Archive

Posts Tagged ‘reading’

The Hidden Connections (Capra)

July 3rd, 2009
Leaf of surprise (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2006

Leaf of surprise (c) Rachel Bolstad, 2006

When you read a book by Fritjof Capra, you’re getting value for money. Though Capra is a physicist by training, his interests and knowledge span an enormous range of disciplines, and he is enviably well-connected; his friends and colleagues include leading thinkers from many fields, and his books draw together threads from fields as diverse as biochemistry, management theory, economics, cognitive science, feminism, design, and agroecology.

I just said he “draws together threads from areas as diverse as”… but as the title of his book The Hidden Connections (2002, Doubleday) suggests, perhaps our big mistake as a species is in continuing to think that these areas are all diverse, different, and disconnected, rather than recognising the persistent patterns, relationships, and connections between them. The aim of this book is (p. 216): “to develop a conceptual framework that integrates the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life; a framework that enables us to adopt a systemic approach to some of the critical issues of our time”. (These critical issues are, of course, all grounded in issues of sustainability).

For the purpose of this blogthread, I was interested in how Capra’s book could help develop my thinking about what it means to be a “self-generating network for knowledge building, learning, and change” (as part of our future focussed issues project).

In the first few chapters, Capra begins to develop a systems-level way of describing “life”. Since I majored in biological science, I was immediately hooked in by the way he begins by looking at contemporary theories about how life got started. How on Earth did something as complex as a cell come into being? You’ll have to read for yourself to find out, but a key idea from this section is that, with the emergence of metabolism comes the ability of a cell (which is in fact a tiny network) to become self-generating, or “autopoeitic” (from autopoeisis –self-making1). That’s because (pp.9-10) “the function of each component in this network is to transform or replace other components, so that the entire network continually generates itself….[the living network undergoes] continual structural changes while preserving their weblike patterns of organisation.” Cells are also “open systems” materially and energetically. While the cell continually replaces, fixes, changes, and regenerates itself, stuff has to come into the system (food), and stuff has to go out (waste). This leads Capra to discuss the theory of “dissipative structures2” – defined as “an open system that maintains itself in a state far from equilibrium, yet is nevertheless stable: the same overall structure is maintained in spite of an ongoing flow and change of components”.

(p.13) The dynamics of these dissipative structures specifically include the spontaneous emergence of new forms of order. When the flow of energy increases, the system may encounter a point of instability, known as a “bifurcation point”, at which it can branch off into an entirely new state where new structures and new forms of order may emerge.

In short, what we are talking about here is emergence, “the creation of novelty that is often qualitatively different from the phenomena out of which it emerged” (p.117)
I’m now going to skip ahead past the section of the book where Capra applies these ideas to understanding the nature of mind, consciousness, and learning. (Though these are actually some of my favourite chapters). Where I wanted to get to in this posting was Capra’s ideas about how these concepts and ways of thinking apply to social reality – and in particular, to social networks and human organisations. In chapter 3 he talks about the role of communication as an essential part of the metabolism of social networks:

(p.83) These networks of communication are self-generating. Each communication creates thoughts and meaning, which give rise to further communications, and thus the entire network generates itself – it is autopoeitic. As communications recur in multiple feedback loops, they produce a shared system of beliefs, explanations, and values – a common context of meaning – that is continually sustained by further communications. Through this shared context of meaning individuals acquire identities as members of the social network, and in this way the network generates its own boundary. It is not a physical boundary but a boundary of expectations, of confidentiality and loyalty, which is continually maintained and renegotiated by the network itself”

I’ll skip ahead again and bypass the chapters where he discusses how social networks, through communication, create culture and a “shared body of knowledge – including information, ideas, and skills – that shapes the culture’s distinctive way of life in addition to its values and beliefs”. (p. 87), and how knowledge can’t be treated as an entity independent of people and their social context…. (Though again, these are fascinating chapters). I want to get back to this idea of emergence.

In chapter 4 he talks about how emergence happens in human organisations. He argues that emergence often occurs at “critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops”.

(p.117) “In a human organization, the event triggering the process of emergence may be an offhand comment, which may not even seem important to the person who made it but is meaningful to some people in a community of practice. Because it is meaningful to them, they choose to be disturbed and circulate the information rapidly through the organization’s networks. As it circulates through various feedback loops, the information may get amplified and expanded, even to such an extent that the organization can no longer absorb it in its present state. When that happens, a point of instability has been reached. The system….is forced to abandon some of its structures, behaviours, or beliefs. The result is a state of chaos, confusion, uncertainty and doubt; and out of that chaotic state a new form of order, organized around new meaning, emerges. The new order was not desgned by any individual but emerged as a result of the organization’s collective creativity.”

The quote above inspires me as I think about the shift to 21st century thinking about learning and education. I think about Jennifer’s posting . I think right now we are in the state of chaos, confusion, uncertainty and doubt. But I’m looking forward to the bit where a new form of order emerges from our collective creativity!

There’s a lot more in this book which I won’t discuss here – maybe in a future posting – but suffice to say that it’s given me a whole new bunch of new concepts to think with, regarding “self-generating networks for knowledge building, learning, and change”. I wonder what you make of it?

Capra, Fritjof (2002) The Hidden Connections: Integrating the biological, cognitive and social dimensions of life into a science of sustainability. New York: Doubleday.

1 Capra credits the term “autopoesis” to biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (p.10)
2 Ilya Prigogone and his collaborators developed the theory of dissipative structures (p.13)

Future focussed issues , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Books that have shifted m(y)our thinking

April 5th, 2009

Years ago at NZCER we used to have lunchtime forums every now and again where we’d each talk about books we’d read, and why we liked them. It was awesome, and a great way to find out about titles you hadn’t heard of (also: knowing that they had been pre-read by a colleague meant there was a filtering-out of dross!)

Like many of my colleagues, I tend to get quite excited when I read something interesting. I go around telling people about it and recommending they read it too “so we can discuss it!”.  I’ve picked up a few really interesting non-fiction books in the last six months that I’ve been “pushing” others to read. One is Here comes everybody: the power of organizing without organizations by Clay Shirky. There’s so many ideas packed into this book that it’s hard to condense into a short summary – but in short, Shirky’s book is one of those great books that provokes us to do a whole lot of re-thinking about the nature of society in the 21st century, specifically, due to the impacts of networked technologies. (I’ve passed the book on to a team member, otherwise I’d grab it and try to put together a few notes for you here).

What I like about authors like Shirky and Malcolm Gladwell (author of some other favourite books of mine: The Tipping Point and Blink, plus Outliers which I haven’t read yet) is the way they carry you along through a page-turning blend of stories and theory. These are the kinds of books that “shift my thinking” and help me to suddenly look at familiar problems and situations in new ways. (For example, we’ve used a few ideas from Shirky’s book in our recent shiftingthinking.org development team meetings, to help us figure out what we want this site to do, and how we can engage other people  in working through and developing ideas in this space about learning and education in the 21st century).

Another book, Everything bad is good for you, by Steven Johnson, gave me a whole bunch of ideas about how our minds engage with popular culture – and these ideas are sitting subversively beneath my comment on Jim’s blog here. (Read his response here)**.

As a educational researcher I spend a lot of time reading “education” books and articles, and while this is obviously really important, I think that the most interesting ideas I’ve picked up from books tend to come from authors writing in other fields, like those I’ve mentioned above – because when I read them, I have to think really hard about “well, what does all this mean for education”? I’ve had some really interesting discussions over the years with various teachers and principals (and other researchers, of course) who also like reading and sharing good books, so I know there are others out there just waiting for the chance to share THEIR recommended reads so we can discuss them.

So – what have you read that’s provoked your thinking? What were its implications for thinking about education in the 21st century? What questions did it raise in your mind? Finally, where can we get a copy so we can also read it and discuss it with you here? Please post your comments!!

**As an aside, Steven Johnson’s book also made me feel totally legitimized for my lifetime’s dedication to watching television.

Shifting schooling , , , , , , ,

Shifting literacies

February 10th, 2009

What reading is meant to be

Two steps inside the door and I either had to veer to the left or stop at the “here’s the new stuff we expect will sell pretty well” table. I opened the first page of the first book I saw whose title was in bigger font than the author’s name. It’s worked in the past, but not this time. What I read was held together by poetic references I just didn’t get.

When you’re drowning in text, it’s probably natural to think you’re the problem – if only I knew a bit more stuff, I’d recognise the references. I suppose you could try to fix your inadequate self by enrolling in some kind of course but there might be ways around the problem that rely less on deficit thinking:

1. Ignore all obscure references

Simply read right over the top of them and go hunting for bits you do get. This is all very well but doesn’t quite fit if you think reading is about taking risks, about facing and experiencing the unfamiliar.

2. Make sense of them in your way, even if you think it may not be the author’s way.

This kind of behaviour will get you into trouble with some literary theorists, though – the ones who insist that any allusion understood in a way not intended by the author is a misreading (but you’re probably safe to practise this kind of subversion in the privacy of your own head). And besides, there are plenty of theorists who say texts can be read at various levels, so missing a few of the author’s intended meanings doesn’t result in the text being unintelligible to the reader.

3. Think of Anton.

Chekhov, that is: cherry orchards … “Is that it?” endings. He knew what reading was all about: “When I write I rely fully on the reader, on the assumption that he himself will add the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” Here was a man who actually thought something was missing until a reader comes along with all their subjectivity, their fabulous “baggage” (a middle child with a fear of rats, an inclination towards sugar, an aversion to obsequious shop assistants …) and uses it to help make sense of the text.

Remind yourself of Chekhov, then, whenever you get to a really dense bit – a bit that makes you suspect you’re not quite smart enough. He’ll reassure you that the writer’s job is to put the text out there in the world so readers will add themselves to the mix and make some kind of sense of the whole thing. This is what reading is meant to be.

Shifting literacies , , ,