The “double bind” is created when the porpoise can no longer succeed due to a change in the rules. Sense is lost. Meaning must be recreated. Bateson also uses a human analogy (a schoolchild and the 'hidden curriculum') for this phenomenon when he describes the relationship between the double-bind and his levels of learning. Although this is oversimplification, there are three levels of learning according to Bateson. Level 1 learning is trial and error learning, happens all the time, and often involves unconscious, automatic behavior—such as the intricacies of driving a car. Using the metaphor of a schoolchild, Bateson says Level 1 learning for the child in school is the formal curriculum. Level 1 learning involves the actual subject matter like reading and arithmetic. Level 2 learning involves the “hidden curriculum” of school. This is what the child learns about how to succeed in school beyond the subject-matter. How to succeed in the context of school; how to survive the lunchroom, how to please a given teacher, how to fit in with classmates, and so on. At this point there is a tension between levels 1 and 2. Experience becomes problematic and things don’t seem to add up, much like how the porpoise must have felt when her prior experience with a session conflicted with her experience in the subsequent session. Level 1 and 2 learning are going on all the time for people as they try to makes sense of the world and resolve conflict and disorder. Level 3 learning begins to happen when the pupil begins to radically question the situation. Perhaps the answer is to drop out of school and pursue life goals by some other means. The big idea here is that Level 3 is marked by “a profound reorganization of character” (Bateson, 2000, p. 301). Also and very importantly, Level 3 learning cannot be achieved in isolation; a social support mechanism must be there for the person to make a complete transition from Level 2 to Level 3. And many people spend much of their time going back and forth between Level 2 and 3. According to Bateson, even the attempt at Level 3 learning can be dangerous territory; it can lead to psychotic breaks with reality, schizophrenia. And yet, Level 3 learning can also be, for some, a milestone of intellectual development and a fundamental shift in thinking. This relationship of binds and levels is an elegant model for human development.
We might use Bateson’s idea of the double-bind and learning levels to ask questions such as: how can we design learning experiences that support successful (healthy, rewarding, transformative, equitable) level 3 leaning? And, what skills do people need to resolve Level 2 double-binds in their daily lives, at work, at school, and so on? How can Level 2 double-binds be used with systems thinking and Activity Theory?
Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2000.