I’ve been sitting on this piece for quite some time for two reasons. First, I was afraid I wouldn’t do justice to these thinkers and their ideas. Second every time I would try to write I ended up realizing how little I knew and then I’d just get lost in a black hole of papers and books leading to more concepts that needed to be understood. Hopefully the result is still coherent and accessible.

If you replaced every plank of a ship one by one until every piece had been changed out from the original, would the resulting ship still be the same thing as the original? This riddle, known as Theseus’ ship, originated thousands of years ago but remains relevant today. Crucially, it is central to the study of how living things learn and change. Not only do our cells regenerate, but our thoughts, perspectives, goals, and values change immensely over the course of our lifetimes. Humberto Maturana, Carl Rogers, and Gregory Bateson all worked in different fields and would disagree on many points but their thought converges somewhere around this issue. Their work gives us a foundation which deeply respects the experience of humanness while still condemning Cartesian subjectivity and mind-body dualism. 

Maturana famously coined the term autopoiesis to refer to the unique ability of living systems to define and recursively generate their own boundaries (Varela, Maturana & Uribe, 1974). In other words, the ability to conserve organization throughout changes in structure (Maturana, 1980). We can’t make sense of Theseus’ ship by looking at what changed. Rather, by analyzing those features which remained constant throughout the regeneration of the pieces can we begin to see the identity of the ship. Of course, a ship is not a living system so the implication is that the organizational features (floating on water etc.) are being conserved by an external force such as a ship-builder. We are both the ship and the ship-builder, and our identity can only be understood as a unity of this relationship.

A useful illustration is the image created by spraying paint over a stencil. When the stencil is removed, a clear pattern exists on the underlying paper. The pattern never existed in the spraying of the paint, however. The stencil alone does not provide a sufficient explanation either, though. The resulting pattern can only be understood as a relationship between the spraying of the paint and the stencil which constrained its application to the paper. Said yet another way, “An organism exists only in its connection with its medium and that connection is actually its history of interaction.” (Fell & Russell, 1993:29).  

With this in mind, Maturana rejects the view that education is mainly about information. “Notions such as coding and transmission of information do not enter in the realization of a concrete autopoietic system because they do not refer to actual processes in it. The notion of coding is a cognitive notion which represents the interactions of the observer, not a phenomenon in the observed domain” (Maturana & Varela, 1980). Computation and encoding of information is simply a story we tell from the outside, or after the fact. What this means is that education is a process of adaptation and self-authoring, not a download of files onto a hard drive.   

He is also explicit on what his model means for learning:

 The children do not learn mathematics in school; they learn how to live together with a mathematics teacher. Perhaps they will one day carry on this enjoyable and exciting kind of being together independently—and become mathematics teachers or mathematicians themselves. Teachers do not simply transmit some content; they acquaint their pupils with a way of living. In the process, the rules of arithmetic, the laws of physics, or the grammar of a language will be acquired. My claim is: Pupils learn teachers (Poerksen, 2006).

To really comprehend why Maturana makes this claim, we need to understand what he calls structural coupling. “When two living systems begin to act concurrently they will change congruently or they will separate” (Murray, 1994). This is why he says “Education is a process of transformation in living together” (Maturana & Nisis, 1998). In the history of these interactions we can see a whole way of life reproducing itself. 

If we accept this shift away from education as transfer of information, then we must next broaden the scope of our inquiry to the level of interaction and context. This is where Gregory Bateson enters the stage. Bateson was a prodigious polymath who impacted far-ranging fields with his unique way of thinking. Bateson’s emphasis on relational or ecological nature of organisms and the patterns that connected them was a major influence on Maturana’s work. 

In a conversation with Carl Rogers, Bateson emphasizes the role of context when he says: 

There is, therefore – and I think this is probably our subject of discussion – a whole order of learning, quite different from the subjects taught, inevitably always carrying implications for character, about what sort of a world you think you’re living in, about what sort of a world you think the relationship between you and the teacher springs out of, and these are going to be related, of course.” (Rogers, 1997 p.182)

In other words, what is learned always exceeds what is taught. By observing what the teacher herself is learning, the students are learning what implicit views the culture holds on learning and development itself. In other words the context the teacher places her involvement with the child in is what the child attunes to. The teacher is often not aware of this context.

Consider a young teacher who hopes to make a positive impact but finds his employment at an under-funded institution both stressful and chaotic and begins to question his choice of career. Correctly or not, the teacher is learning to see the education system as overwhelming and futile. The context that learning will then take place in is the approach the teacher takes to his own everyday reality of being the teacher.

What happens, though, when we forget half the equation of “living together” and begin to see education as a one-way transfer of information while denying the learning of the teacher? First, learning becomes confined to specific contexts such as classrooms. Second, adults must emphasize their distance from this process. This is generally accomplished through the use of a caricature or teaching persona. This can be strained or unnatural tones of voice, exaggerated facial expressions, cliches, or patronizing language. The function of this act is to give the impression that the adult is no longer engaged in their fullest reality and has stooped down into the child’s world. 

From such an interaction the child learns that the adult looks back with the opinion that the position of the child learner is something shameful to be transcended or outgrown. Further, the children recognize that whatever education the adult received they now view as a childhood chore of days gone by. The real education which is taking place in this case is, in fact, an education about the failure of education! Bateson’s genius was to uncover the role of these conflicting messages at different levels of communication in the splitting of the psyche. 

Our third thinker is Carl Rogers. Rogers signalled a return to the phenomenology of everyday interactions in a time in which cognitivism and behaviorism had run amok. Roger’s phenomenology is not a shallow subjectivism, however. He was adamant that a person-centered approach was not at odds with an evidence-based approach. Rogers insisted that the whole context of learning and therefore the experience of the whole person be taken into account. If this can be accomplished, Rogers believes something he calls significant learning can then occur:

The kind of learning that interests me is what I think of as significant learning. That’s my own private term for it. In this kind of learning the whole person, with both his feelings and his intellect, is very deeply involved. This kind of learning is self-initiated and there is a sense of discovery. There is the sensation of ‘oh that’s what I’ve been trying to find out.’ In other words, there is an eagerness to grasp something new.” (Rogers, 1997 p. 179)

Significant learning occurs when the teacher and learner transcend an information transaction and participate in what Maturana calls “transformations in living together” in which the context of learning is not only considered, but mutually constructed. Although this set-up is based on autonomy and mutuality, it requires a certain type of leadership according to Rogers:

“I think there is a precondition, and that is there must be a leader or “perceived” leader in the situation, who is sufficiently secure within himself and in his relationship to others that he experiences an essential trust in the capacity of others to think and learn for themselves.” (Rogers, 1997 p. 180) 

Significant learning is more than the addition of a proposition or even a skill. Significant learning implies not only that the organism as a whole has become better adapted to its environment, but that it is better suited to continue this process of adaptation. This type of learning is intrinsically motivating and is usually accompanied by the flow state.

To tie things back together, we could say that, in significant learning, the learner embraces the unity of the ship and the shipbuilder. Conventional learning may allow for upward progression along established metrics – From a B on a test to and A – but significant learning is needed to expand to new dimensions of thought. In significant learning the door between being and becoming has opened and the learner can experience not just new information, but new worlds.

“He was always learning -from everyone and everything around him. From the dog, from the fishtank, from the scientists who came to visit him. From poetry, from art, from me, and as a child I learned from him that learning never stops.” -Nora Bateson (Gregory’s daughter who became a noted academic in her own right)

Works Cited:

Fell, Lloyd & Russell, David, (1993). Co-Drifting: The Biology of Living Together. Unfinished Manuscript, Drs Fell, Russell & Associates.

Maturana, H. R., & Nisis, S. (1998). Human awareness: Understanding the biological basis of knowledge and love in education. Santiago, Chili: University of Chile. Available http://www. ozemail. com. au/~ jcull/arteduc. htm.

Maturana, H. R., and Varela, F. J. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1980.

Murray, J. (1994) Maturana’s biology and some possible implications for education. In: Fell L., Russell D., Stewart A. (eds) Seized by agreement, swamped by understanding. Hawkesbury Printing, University of Western Sydney.

Rogers, C., Kirschenbaum, H., & Henderson, V. L. (1997). Carl Rogers: Dialogues: conversations with Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, B.F. Skinner, Gregory Bateson, Michael Polanyi, Rollo May and others. London: Constable.

Varela, F. G., Maturana, H. R., & Uribe, R. (1974). Autopoiesis: The organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. Biosystems, 5(4), 187–196. 

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