Symbol Systems


Considerations when using different media to support learning

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … information
  • Knowing is … using information
  • Learner is … a computer
  • Learning is … inputting (and associated computer-based notions, such as processing, storing, and retrieving)
  • Teaching is … transmission (of information)




Symbol Systems is a theory of media-based learning. Its perspectives on learning are based on Information Processing Theory, and so both the learner and the medium of learning are described in terms of symbol-based processing. (Hence the theory’s name.) Key assertions include that different media rely on different mental processes, how one engages with and learns from a specific medium is dependent on one’s established knowledge, and social context can matter.


Symbol Systems is a good example of the consequences when a new theory of learning is proposed in absence of any sort of critical consideration of grounding metaphors. The theory’s deepest insights have the ring of common sense – culminating in the realization that amounts to the commonplace understanding that “you can’t separate what you teach from how you teach.”

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Gavriol Salomon

Status as a Theory of Learning

Symbol Systems is not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Symbol Systems is a theory of formatting experiences to support learning – that is, it is a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Symbol Systems lacks a substantial empirical base. Couple to its inattentiveness to its grounding metaphors, it meets none of our criteria for a scientific theory.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Symbol Systems” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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