or similar patterns and rules, acquired through socialization and a common culture) has a real chance to reach whatsoever is defined and target as »successfully finishing« it.
“Can we see a bigger picture; can we think about the way we think?” (Bateson, 2010/2010)
Figure 3 depicts such a »bigger picture« of the term Competence and shows four »core-dimensions« that influence the development of Enhancement Competence:
The two circles right-hand are dimensions of the »sensual« world and show, read from the outward layer to the inward, the influence and interdependency of culture, emotions and premises;
the two circles left-hand are dimensions of experiences and set experiences, education, and thereof resulting terminology in connection. Both of them exist on a social-cultural level (ontology) as well as on a personal level and both base on and influence each other.
The circle and its different intersections give a model of a self-sustaining system with permeable frontiers and fluid peripheries – a change in one part of the system has influence on each other part of it.
The intersections between the upper and lower circles (personal and social cultural) lead to different learning levels and different definitions and understandings of competence; individual ones and cultural ones, whereas the intersections between the dimensions of the more »sensual« and the »experienced« world result in what can be described as knowledge.
Therefore knowledge is permanently changed and (re)generated. And where personal knowledge consequently has often proved to be helpful, and therefore got familiar and easy to explain (which is symbolized by the formula), other’s knowledge appears strange, and difficult or impossible to comprehend (symbolized by the [from a European point of view] cryptic characteristics). And as »personal« vs »others« is always depending on the particular point of view, and »others« always exist in a superior number, the chance to learn through irritation, the need to reflect, and to rearrange premises and terminology, is the higher the bigger the heterogeneity in learning-communities is. Where brick and mortal universities bring together different social and educational backgrounds and (today also) generations at the utmost, global learning online courses (and even more a global online university) would offer (and challenge with) real heterogeneity in all kind of contexts, individual as well as social-cultural.
As symbolized by the speech bubble in the »windows« between the innermost intersections, it is not enough just to mix; only through communication and especially through meta communication about what is »brought by« from the outer circles it is possible to come to changing what Gregory Bateson calls »context-markers« (Bateson, 1972)
So Enhancement-Competence implies a permanent reflection of own and other’s experiences, education, terminology (language!), culture, emotions and premises and allows to generate new knowledge. And having reached Enhancement Competence enables to gaining all other kinds of »competences« by constantly reflecting and re-setting context-markers.
Figure 3: Dimensions of Enabling Enhancement-Competency (Source: Authors’ own compilation)