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The Paradox of Learning

Paul Jacobson

12th National Conference on Vocational and Educational Training Research

Perth, Western Australia, 10 July 2003

It's all in the Mind

Humberto Maturana writes in The Ontology of Observing:

"In our culture we live our existing in language as if language were a symbolic system for referring to entities of different kinds that exist independently from what we do, and we treat even ourselves as if we existed outside language as independent entities that use language. Time, matter, energy would be some of those entities.

Such an attitude leads us to act as if we could characterise those entities in terms of their intrinsic independent nature, which I claim cannot be done because as soon as we say anything, what we bring about takes place in a domain of language, as an operation in recursive consensual coordinations of behaviour" (Maturana, Humberto R. 1997).

What Humberto is saying, and I am about to elaborate on, is that we participate in life indirectly: what we believe to be reality amounts (no more, no less) to our lifelong learning.

My conference paper in July 2003, proposed a structural explanation for the Behaviour of Learning: identifying the system that gives rise to the behaviour; understanding how the system is structured; and discovering how to change default behaviour by changing underlying structure.

However, after long consideration of the ontological and epistemological issues involved in the abstractions that are made of Reality, any explanation of Learning may be fraught with ambiguity. Nevertheless, Consciousness seems intent on Understanding; and Thinking is the conversation made up of Visualisation, Emotions and Language that helps us to chart a course.


Learning is systemic like anything else that is organic. The hallmarks of Learning are emergent properties that exist at quantum levels as complexity builds on previously established order. Those properties emerge in the synergistic transformation of three basic qualities: reflexes, emotions and thoughts.

A human being builds on reflexes to have a repertoire of responses; then pattern recognition; and then the apprehension of systems.

Emotions that surface at birth transform into beliefs, then values, before a state of integrity becomes available.

Trial-and-error develops into thinking-about-action, that is a foundation for thinking-about-thinking, that is a foundation for thinking-about-learning.

If only it were that easy. Most of the institutions that have wielded their power over people in the past 2000 years or so, have been founded on the initial quantum leap in Learning from reflexes to responses, from emotions to beliefs and from ignorance to a pattern of thought. And yet humans have so much more potential than that!

Now the Paradox Kicks In

The first component of the paradox of Learning is provided by the primordial emotional makeup that all mammals inherit. Humans participate in the mammalian discourse of relationships. This can extend throughout life as an obsession. People can become extremely shrewd, street-wise, intuitive or political, without ever focusing on anything other than their emotions.

When learning because of changing events and contexts does occur, a second component of the paradox becomes evident. Habits are created as a by-product of responses; and habits-of-mind are developed as the by-product of pattern recognition. After all, the brain is a lean, mean pattern-making machine. Riding a bike and tying one's shoelaces are habits to be cherished along with "7 x 7 equals 49" rote learning. However, other habits acquired become compulsions that weigh down one's life as their repetition becomes excessive and destructive.

It Doesn't End There

Those who engage in thinking-about-thinking acquire habits-of-mind that determine their character. All the adjectives that describe a person; such as courageous, industrious, curious, energetic or foolhardy; are all by-products of learning-to-learn. Undesirable by-products are not only hasty, narrow, fuzzy and sprawling thinking (as David Perkins describes in his book Qutsmarting IQ); but also, authoritarian traits that create social blockages to learning for others (that Max Miller from University of Hamburg writes about in Systemic Learning).

Thank the heavens that a person can wrestle with the paradox to free themselves of habits and habits-of-mind; and experience a profound redefinition of the Self. That is, as long as they achieve firstly, the quantum level one step above their habits and habits-of-mind in order to observe what's going on.

In religious conversion, in "walking the dark tunnel" of therapy and in the unraveling the Zen koan, we hear stories of those who act "like a mosquito trying to bite an iron bar" as a Zen Master would say. Now that is one hell of a way to have a breakthrough! The trouble is that most people will never confront their demons head-on; but retreat to their "comfort zone" where "more of the same" continues to dominate their lives.

However, the system of Learning suggests that transformation is available equitably along the Emotions vector and the Thinking vector as well. The transformation of the former variety is known as the Power of Love; and transformation through thinking is known as Creativity. So, what are you waiting for? Maybe even Laughter is a useful composite transforming mechanism.

"Modern society, in order to survive its own self-endangering, cannot just wait for evolution to happen. It is totally dependent on the quality of human learning. It is not evolution but learning that decides the future" (Miller, M. 1990).

"Human beings must have evolved as biologically loving beings; otherwise language would never have become our manner of living." Humberto Maturana 1991.

The Pioneers 

The following "starting point" model of Learning honours Gregory Bateson who wrote the book "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" (1972).

Zero learning is just taking in information about ourselves and the environment. It is the backdrop of a familiar World. In its steady-state, no change is required.

Learning I contains a change in context and requires a response. We accumulate experiences and mark the context in which we respond. In the future in another context, we recognise the "context marker" that we made; and remember the appropriate response. Reflexes and rote learning are behaviours of this level. The by-product of rote learning is a habit.

Learning II is probably what we may refer to as Learning to Learn because we become aware of changes in learning contexts; and "punctuate" the sequence of events in the same way that a sentence is punctuated, to provide us with pattern recognition. At Level II Learning, we begin to understand that the brain is a lean, mean pattern-making machine. At this level we can observe the habits of reflex and rote learning to think about them and change them according to our will to do so. As a by-product of this level of learning, habits of mind are created and give rise to character.

All the adjectives attributed to the character of an individual, such as "humorous, brave, energetic, optimistic etc" are all the results of Learning to Learn. They can be both good and bad attributes; but one thing is certain, they are embedded in our consciousness as self-vindicating and self-perpetuating.

For human beings, we do not experience learning development as an isolated individual in an impersonal event stream; we have complex emotional relationships with others and are influenced by their example. Bateson describes the situation: "language, art, technology and cultural media are structured at every point by tramlines of habit" (Bateson 1972, p. 170). 

Learning III is akin to religious conversion, Zen enlightenment or "walking the dark tunnel". A transition occurs in Zen practice when an individual wrestles with a paradox (called a koan) "like a mosquito trying to bite an iron bar".

The benefit of achieving moments of enlightenment is "freedom from bondage", referring to the habits accumulated in Experience and habits of mind accumulated in Learning to Learn. However, breaking free of habits also leads to a redefinition of the Self with profound results.

The uncertainty at Learning III is enough to force most people to retreat back to their "comfort zone". Yet Learning at this level is available whenever a person feels compelled to change their behaviour, by confronting the paradox of their prior learning and realising its folly.

It is rare to meet anyone who has ventured beyond Learning III; but if you ever did, they would tell you that Learning turns into Integrity. Integrity is when a person is free of the baggage they once carried through life; and discovers their creative and generative abilities. They enroll others in their life's work to carry it on to succeeding generations.

Other Researchers

Bateson took an anthropologist's view and other disciplines saw a similar system.

David Marr (1982) a prodigy in neuroscience and mathematics, originally from  Trinity College, Cambridge, before his untimely death at age 45, proposed that it is necessary to consider three levels of independent analysis (listed top down) before one can fully understand the functioning of any psychological system: 

o        Level III - Computational level

o        Level II - Algorithmic level

o        Level I - Implementation level 

This was the central legacy of Marr's career: the understanding of any information processing system is incomplete without insight into the problems it faces, and without a notion of the form that possible solutions to these problems can take.

His example refers to the sense of vision: at Level I, it is our ability to pick a red dot among lots of green dots; like a berry in the forest. At Level II, when the red dot is among lots of coloured dots, we take a conscious, systematic scan to detect it. At what Marr calls the "computational level", he is referring to mobilising uniquely human resources such as hypothetical thinking, scenario planning and memories of experiences to solve the problem.

Max Miller, a sociologist at the University of Hamburg in his paper on Systemic Learning suggests that learning can transcend the individual:

Systemic learning may not only lead to novel structural knowledge that may change the individual mind of persons; it may also change or even create new rules or norms of discourse that define who may say what, to whom, in what mode, and in what contextual setting. But if discourse and norms of discourse can become a subject matter of learning processes, this opens a totally new dimension of supra-individual learning.

It constitutes a third fundamental type of learning besides cumulative and structural learning, namely self-referential discourse learning. In this case, systemic or discourse learning is related to norms enabling and constraining possible forms of discourse learning. Moreover, this self-reflexive type of learning or "learning of learning" entails a change of structures that is related to the level of social systems or systems of communication and not to the level of individual minds and systems of knowledge confined to individual minds (Miller, Max 2002).

Chris Argyris

Probably the most frequently recurring feature in the literature on organisational learning is the distinction between different learning types that is based on Bateson's (1972) three learning levels and which Argyris & Schön (1978) redefined as single-loop learning, double-loop learning, and deutero-learning.

Deuterolearning means that organisations "reflect on and inquire into previous episodes of organisational learning" (Argyris & Schön 1978) and thus may enhance the learning process itself. It is, to take up the central point of Bateson's Type III learning, a learning of learning. In organisational deuterolearning "the members of an organization may discover and modify the learning system that conditions prevailing patterns of organisational inquiry" (Argyris, C. & Schön, D. A. 1996).

Learning Disabilities

At its structural, systemic base, we are confronted with what Jean Piaget recognised as the paradoxical nature of Learning. As Chris Argyris once pointed out to corporate executives: "You are blind to the fact that you are blind".

Max Miller attributes what he calls "blocked discourse" to various conflicts: forms of systematically distorted discourse that block any learning. He describes four global types of blockage: authoritarian learning, defensive learning, ideological learning and regressive learning. The basic cause for these learning blockages is the same in all four cases: it is an individual or group that succeeds in rigidly determining the discourse according to their power, purposes and interests.

"In its capacity to reflect on rules and structures of discourse self-referential discourse learning represents the only method for possibly breaking learning blockages" (Miller, M. 1990).

David Perkins (Outsmarting IQ) points out that we learn habits of thinking such as hasty thinking, narrow, fuzzy and sprawling thinking that disrupt our lives and relationships. We should strive for clear, concise thinking.


"Lifelong learning" means to become conscious of the quantum leaps of learning; and it means to develop the disposition to understand what to do about perception, emotions, reflexes, habits and habits of mind. Such is a paradox.

We need people around to model skills and to give us a vocabulary for talking about it. We need to seek out tools for thinking, for thinking about thinking and for thinking about learning as we raise awareness. We need methods to change our arrangement of reflexes, habits and habits of mind to match our values (in order then to follow our vision). Methods can work on beliefs, habits or thinking.

If after reading this recipe, you imagine that finding one's way around Lifelong Learning is exhausting, it means that you are aware of "conscious incompetence" according to Dreyfus & Dreyfus. For a skilled practitioner who operates with "unconscious competence" at the level of Mastery, it is a relaxed and empowered way of life. Like anything we learn, practice makes perfect.

 "Learning to Learn is the ability and willingness to adapt to novel tasks, activating one's commitment to thinking and taking a perspective of Hope."             Finland's contribution to the DeSeCo Project.

Japanese Kanji: koroko: meaning heart or mind 


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