What Can We Learn From “The Tree of Knowledge”?

This fall semester, our research learning group at the AIMS Center is starting an interesting book study based on The Tree of Knowledge by Humberto Maturana. Up to this point, our group has read a variety of books by Jean Piaget, the father of constructivism, and concentrated on the related theme of Radical Constructivism as defined by Ernst Von Glasersfeld. The goal of such a group study is to present a common experience within a constructivist environment which we can all bring our personal training and experiences to bare on a focused set of ideas. Overall, we would like those in the AIMS Center to begin to understand how children and adults “come to know” science and mathematical content, and find a way to model and translate those ideas to the classroom to help transform both teacher and student learning alike. To reach this worthy goal it has involved the AIMS team stretching ourselves far afield and diving deeply into integrative overlapping research involving constructivism, psychology, cognitive development, philosophy, and even neuroscience of the brain.

The Tree of Knowledge is going to be a particularly interesting study, and one I hope will stretch our group in many different ways. Maturana, as a biologist, has taken a much different frame of reference than Piaget or Von Glasersfeld to developing his theory, the “Biology of Cognition.” His theory, often referred to as “Autopoietic,” attempts to explain why the cognitive processes in humans as a species is directly related to the operation of humans as living systems. Maturana’s conjecture is that if we want to begin to understand our cognitive process then we need to deeply understand ourselves as living systems; the mechanics of how life is able to exist from individual cells (the micro) to the interaction of these cells to create the entire organism (the macro). His conjecture is that there is a synergistic relationship between how cells communicate with each other and how we as humans communicate with one another as well as our own surroundings. Maturana invites the reader to personally reflect on how “we do what we do” as observers and think deeply about the epistemology of knowledge. In his book, he discusses how we will have to let go of some of our fixed “Western certainties” and look at cognition through the lens of a different biological insight.

It should be an interesting few months in the AIMS Center as we each carefully read this book and examine its ideas through our own frame of reference. It is my hope that we will not only begin to understand Maturana’s Theory of Biological Cognition, but as a group, we will be able to model Piaget’s idea of constructivist learning as we play with some of these new ideas.

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