Educational Theory

Facilitating living systems: Part 1

Although at first this might seem like a diversion from the topic of education, I would like to share a passage I recently discovered in Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations:

“There is an increasing feeling among neuroscientists that self-organizing activity in vast populations of visual neurons is a prerequisite of visual perception- that this is how seeing begins… self-organization can produce geometrics and patterns in space and time very similar to what one might see in a migraine aura. In this sense, the geometrical hallucinations of migraine allow us to experience in ourselves not only a universal of neural functioning, but a universal of nature itself.

For those of you already familiar with self-organisation in living and non-living systems this observation may come as nothing new, but I would like to take the time to lay it out, as I find this a wonderful example of self-organisation preceding ‘higher’ levels of function.

That there is self-organisation on a molecular level is nothing new (from the oft-repeating patterns of the BZ reaction to the formation of snowflakes, for example). That there is self-organisation on the level of simple life is also increasingly less controversial (I can’t resist a mention of slime mould at this point). What is a little more unclear, however, is whether this fundamental of self-organisation has any influence upon our ‘conscious’ state, or upon our social and cultural systems. What Oliver Sacks is suggesting here is a wonderful example of how many of us have direct perception of these self-organising patterns in the form of migraine auras, and potentially much more. Earlier he cites the preponderance of these same patterns throughout human art stretching back to early cave-painters, suggesting that these patterns have always been accessible to humans in some form or another. Yet what really got me excited about this passage was the suggestion that these self-organising patterns are the very basis for our visual perception. In my mind this raises an important question- is self-organising the prerequisite to all living systems?

In Gaia Theory and Complexity Theory as applied to biology and ecology self-organisation and regulation is held to be an inevitable product of life. Yet what if the inverse is true? That living systems are only feasible because of the tendency for matter itself to self-organise? At this point it is tempting to turn to physics to explore this question of self-organising matter, but the question is one that is unfortunately outside my expertise. All too easily one may slip into teleology without the mathematical background to explain the emergence of order on a molecular level.

Instead I would just like to ponder the question: is self-organising the prerequisite to living systems? And if so, what does that look like? And what is its relevance to educational systems?

Now the answer to the third question may well already be apparent. If we are to restructure educational systems in a way that they mimic living systems rather than mechanical ones then this principle of self-organisation massively changes the way in which we might achieve that. To give a concrete example, in the past couple of years I have come across many initiatives that are building hi-tech, community-centred eco-schools. In theory these projects are amazingly progressive, but there may be a major flaw in their approach. All of these projects have focussed on creating the infrastructure first, and then placing teachers and students into that created environment- in other words, the needs and nature of the final system (i.e. the school) has already been decided before the actual living parts of the system are engaging with one another and self-organising. If living systems need self-organisation as their basis, not their goal, then our approach to educational reform needs to reflect this fundamental natural constant.

In practice this means student and community led reforms, and a keen avoidance of any kind of centralised directive of the type that we are witnessing in England and Wales at the moment. The first step is not curriculum redesign, but a retraining of students, parents and teachers in  working together and forming community groups so that they can first organise into a network of skills and information that can then, and only then be used to re-envision curriculum content.


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