Systems Thinking

The members of the Research Division here at AIMS have been reading Humberto Maturana and Fracisco Varela’s book, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. These biologists describe how cognition and understanding emerge and are constructed out of single cellular organisms, and as they are coupled together in multi-cellular entities like humans. These multi-cellular entities possess individual systems that course through, influence, and are influenced by each other and the environment that surrounds them. The authors go even further and describe how we, as individual organisms, couple together to form multi-entity systems from which knowledge and understanding are also outgrowths. I have been fascinated lately by one such system that I interact with: a system of persons interested in bringing a focus on joy-filled learning to the forefront. In other fields, it would be called a network and accurately so, though I also find it helpful to think of it as a biological system.

The individuals within this system are varied in individual structure, and self-producing entities. They live and exist in a wide-array of environments all over the planet. By and large they know each other through other systems designed to foster communication (the Internet -think of that word and its etymology). Prior to those systems, they would have been far less a system and more a disconnected collection of kindred spirits. Honestly, before the Internet, how could myself, an Hungarian Art major, a Finnish Mathematician/Poet/Historian, an American Banker/Artist, a disgruntled Canadian Teacher turned Author, and a Princeton Research Mathematician all have found each other to connect around the joy of learning mathematics? Some of these connections might have been made, sure. I am a mathematics teacher turned math education professor/researcher, it makes sense that I would encounter a research mathematician, but if you include the others in this system, this coupling is a decidedly 21st century construct.

It’s been said over and over in other venues, “The Internet is changing us,” or something similar; I am certain you have heard it, and perhaps thought it, yourself. It is not going away, we are coupled to it, and it to us. The system of people dedicating themselves to the teaching of mathematics as a human, joyful, and uplifting subject is not going away either. The goal of helping to shift the focus in learning from dull and lifeless regurgitation to an affirming, emancipating, and uplifting subject has already begun its inexorable rise to self-producing (autopoiesis).


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