Learning how to Learn

For our purposes, there are two quite different traditions about learning how to learn. One stems from the Deep and Surface learning strategies studies (about responses to being taught), and the other from the work of Gregory Bateson.

Bateson maintained that many discussions about learning were confused by category errors about the kind of learning they were about. He suggested that there are a number of levels, in which each superior level is the class of its subordinates (rather like Kelly's notion of superordinate and subordinate constructs).


Bateson himself uses the analogy of movement:

  • Learning 0 is direct experience: I put my hand in the fire – it gets burned

Learning 0 is like the position of an object

  • Learning I is what we routinely refer to as "learning": generalisation from basic experiences. I have experienced "hand in fire" and "being burned", and I won't do it again. This is straightforward and compatible even with behavioural views, as well as the cycle of experiential learning.

Learning I is its speed when it moves

  • Learning II (which he sometimes called "Deutero-Learning") contextualises Learning I experiences. It is about developing strategies for maximising Learning I through the extraction of implicit rules, and also putting specific bits of Learning I in context: I don't generally risk getting burned, but I might do so to save someone else from a fire.

Learning II is acceleration (or deceleration)—a change in speed

  • Learning III contextualises Learning II, and is not understood, but it may be the existential (or spiritual) level: What does it say about me that I would risk getting burned in order to ...?

Learning III is a change in the rate of acceleration — a change in the change of the change of position... The higher the level, the less we understand about the process, and although such higher level learning undoubtedly takes place, the more difficult it is deliberately to manage it.

Note that levels of learning are different from levels of understanding, as exemplified in Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives, and also to be distinguished from the similar terminology of Gagné.

This account does not do justice to Bateson's very complex thinking, which starts from posing the question why people get better with practice at doing fairly meaningless tasks such as remembering nonsense syllables.

The interesting question for academic practice is the qualitative shift required to move from Learning 1 to Learning II, which some people find more difficult than others, perhaps in specific subject areas. How do we help them to achieve it? This may be the biggest remaining problem in in pedagogic/andragogic practice.

Some clues are contained in

but we still don't have reliable answers.


This is more properly located on my personal site, but I can't contain myself. In the UK, we have this misbegotten, patronising, arrogant, (insert whatever other insulting adjectives you favour) idea of "teaching" "key skills" at college level.

"Key skills"—derived from the generic skills employers say that they want—include "Communication" and "Application of Number" [the comparative of "numb"—sorry, but I am ranting] (what are the schools supposed to have been teaching for eleven years before students reach further education?) and "teamworking" and "improving own learning" etc.

  • Note that I refer above to "the generic skills employers say that they want"; there is some evidence, which I can't presently be bothered to look up, which suggests that there is a mismatch between what employers actually go for when appointing their staff, and what they say they go for when asked by trade and official bodies.

What is more, it is routine for universities to require the specification of key skills outcomes on the templates even for post-graduate courses. How patronising and infantilising can you get? Fortunately, most academics treat such requirements with the contempt they deserve.

It has been my misfortune for several years to have to observe some very gifted student teachers wrestling with the thankless task of getting learners to provide evidence of "key skills" competence. They have stopped an animated discussion in class, for example, to get students to "discuss"—in a very desultory fashion—some topic in which they have no interest whatever, in order to be able to tick a box on a competence check-list. It is even more stupid than the idea of "Liberal Studies", which is where I started my teaching career: at least that was "high-minded" in its conception.

What the education control-freaks fail to realise is that some things are only learned by experience and practice. You can't short-circuit the process by teaching them.

Rant over! The relevance of this to the present topic is that the "soft" key skills project confuses Learning I and Learning II: you cannot address the key skills (which are Learning II) by simply adding on more Learning I competences: this is precisely the "category error" against which Bateson inveighs But the key skills advocates (and here I risk alienating my closest colleague and friend) seem to believe that all skills are at the same level. "Application of Number", and IT skills may be Learning I, but the "wider" key skills ("Working with Others", "Problem Solving", "Improving Own Learning and Performance") and even the central key skill of "Communication"—which includes the "discussion" requirement—are clearly Learning II, and although we know they can be learned, we do not know how to teach them in any meaningful way.

It's only fair to offer a right to reply: this links to the official key skills site, although it is interesting to note that it has recently become more difficult to find a clear statement in ministry policy about Key Skills.

If you really haven't got a life, you can always look at this riveting site about Key Skills "qualifications".

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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