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Bateson: Levels of Learning Cheat Sheet by

learning     levels     bateson


Bateson maintains that a distin­ction between a class (e.g. a strategy) and its members (e.g. activities linking to that strategy) is necessary when studying behavi­oural phenomena such as learning, and that the notion of repeatable context is a necessary premise for any theory that defines learning as change. This unders­tanding allows for the definition of levels to describe learning:

Level Zero is a situation where no learning takes place - i.e. a similar response given similar stimuli.
Level One is an instance where an entity gives a different response at a future point to the same stimulus in a current situat­ion.
Level Two takes place when a previous learning, which happened in a specific context, is judged as approp­riate and applied in another context.
Level Three is a correction in the system of the contexts of Level Two.

Learning Zero – Causality

The best descri­ption of categories of learning and commun­ication starts with what it is not. In this case a strictly causal response to a certain stimuli is not learning or commun­ica­tion. When I let go of the coffee mug in my hand, it will inevitably fall on the floor leaving a nasty stain. I cannot condition the mug to hover or levitate to a soft landing on the table. This is not leaning. Or commun­ica­tion.

Learning I – Linearity

Gregory Bateson exempl­ifies Learning I by describing Pavlov’s famous psycho­logical drawling dogs experi­ment. Every time he fed the subject dogs, he first rang a big brass bell. Every time he rang the bell, he recorded the dogs’ saliva excretion. At first the dogs drawled only at the exact time they were fed and god a scent of the food, but after a while the dogs connected the ringing bell with feeding time and began drawling when the bell rang. Eventually he had condit­ioned the dogs to start drawling whenever he rang the bell regardless of whether it was feeding time or not. What Pavlov did was condit­ioning a certain input-­output equiva­lence in the drawling system of the dogs. They were taught that if the bell rings then dinner will be served shortly. This is something algorithms of digital media do very well. Correction of response in linear causality is conseq­uently what Bateson calls ‘Learning I’.

Bateson Levels of Learning

Learning II - Complexity

Learning II has had many names including ‘Deutero Larning’, ‘set learning’, ‘learning to learn’, and ‘transfer of learning’. It is change in the process of Learning I, e.g. a corrective change in the set of altern­atives from which choice is made (Bateson 1972 p. 293). So when a change in the set of possible altern­ative responses is learned it will fall under the category of Learning II.

In other words if the dogs learn to learn to correct their response to a given stimulus they will have classified the contexts of learning I. Or more precisely, if Pavlov’s dogs were placed in a condit­ioning experiment under completely different circum­stances and needed less time to correct their response to the stimulus, this would be Learning II. Learning II is learning to learn.

Learning III Hyper-­com­plexity

Learning III is a change in the process of Learning II, e.g. a corrective change in the system of sets of altern­atives from which a choice is made. It works much as Learning II but on a higher level of abstra­ction. Bateson points out that this level of learning is never achieved by dogs and very rarely by humans, but as we will see a bit further on larger social systems have much greater capacity for handling the complexity at level III than any human."­

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