From the Historical Collection of the work of Dr. Clare W. Graves
- presentations, papers, recorded transcripts, notes-
William R. Lee                                                                                                                      February 2003

Levels of Existence Related to Learning Systems

 Paper read at the Ninth Annual Conference of the
National Society for Programmed Instruction,
Rochester, New York, March 31, 1971

Clare W. Graves
Professor of Psychology
Union College
Schenectady, New York

 (All rights reserved)


            Today I should like to explore with you certain methodological and philosophical problems of those who plan and develop programmed learning systems. I shall do so through the medium of a relatively new hierarchically ordered, open systems conception of man - - a conception I call the Levels of Human Existence. This conception derives from 20 years of study. What is important about it, so far as we gathered here are concerned, is that which it says about the motivational and learning processes of man.

            According to the Level of Existence point of view the psychology of the human being is an emergent process marked by the progressive subordination of older behavioral systems to new higher order systems. The psychology, the total psychology of man tends, normally, to change as the conditions of manís existence changes. Each successive stage, or level, or system is a state of equilibrium through which people pass on their way to other states of equilibrium. When a person is centralized in one of the states of equilibrium he has a psychology that is particular to that state. His ways of thinking, learning, and motivation are each appropriate to that state. If and when he is in another state his ways of thinking, ways of learning and means for being motivated are of another order. Therefore, if we are going to be optimally effective in developing programmed learning systems, then the systems that we develop must:

(a)   Contain internal consistency, i.e. we must develop our systems

so that the ways of thinking required, the type of learning methodology used and the means of motivating the learner are congruent, they must stem from the same level. They must not be drawn from more and on level, more than one behavioral system.

(b)   The people to whom these systems are applied must be the people      for whom they are appropriate. We must avoid applying a system based on the learning and motivational principle appropriate to one level to individuals who are operating by the learning and motivational principles particular to an inappropriate level. We must avoid this because if we use a properly constituted system on an inappropriate level it will either be ineffective or will promote closure of the personality and thus constrict the person from moving on to a higher level of thinking that, within my point of view, is the major aim of education.

            To accomplish the aim, to bring forth the methodological and philosophical problems with which I am concerned, I shall:

1.   Set the problem through the medium of quotations from a recently released learning systems manual,

2.   Follow these questions with some questions about underlying     assumptions which seem ever present in the minds of many who develop learning systems.

3.  Ask whether these assumptions are valid when considered in     relation to our current knowledge of learning and motivational processes.

4.   Ask whether the field of learning systems is headed for a cul de sac because of the tendency to overlook recent psychological information.

5.   Conceptualize this problem through what I call the Levels of Existence Conception of Man.

6.  Utilize this conceptualization of bring forth some problems that those who develop learning systems may need to face.

            First let us look for the problem:

            In a recently distributed learning systems manual, there are some statements that denote certain problem for he who develops learning systems. One of these statement is in the form of a testimony that is on the inside front cover of the promotional manual. It reads:

If my students read nothing else during the entire course, they will have learned how to learn.

           Another statement (P/47 (01)-2, page 1) says:

This manual gives you ready means to specify what you want your students to learn. It lets your students know exactly where they stand in respect to those goals - - as they go through the course - - in time to take corrective measures if they veer from them - - so they will be sure to stay on target.

            Later in the manual another statement says that most of the time

- - You (i.e., the student) will be reading and learning something that someone else thinks is important for you to know. The ďsomeoneĒ is your instructor or the author of the text you are reading, the maker of the film you are viewing, or the      manufacturer of the lab equipment. You will be seeing, hearing and reading things presented to you as contributions to your education.

           This task is difficult

- - because you have to determine what someone else regards as      important. You have to look at the material you are studying from someone elseís point of view. This is the way it must be if the young are to be educated and human culture is to be transmitted from one generation to another.

            From these three quotations one can derive a three-fold problem with the assumption of the learning systems people who developed the manual. First, they seem to assume that there is a way, a one best way to learn - -an assumption inherent in the first question. Secondly, they seem to assume authorities know what it is that students should learn and the way that the students should learn it. Thirdly, they seem to assume that the learner is willing to, can be enticed to or can be reasoned with to learn what authority deems it proper for him to learn.

            In other words, this particular learning system, as many others, is based on the overall assumption that the task of education is to find the best method for transmitting, from the knowledgeable to the less knowledgeable, what he who knows believes he who does not know should learn. Education is the task of inculcating into the learner that which, in the judgment of the educator, is good for the student to know. And the problem of education is to find the best way to do this.

            Unfortunately there are two serious problems with this way of thinking about education.

1.       It is open to question whether such assumptions provide a sound and lasting basis for education.

2.       These assumptions do not seem to fit well with our current  knowledge of the learning and motivational processes of man.

            It is open to question, because our current knowledge leads us to doubt whether much education can or should be based on the idea that to educate is to indoctrinate. In fact it does appear that most learning systems, as they now stand, are based on a concept different from what the concept education was originally meant to convey. Sometime, a long time ago, educators perverted the meaning of the term; and as a result education and learning systems people now seem to lost in the cul de sac created by this perversion.

             The word education was constructed from the roots meaning to lead out from, to lead forth to a new way of thinking. It was not built on the meaning to indoctrinate and to stamp into what which is already known. But today, in many learning systems, we see much of their effort is directed toward putting into the learner what the educator wants put in. It is not based on the concept to lead forth to a new way of thinking that in the Level of Existence point of view is what education should be.

            This is not to say that learning systems as we now know them are bad, improper or ill conceived. Rather, it is to say that in terms of our current knowledge, they are too narrowly conceived, too limited in their applicability because of their narrowness, too apt to promote the status quo, too little prone to encourage change and new thinking. 

            To see this it is necessary that we take a new look at the nature of man and his learning and motivational processes as they now can be seen. This we cannot do in detail Ė but I shall sketch it out because we do need a basic framework in which to test the validity of that which has been said.

            Today we conceive that the brain consists of a series of hierarchically ordered, functionally organized dynamic neurological systems (the brain cross section). We can call them systems 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 etc, or we can call them systems A,B,C,D,E,F,G, as per the diagram in your hands. Each of these systems is functionally distinct. When a particular system dominates a personís psychological operation he prefers to learn a certain way and prefers not to learn in other ways, he is activatable by certain stimuli and not by other stimuli. When the conditions of his existence N,O,P,Q,R,S,T change and another neurological system comes to dominate his psychology then both the learning preference and the effective activating factors change. Thus if a person is living in the conditions that only the A & B systems are open then he is effectively motivated only by the stimuli that activate the dominant system, the B system. And he will learn effectively only in the manner in tune with the B dynamics neurological system.

            Roughly the total situation is this: When man is in the A-N state he is motivated only by stimuli that effect the imperative physiological needs and he adapts through the process of habituation or accustomization. But learning, in the sense of change in subsequent activation patterns that are relatively permanent, does not take place at this level. Thus there is no call for the development of learning systems when manís psychology is centralized at the first, the A-N level of human existence.

            At the second, the B-O level of human existence, learning, as defined above, does take place but one might question if it be the kind utilizable in programmed learning systems. The B neurological system is activated by changes, particularly sudden changes, in the mode or intensity of the stimuli that are associated with one of manís innate reflexive networks. When this system, the B system dominates, learning occurs only when there is a temporal overlap between innate reflexive states and the appearance of a concurrent stimulus condition. That is, learning in the B-O state takes place through the classical conditioning method, a method that is rather unwieldy when considered for practical teaching purposes because of the complexity of Pavlovian conditioning.

            This situation is quite different when the C-P state has emerged as the super ordering system in manís psychology. When this state is dominant, when the C neurological system rules stimuli what can be utilized to satisfy a specific affective need state such as hunger, thirst, and sex are deactivators. Such stimuli are the ones that can activate the person in the C-P state to learn; and, the means to this learning is the operant, the instrumental or the trial and error learning method. That is, he learns by making movements which shortly after being made bring about tensional release from the specific drive state.

            When man is centralized in the C-P state of existence he is activatable to learn through that which will provide him food, water, sexual satisfaction and the like. The degree to which the learning takes place is a function of how much activity is spent getting to the reward, how soon the reward is presented after the desired consummatory act is performed and how strong was the need state in the first place.

            Thus, if one is to develop learning system effective for those centralized in the C-P state of existence one must get the learner into a specific drive state, induce or wait for the desired activity, reward that activity with a drive relevant stimulus immediately or very shortly after the desired activity has taken place. In other words the developer of learning systems for those centralized in the C-P state must master the shaping principles of the Harvard psychologist, B. F. Skinner.

            These people who are centralized in the 4th level of human existence, the D-Q state, are dominated by the operation of the ďDĒ or aversive neurological system. Thus, they are sensitive to a different kind of stimulation than that which activates other neurological systems. At this level the person is particularly sensitive to punishment. They are motivated, above all else, to avoid aversive stimulation. Indicating what should not be done, that is, learned, through the medium of punitive stimulation presented very close to or contiguous with the undesired activity is the potent learning force at this level.

            This, however, is a method one would be advised never to use if he wants effective, constructive learning from the impulsive, anger prone, immediate reward seeking person centralized in the C-P system. To use the punitive methodology with the C-P is to invite uncontrolled, destructive acts upon the promoter of, or the instruments of, the learning system. Yet, when the D-Q way of thinking is dominant in man, punitive, aversive stimulation is the effective means to the end of the learning desired. For some reason related to the presence of an excess of adrenalin in the system, a person centralized in the D-Q state is particularly attuned to aversive stimulation. Learning what others want the person to do is accomplished by getting him to avoid that which will lead to punishment. So when the learner is centralized in the D-Q state of existence he who develops learning systems must conceive how to wire in punishment of the right kind, in the right amount and at the right time. When this state is central, no punishment seems to mean no learning, too much punishment produces rigid, most difficult to change, learning and the wrong punishment seems to leave the person unaffected or to produce negative hostile learning. To work properly here one must understand, for example, the learning theory of O. Hobart Mowrer.

            When it is the E neurological system that centralizes and dominates manís behavior, when the E-R state comes to be the way of life, manís learning changes once again. At this level it is what psychologists call the latent, the signal learning, system that must be utilized to direct manís learning. Once again man learns in an active manner, but not in the active, aggressive, immediate reward, no punishment fashion of the C-P system. At this level the patterning of stimulation, changing and challenging ideational content and the degree to which outcomes meet the personís expectations are the major motivating factors. At this level of operation man can wait for delayed reward if the learning activity is under this own control, not evaluated by ones in positions of authority, and replete with perceptual novelty. Here learning does not have to be tied to a specific need state nor is it dependent on the amount of consummatory activity or immediate reward. The keystones are the opportunity to learn through his own efforts, the presence of mild risk, the individualís experience and much variety in the learning experience. Here it is the work of E. C. Tolman and his students and Julian B. Rotter and his students whose work must be mastered by he who develops learning systems.

            At the sixth or F-S level yet another functional neurological system dominates manís behavior. The learning system associated with it has been variously called the vicarious, the modeling or the observational learning system. All of these refer to an individualís acquisition of new knowledge and potential behavior through observation without receiving any direct external reinforcement for his own acts or without even making the observed response. This learning occurs when people watch what others do, or when they attend to the physical environment, to events, and to symbols such as words or pictures. It occurs when one observes the consequences that other people obtain when they behave one way or another. This is a learning system that I have not seen utilized as much as it might be by learning systems people - - people who should attend particularly to the work of Bandura and Walters if they wish to develop learning programs for those centralized in the F-S existential state.

            Though I could go on to further depict the functional neurological systems and their associated learning and activating information, I believe the above sufficiently makes one point of this paper. Namely, that those who develop programmed learning system might profitably reexamine their methodologies for bringing it about. Therefore, I now want to turn to the more philosophical aspects of the Level of Existence point of view as related to programmed learning systems.

            As I have said according to the Levels of Existence point of view the psychology of the human being is an unfolding or emergent process marked by the progressive subordination of older behavioral systems to newer, higher order systems. The human tends normally to change his psychology as the conditions of his existence change. And the significant changes that take place are more on the order of how the person thinks than they are on the order of what the person thinks or what information he possesses.

            At the B-O level man thinks in an autistic, syncretic fashion. At the C-P level he thinks egocentrically, impulsively and hedonistically. The best answer to any problem is the one that brings him immediate pleasure regardless of what happens to anyone else.

            At the D-Q level he thinks in an absolute fashion, in terms of absolute right and absolute wrong. He thinks in a rigid, authoritarian, highly moralistic black and white fashion. To them - learning is spewing back.

            Those at the E-R level introduce situationalism and relativism into their way of thinking. To them there may be many answers to a problem but there is one best answer. They think in terms of analyzing, and wanting to comprehend in an impersonal, objective, distant, rational positivistic manner. They see life and thus learning as a game that has precise rules that if mastered will enable them to win the game. They think in terms of breaking things into parts, and they prefer to add up their own conception of the parts.

            Those who think in an F-S way are unhappy over the absence of personal relevance in any abstractions that are a part of learning. They think in terms of sensing and apprehending rather than in terms of comprehending. They tend to refuse to deal with anything that analyzes or breaks down a learning experience - - thus a way of thinking not easy to handle within learning systems thinking.

            The thinking at the G-T level is still another form. To them - knowledge exists in specific settings. The settings differ and so do the knowers. Several interpretations of any phenomenon are always legitimate depending on the person, his point of view and his purpose. So to them, the teacherís job is to pose problems, help provide way to see them but to leave the person to his own conclusion as to what answers to accept.

            Now the question is what does all this have to do with the learning philosophy of those who develop learning systems? If you are with me, you will see that I have said normal intellectual growth, in the Level of Existence point of view is illustrated by changes in how the person thinks and not necessarily in what he thinks, or what is the information that lies in his head. And if you are with me you will see that I have raised the following questions:

          Do learning systems as they are now constituted promote changes in the way of thinking of a person, that is, psychological growth? Or do learning systems as now constituted promote arrestment of psychological growth by putting their emphasis on what a person thinks, on putting more information into his head? In other words, do they foster the concept of education as indoctrination, as promoting the status quo? Or do they provide for growth of the human being, for change, for creativity as contrasted to repetition?

           And with these questions I leave to the question period this most serious problem I see in the philosophy of learning systems as they are now thought of and constituted.

[There was obviously a question/answer session at the end of this presentation as well as some handouts with diagrams, figures and tables. These materials are not available.]

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