Education and Learning

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Education and Learning

Education, Living Organisms and Riley School

October, 2006

by Norm Hirst and Skye Hirst, PhD


Autognomics Institute

a philosophical research and consulting organization since 1992 providing original insights about living organisms and living processes.

Purpose of Paper

To relate the latest key research from past decade on "How Living Organisms Function" to traditional US education, and how the nature and value of the Riley School approach to education is closely aligned with latest Living Organism research.

Background on Norm Hirst and Autognomics Institute

Norm Hirst began this work at MIT 50 years ago as physicist, mathematician and process philosopher seeking meaning and functioning of the role of values in science. He discovered that values are only operative in living processes and science at that time did not work for living processes. He began looking for what was missing in science to provide new sciences that would work for living processes.

Culminating Norm's decades of investigation, the Institute is finding meta-principles and processes unique to living organisms, forming a new approach for thinking about life-itself, addressing emerging discoveries about organisms, and working towards a new definition for what living organisms are. The ultimate hope is to lay the formal foundations for a science of life-itself, providing leadership and facilitation to areas of business, health care, governmental ethics, education, meaning and caring of democracy, global peace, personal fulfillment and possibility leading to a world that knows its oneness.

Introduction and Foreword

During the last two decades advanced research in biophysics and related disciplines have revealed living organisms as never before. With modern technologies we are now able to observe the whole of a living organism as it lives. There are nuances and subtleties in how the living organism/the human being functions that would have been considered science fiction 50 years ago when I was first studying physics. I'm not speaking of discoveries in genetics, or cell biology or such. I'm speaking of a miraculous unified organism functioning like a jazz band with 75 trillion cells playing riffs and harmonies in 72 octaves of vibrations. It is a pure democracy with each cell functioning autonomously and yet together for the greater whole. There are no controllers. No feedback loops. None of the concepts we have invented to understand machines can apply. Living beings are in no way like a machine.

To understand what is being discovered, we need a new language, a way of viewing reality, we need a new mind, even a new science. In an attempt to bring this all down for use in looking at education and learning, I will examine how machine-like-thinking comparisons to the human brain have been in error when extended to children and their learning. I hope to provide a re-examination and bring into question long held assumptions about how a child learns, and in turn provide a "meta" view of how to support the natural learning and inherent self-determination of a child to know what it needs to learn, how to do it and when.

To do so I will introduce some of the "meta" logic about how a living organism functions based on emergent empirical research revealing new realities in physics that are in turn influencing discoveries in biophysics. A fundamental discovery is a communication system called the living matrix that connects every cell into a single unity through instantaneous communication. It connects to every cell with such high-speed communication that the whole organism functions as a single entity. No longer can we think of ourselves as beings with independently functioning organs as connected parts. Every cell is now aware of its entire organismic environment and is free to make its contribution.

Because the living being functions as a whole unity, you cannot educate the brain independently of the whole organism.

Glenna Plaisted, founded Riley School in Rockport, Me., 33 years ago, intuiting ahead of her time what is required for children in a learning environment. It is my intention to show how the Riley approach is aligned with emergent research and why it works and why we need to study further its success.

Today’s reality requires well-educated people. It is worth discussing what “educated” means especially in light of the "No Child Left Behind" Act that insists on accountability using "scientific evidence "of what has proven to work in our public school education. The law's insistence on a model for measurement that assumes first that all children can be measured according to a "lock step" "one size fits all" approach has foisted onto every child the lowest dimension of meaning of the word, education…equating it to having a diploma or degree with "minimum" passing or failing through passing a test. This resorting to "tried and true" methods takes us back, not forward. It creates the belief in black and white measurements, and cause and effect thinking about how children grow and learn, that they are like little cogs in a wheel. No wonder our children are not learning and our schools are in a state of crisis. Well intended, though it was, it has created the opposite of what living beings require to learn and function optimally in living learning environments. That includes the teachers as well as parents and administration.

Another paper may be required to address the issues where much correction is needed in the "No Child Left Behind."

The Error in Comparing Living Beings to Machines

In the last two decades biophysics has profoundly changed our previous knowledge and beliefs. Curiously it has invalidated biology as we've known it. Robert Rosen, a mathematical biologist (1934-1998), was a Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University. He wrote thirteen books including seven volumes of Progress in Theoretical Biology. Unfortunately, biology suffers the defects of what was considered scientific method. Rosen warned us in his book, “Life Itself”, not to ask biologists what life is. They don’t know!

Biologists, like all of us, are limited by paradigms. The past paradigms of science were reductionistic and mechanistic. By this paradigm, to understand a living organism, accepted scientific protocol requires taking it apart to get at the basic components that function as mechanisms. Mechanisms are processes prearranged to produce certain results given certain inputs. Put simply, living organisms have been studied as if they are machines. But they are not machines.

Historically, we have been misled in our thinking by an unfortunate propensity to think about living entities in terms of something we understand. Once upon a time we thought of humans as being clockwork mechanisms. Next it was telephone exchanges. Today it is computers. Thinking our brains are computers is common place. Our traditional assumptions about education are that intelligence is isolated to the brain, which is often seen as a computer needing new data to be supplied. Fortunately it is not true. If it were true, we would be lacking in intelligence and survivability.

Today the computer paradigm is popular. I earned my living programming computers many years including work in artificial intelligence. I understand them very well. Given what is now being discovered in biophysics I see there is no similarity between living organisms and computers.

Any understanding of humans was based on biology that could only see by cutting up cadavers, based on typical scientific protocols of reductionism (breaking it down to the smallest part to understand how something works). In the last two decades, biophysics has taken over from biology based on better technology for viewing what goes on in a living organism as it lives. It now becomes apparent that a human organism functions as a single unity. The processes cannot be divided up into parts like machines with cause and effect, cogs in a wheel.

Living organisms have will power. They initiate acts because they want to. I see nothing in science that deals with self-acting entities. From inputs, a computer may have been programmed to act in response. Otherwise they sit in an idle loop carrying out what ever has been programmed for the idle loop, if anything. Usually it is just looking for input signals. If we typed information into a computer that it has not been programmed to receive, it would not function. The same is true of a human. A person will not receive information he/she has not been prepared to receive. Unlike the computer, the human is constantly self-learning, self-determining, internally actively enquiring, not waiting passively for input signals.

How we know what we know how to do is still extremely mysterious. Consider a chessboard with chess pieces set up. A person is given a few seconds to look at it. Then the pieces are knocked down. The person is asked to set the board up again as it was. Unless the person is a chess expert they cannot do it. A chess expert can do it if the board setup could have occurred in an actual game. Otherwise it is a random set up and chess experts cannot do it either. How does this happen? It requires a kind of knowledge we have no conscious awareness of.

Following the last two decades of scientific discovery, we conclude that all of the concepts invented to work with machines are not appropriate for life. Gone are inputs, outputs, feedback and recursive processes. It is clear that the Cartesian-Newtonian world -view does not apply to life. None of these ideas hold up. Human beings have no similarity to machines.

Don’t ever compare living organisms to machines or computers! .

Riley School, a private elementary school for ages 4-14; founded in1972 by Glenna Plaisted. It is ungraded, with ratio of teacher to student 8:1, with approximately 80 students.

After years of teaching children in public schools, Glenna Plaisted realized there was something wrong with the way schools approached children. Thus she formed her own philosophy of education drawing on the best of progressive thought leaders, her own experience and started Riley School in Glen Cove, Maine. That was thirty-three years ago. Thirty years ago her philosophy must have been seen as more than controversial. It must have been seen as outrageous nonsense. But Glenna was an astute observer. Today the new science of biophysics supports her philosophy.

About the Riley philosophy Glenna has written:

“Children are born with curiosity, a fervent, innate desire to learn. We honor that at Riley. Our boys and girls learn through their own initiative, their own action. Learning, like life, is a process, not a result. Education is a process of child discovery. It's not the teacher giving facts to the child, but the child's own deep involvement. What we call play, the children call work.”

We highlight three Riley points:

  1. Children are born with curiosity, a fervent, innate desire to learn
  2. Children learn through their own initiative, their own action
  3. It's not the teacher giving facts to the child, but the child's own deep involvement.

Before exploring these points, let us first examine long held beliefs and approaches to education.

So what is education? Educare or Educere? " Or No Child Left Behind?

Common knowledge has been limited to a view of reality based on a 2500 year-old paradigm of what philosophers then could observe. We have been further confused by the triumphs of modern technology failing to recognize these had nothing in common with the processes of life. "Common sense or folk myth wisdom" about education is now based on misunderstanding of these previous two influences.

For our discussion, we will look at the commonly held definitions of education stemming from both "educare" and "educere."

   (for full article see addendem #1)
   Clearly, the basics are important in the education of any individual. A person who is schooled only to pass the test, however, is ill prepared to cope with today's rapidly changing world. Something more is needed to make the student successful in today's world. Some perspective on this issue can be gained from looking at the word "education."
   Craft (1984) noted that there are two different Latin roots of the English word "education." They are educare, which means to train or to mold, and educere, meaning to lead out. While the two meanings are quite different, they are both represented in our word "education." Thus, there is an etymological basis for many of the vociferous debates about education today. The opposing sides often use the same word to denote two very different concepts. One side uses education to mean the preservation and passing down of knowledge and the shaping of youths in the image of their parents. The other side sees education as preparing a new generation for the changes that are to come-readying them to create solutions to problems yet unknown. One calls for rote memorization and becoming good workers. The other requires questioning, thinking, and creating. To further complicate matters, some groups expect schooling to fulfill both functions, but allow only those activities promoting educare to be used.

We are now learning that living organisms are designed with definite internal ways to function and learn. "Educere" probably comes the closest to what supports the living organism as it naturally develops. However, I introduce a third definition to include "informare," to form within, a key to understanding how to facilitate students developing and mastering their own given abilities. We should think of humans in terms of "inner" functioning. Each one is uniquely equipped to function in this world. Each unique person is the only one who knows what is required for his/her unique learning processes and finding effective action for her/himself in the learning process. That means paying attention to what is going on with the child. I suggest that to support a child's learning, we recognize it's self-directed-learning through discovering effective acts. When you see a baby swatting at toys hanging in his/her crib you are watching the beginning of self-directed-learning. This process most likely begins even within the womb.

These ways have to be respected and allowed for optimum learning, otherwise we interfere and destroy the ability of children to learn how to manage their lives from their own knowing. With the predominant education approach, learners have to compensate for the interference and even more troublesome, they cannot find meaning in their lives. Their own unique identity is not discovered by them and sometimes lost forever.

In contrast, Riley School better supports the intrinsic needs for education. Riley School may well show how to create a living, learning environment that works best for living beings with the highest value for the meaning of education which we propose is to support "informare" to form within. To understand we must now pay attention to what is going on inside the organism since it is now possible to do so. With what we now know about these inner processes, we cannot continue with long outmoded beliefs about learning. We cannot assume that, from observed behavior, the reasons for it can be inferred. Every child is unique functioning by his/her own unique internal logic. Every child will learn differently at his/her own stage of readiness. This totally invalidates the assumptions behind "No Child Left Behind" (see addendum #2).

Let me make the connection between recent research about living organisms and education?

First the following is a discussion of breaking insights about what is life and how living Organisms Function:

Emergent knowledge brings up new questions and thinking on the properties of life?

What is Life?

The old official definition has declared that something alive has three properties:

  • It is carbon based
  • It grows
  • It can reproduce

But in our opinion, in the light of what is being discovered today, the old official definition is downright inadequate.

   In physics, it is believed that everything is subject to the second law of thermodynamics. In 1940 Erwin Schrodinger, famous for his contributions to quantum physics for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1933, contributed a book, “What is Life?”  In it he said that life is not subject to the second law.  Living organisms produce ektropy to cancel entropy.  In any event we know today that living organisms are not subject to the second law. Why not define life as not being subject to the second law?  The old official definition of life does not account for what we now see as living by Schrodinger's definition. 

Definition: a "living organism" is a society of living entities functioning as a coherent unity, according to its will, to adapt and create new order. Perhaps we can redefine what is alive by that which does not obey the second law.

Points I wish to consider:

  1. Each human being is a society of 75 trillion living cells in the constant process of generating new possibilities and creating new order. The subtlety and nuance of how a living organism functions, learns and creates new order within itself far outstretches our current education theories of development and learning.
  2. No matter how outrageous and ridiculous it may seem, living organisms have no information inputs. We now have to discover what they do have.
  3. What they do have is a desire to learn because their survival depends on it and they have the ability to act, to find out what they need to know.

Old ideas; Humans are often thought of as input-output machines. It is commonly thought that the brain is like a computer in our heads and it is the source of information and control. Memories are in the brain. That is where our intelligence is. Based on perception, that is where images of the world reside. I have heard it said that if you cannot say it you don’t really know it; language is in the brain. The standard theories of perception begin with the senses passively receiving messages then being sent to the brain to determine their meaning followed by the brain calculating a response if required.

NO! For living organisms this is totally impossible.

In no way does the brain function as a computer. In no way can it develop anything in independence of the whole organism functioning as an ensemble.

To understand living organisms requires changing our view from only observable outside behaviors of the organisms to the world inside the organism. What is the natural logic going on inside? How does a living organism function? Living organisms are born into a changing world. They cannot be programmed, as computers are, because what the state of the world will be at birth and during their lifetime is not known. Instead they are equipped with ways of learning what they need to know. It might be said that they are equipped to self-learn effective acts, to form and verify, within.

"Informare" means to form within – an internal process of the organism. Although this is the root of the word "information" the meanings couldn't be farther apart. Living organisms are closed systems when it comes to information or data. Closed systems means that nothing can enter them. When they act, results produce perturbations or unexpected disturbances within. The living system then produces new knowledge for removing the perturbation by creating and testing new acts.

Life requires a great deal of diversity, and that requires that each of us develop our individual self. Living organisms are unique. Their uniqueness is the identity defined by the organizing principles forming their body-mind manifestation. Thus we might say that an organism is the only creature that knows how to operate itself. Thus they must be autonomous. The need for autonomy is the reason for there being no input. Autonomy means self-law. Input, if it were allowed, could land in a totally inappropriate environment.

Autonomy implies that there is no cause and effect operating in an organism. Every element is free to choose its own acts. Without cause and effect, how does the organism choose? Living processes act on the basis of values. I suspect that children have a better sense of values than adults. Typical social and educational processes impose a contrary anti-life order.

The human organism is constantly active, serving its own purposes. Sometimes there is a perturbation that it will interpret based on learned effective acts. We mistakenly call this input. If it serves its purpose, it may respond. We mistakenly call this output.

Living organisms:

  1. Have senses, not sensors
  2. The brain is not a computer, nor does it proceed by computation.
  3. Function holistically

A living Organism Must learn Effective Acts:

Through nuance, felt senses of coherence throughout the organism, the organism functions as a unity.

Old Ideas: Traditional understanding is that the human body has only three inner communication systems, i.e., the nervous system, blood flow and the immune system. In terms of static structure, the body is composed of many parts such as the organs. The body is a bag of parts.

But I have heard it said that organisms are more than the sum of their parts. In truth, our bodies are no longer considered to be a bag of parts. All the new talk about holism cannot overcome the slowness of such known communication systems. So how does it work?

Previously unknown communication systems within the body/mind, and I think the most important one, is now called the “living matrix”. The living matrix consists of a network of connective tissue. This matrix is the only communication system that actually reaches every cell in the body, barring discoveries I don’t know about. This tissue has electromagnetic properties that provide for instant communication throughout the entire body. Thus all processes in the body unite everything into a single functioning entity. (The current fragmented medical model of separate organ specialties cannot identify or treat whole body diseases.) If someone touches your skin, the entire body knows it through the living matrix instantly. The body is aware of events before the nervous system is. This has to change a great deal of thinking.

Old Ideas: The standard theory is that senses pick up data signals and send it to the brain for processing.

Standard theories of perception need to be reversed 180 degrees.

A sensor is a technology built to detect something passively. A sense is directed to actively look for this or that to detect what has changed. A sense is asking a question. A sensor is just waiting to detect.

To survive, a living organism has to learn effective acts using senses in the way of asking questions as to what has changed.

An effective act is one that is judged by the organism as having accomplished what the organism intended by doing it. This could be a thought act, a physical act or combination of them.

With a little difficulty, I'll try to explain this process. When an organism acts, reafference messages are sent throughout the organism to find out what changed internally and externally. There is an internal "felt sense" which is comprised of all the answers to the reafference messages, history of experience, values and more we are only now learning about. These internal "felt senses" function to maintain a coherence within while acting and learning new actions. They are not sensors or passive receptors of what ever they have been built to detect. The combined inner "felt senses" are in active inquiry. The reafference messages tell the senses what they need to “perceive”.

Thus I may see a snowflake as just a snowflake. An Eskimo may have learned to see all sorts of snowflakes. A baby swatting at toys hanging in his/her crib has started the process of learning. It advances in many ways such as crawling, walking and language by learning to associate sounds with certain "inner felt sense experiences".

Quote from Glenna, says "No one else will know the child as well as he/she knows herself."

Each student is a whole organism born with a purpose that the student knows best how to fulfill.

I have read that a newborn butterfly has a hard struggle to get out of its cocoon. A well-intended person may try to help by making a hole in the cocoon so the butterfly can escape. When the hole is made the process stops and the butterfly dies. Turning to students being whole organisms with a purpose, I wonder if traditional education practices do not destroy something inside. I believe it does.

A student’s purpose is manifest in their identity. The identity is the organizing principles of the student's body/mind functioning. It is invariant through out the life of the organism. No two are the same. Human beings have a powerful desire to learn. Their lives depend on it. The only way they have to learn is by acting, i.e., with simple acts such as the baby swatting at toys hanging over the crib. They progress with learning to crawl and then to walk. They associate sounds with acts and learning language begins. Throughout their lives learning will continue through finding successful acts. Ultimately their choice of acts to try will depend on their purpose. That is where we should be concerned. Given the old views on education they will be forced to learn in ways that are neither natural nor appropriate to their unique purpose.

Learning requires practice of acts:

You might say, some memorization is necessary like learning the multiplication tables. As a young student, I learned my multiplication tables not by memorizing facts, but by learning acts. When memorization involves acts, then whole organism learning is taking place.

Studying physics at MIT taught me an important lesson. I could have memorized every equation in the textbook and flunked out. The only way to learn physics is by doing physics. I often find this idea confusing to people. They would ask what I meant by doing physics. Doing means to start with a hard problem, know the most basic equations to apply and working the mathematics to arrive at a conclusion. Just as learning to play the piano requires constant practice so does learning physics. At MIT the exams featured problems one couldn’t even have imagined. With sufficient practice they were usually rather easy. With out sufficient practice there wasn’t a chance of solving them.

Words cannot capture the full meaning. You can say the right words and still not understand a thing. To know something requires a whole organism knowing which test scores cannot reflect.

Consider my first day of sailing. I had purchased a sailboat. Since I did not know how to sail I purchased a book on how to sail. I studied the book thoroughly. With confidence that I knew enough I went out in my boat. What a horror! I did what the book said. The boat did not respond as the book said. There I was out on the water and did not know how to do anything to get back. I was scared, but when I calmed down I decided to experiment. Thus I learned what the boat wanted. After years of sailing I was visiting a friend on his boat moored in the harbor next to mine. Suddenly he jumped up to start the engine while yelling at me to drop the bowline. Having run to the bow and doing as he said I turned and saw what he saw. There was a small sailboat struggling to get back into the harbor. We could see a family on board. The children were crying, the wife was screaming and the captain was struggling in panic. We got them back in and safe. The “captain” had never sailed. He bought a “how to” book and rented a boat for the day to take his family out. Remembering my experience I looked at my how to book again. Everything it said was now exactly what I experienced.

In Summary

Education cannot be based on the idea that there is an empty brain needing to be filled - "educare." No organ in the body functions independently of the whole body. Education/learning has to involve the entire organism, Involving the whole organism has to be chosen by the whole organism.

The Bottom line

Schools cannot educate. The most they can do is support the individual’s natural desire to learn to form within that which is in concert with the identity's purpose. In their attempt to "educare" to train, schools do considerable damage by interfering with an extraordinarily exquisite process.

  1. Self directed learning is the child’s first experience in directing and fulfilling his/her life. Cutting off or interfering with that process reminds me of the butterfly analogy. There is something important inside that dies.
  2. Learning requires experimenting with life to learn effective acts. Play may be more the work of children.
  3. Schools typically teach that one must get it right thus ending the willingness to experiment. Learning becomes painful! Neither educare nor educere are achieved.
  4. Timing of the child's development can only be determined from child to child, with careful iteration with the child as is done at Riley.
  5. Memorization of facts does nothing for a child's "informare processes." Learning the times tables is an exception because it is not learning facts, it's learning acts.
  6. Schools can facilitate, provide resources, introduce possibilities, create a safe space, create a rich environment for exploration, but ultimately the job of a school is to get out of the way of a child's natural healthy and robust curiosity and inquiry because their survival depends on it. It's most what a child wants to do.
  7. The necessity of our times is to support creative, critical thinking and learning, to help our children do what they do best; effective action discovery, not memorization of facts. At Riley through many processes including much emphasis on the arts, children learn how to find effective action for their identity processes.
  8. Don't try to educate for the masses, but allow the individual her/his own process and curriculum as is done at Riley.
  9. Standards set using only language testing as measurement is no standard at all. You have no clue what the child does and does not know. No grades are used at Riley, instead, see Riley evaluation process.
  10. If natural curiosity and learning is not squelched, then the child does not require external motivators like gold stars, grades, etc. Students at Riley are supported to be self-motivated, and self-directed.
  11. Competition is not natural to living organisms, cooperation is. However being driven by competition may be a learned cultural value perceived as an effective act. What you value is what you create. See Riley Values as stated by students.
  12. "No child left behind" may be interfering with the normal inner processes leaving children, and the later adults, without confidence to manage their own lives.

From what we are now learning about living beings, a new kind of learning environment is required. Look to Riley School in Rockport, Me for learning how to do it. For more on Riley School see