Picture a beach along California’s beautiful coast with sand, sun, and a light breeze. Waves crash with regularity. Now imagine that one particular wave comes higher up the beach and splashes into a collection of driftwood. The effect of the wave on the wood depends on the wood’s weight, shape, and size. In short, the effect of the wave is determined by the wood, not the wave. One small, light piece of driftwood might be carried back into the ocean. A larger, heavier piece might stay on the sand with the water flowing around it.
Interactions between objects and their environment happen all the time, and it is sometimes easy to forget that the result of these interactions is not a simple cause and effect situation. We say that the rain caused a flood, or that a sunny day caused the flowers to bloom. The more accurate thing to say is that the structure of the land (the terrain, the ability of the soil to absorb water, etc.) determined that a flood resulted when the rain came, or the structure of the plant determined that a bloom resulted when there was adequate warmth and sunlight.
Isn’t the same thing true of teaching? Students have a structure, both physically and mentally, which will determine the result of interactions they have with their educational environment. Teachers present lessons and ideas to students, but does teaching “cause” learning?
One student might have a background of rich mathematical experiences, while another might be convinced that math is only for other people. One student may be healthy, well fed, and cared for at home, while another may feel ill or hungry, or there may be family troubles. Will the result of the day’s math lesson be the same in these students? Will they learn the same things? Will the teacher even teach them? Or is it that the structure of the student determines the result of the interaction with the lesson?
Is the implication here that teaching is impossible? Well, in a word, yes. At least in the way the word is traditionally understood. Humberto Maturana is a biologist who studies cognition. In his book, The Tree of Knowledge, he writes, “In the interactions between the living being and the environment…the perturbations of the environment do not determine what happens to the living being; rather, it is the structure of the living being that determines what change occurs in it. This interaction is not instructive, for it does not determine what its effects are going to be.”
It is fascinating to consider that phrase “interaction is not instructive.” Interactions happen in the form of lessons, but the student’s structure determines what the result will be, not the lesson. Are teachers valuable and important? Absolutely. But how might this idea change our view of what happens in a classroom?