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The Self-Organizing Child

The Self-Organizing Child

Written by
Chris Mercogliano

Chris Mercogliano

Chris worked with children for thirty-five years at the Albany Free School, the oldest inner-city alternative school in the U.S. He is also the author of Making It Up As We Go Along, the Story of the Albany Free School (Heinemann 1998), Teaching the Restless, One School’s Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed (Beacon Press 2004), How to Grow a School: Starting and Sustaining Schools That Work (Oxford Village Press 2006), and In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness (Beacon Press 2007). This essay is from his book A School Must Have a Heart. His essays, commentaries, and reviews have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and journals around the world, as well as in seven anthologies; and he has been featured on National Public Radio, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio, and many other radio networks. The father of two daughters, he lives with his wife Betsy on a one-acre farm in downtown Albany, New York. Read more of his writing on his website.

A revolution in science is quietly underway, one that began a half-century ago on the far edge of quantum physics and is gradually making its presence felt in every area of human inquiry.

Why begin an essay on teaching and learning alternatives with this bit of seemingly unrelated news? Because scientific paradigms become the lens through which we view reality. They shape the structure and function of all of our social institutions, including our educational institutions. This isn’t to say that a host of political and economic factors don’t equally influence how schools go about their business, but allow me for argument’s sake to sketch an equation linking the paradigm that has dominated Western thinking for over three hundred years and the educational model that is so thoroughly entrenched in the West today. Afterwards, I will sketch a similar equation linking the aforementioned revolution and the kind of education that it implies.

“Mind and body are recognized as a single, co-evolving whole, and children as self-organizing, self-regulating beings capable of generating their own learning and their own order. Spontaneity and open-endedness are valued over externally imposed structure and routine. And there is still a place for myth and mystery.”
When Isaac Newton demonstrated that he could quite accurately analyze the motion of physical objects both on earth and in the heavens, the idea was born that the universe is wound up like a giant watch and that science, given time, will be able to deduce its basic operating principles by breaking everything down into its component parts. In a Newtonian world, Nature is predictable, orderly, and docile—and the objective is to place her under Man’s dominion.

As is the way of scientific revolutions, Newton’s model spread beyond math and physics to become the template for all of science. Two hundred years later, the biologist Charles Darwin applied Newton’s model to the animate realm, claiming that the principles of random mutation and natural selection are a sufficient explanation for the incredible diversification.

Strongly influenced by Darwin, the psychologist Edward Thorndike experimented on caged monkeys and concluded that learning, both animal and human, is caused by the “selection of impulses,” later to be called “positive and negative reinforcement” by his successor B.F. Skinner. Today, Thorndike is recognized as the father of educational psychology.

Therein lies the scientific basis for our contemporary carrot and stick approach to education. Entirely rational, this approach is steeped in ideas about order and control. Every outcome is measured. Nothing is left to chance. Children are regarded as machines in need of programming, an idea epitomized in the May 1998 Newsweek cover story entitled “How to Build a Better Boy.”

While the Newtonian paradigm has successfully fueled unfathomable technological progress, along the way cutting edge scientists have begun exploring a new paradigm based on the inability of Newton’s laws to account for complex living phenomena such as human beings. In these “open systems,” so called because they are constantly exchanging energy and information with their environment, growth and development tend not to occur in a logical, predictable fashion. Rather, says Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine, here change takes place “on the edge of chaos.” Adaptation is not the result of external forces, but rather is brought about by an internal process of self-organization.

According to this as yet unnamed paradigm, life is too complex for cause and effect explanations. Newton’s basic building blocks are of little use because, writes physicist Fritjof Capra in The Web of Life, there are no components. What we call parts are actually patterns in an inseparable web of relationships.

In a Capran universe, mind and body are recognized as a single, co-evolving whole, and children as self-organizing, self-regulating beings capable of generating their own learning and their own order. Education is therefore contextual, not analytical. Spontaneity and open-endedness are valued over externally imposed structure and routine. And there is still a place for myth and mystery.

May we live to see the day when our dominant educational model sheds its scaly dragon skin and is reborn as a dolphin swimming in an ocean of possibilities.

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