This post is second in a series of three. In the previous post I provided a paradigm for life using a “living systems” model. I want to expand that paradigm beyond explaining how a living system (a human in this case) is interlocked with its physical world, to how one understands and makes sense of their world. I will use the same systems theory model used to understanding life to understand the “life” of one’s evolving (or static) worldview—their aggregate understanding of the world around them. So, let’s return to the model I previously used (modified from Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 135) in an attempt to answer the second part of my question: How does a learner incorporate new experiences and information into his or her prior understanding or worldview?
- The individual makes sense of the world as best they can with the information and experiences they’ve had, creating their “worldview.” However, everyone’s worldview is invariably incomplete, flawed, or of limited scope. No one is omnipotent! Though flawed, they are at equilibrium, which is a comfortable “resting” state for any system, requiring no energy use. Remember, that a living system uses resources from its environment to exist at a stable state (homeostasis) far from equilibrium. It is worth pointing out that a living system is at complete equilibrium with its surroundings only when it is dead and no longer taking in energy or matter from its surroundings and using for any life functions.
- New information is put into the system. These could be spontaneous experiences or planned lessons from a formal teacher, or even self-selected information by the learner. You can probably see the danger here. I’m using the term “learner” to describe anyone exposed to new information, ideas, or experiences. So, anyone interacting with their world.
- The learner takes in that information and works with it. The degree to which they work with it, as opposed to watching someone else work with it, will determine both their ultimate depth of understanding and the longevity of that understanding. Will they just rent the information, or will they “own” it?
- Using prior knowledge and experiences as a foundation, they will begin to make sense of this new experience or piece of information. If they have what I call a “lived” experience or authentic experience with it, they are more likely to attach it to an existing memory, which increases likelihood of building a long-lasting understanding. If it is completely new, they will construct a new metaphor to permanently house that information or experience, which will then become the foundation for new memories. One cannot live in a world that is “un-metaphorical.” I’ll call this new packet of information a “schema*.” As a photon is a packet of light energy, a chromosome is a packet of genetic information, a schema is a packet of information/experience. You can begin to see that our knowledge (memories) are stored in a complex system of our brain neurology as a series of interlocked systems themselves.
- Now comes the most important part—embracing “cognitive disequilibrium,” as Piaget labeled it. This new schema will have an impact on one’s worldview, causing the learner to experience disequilibrium as the new schema will upset the previously existing the system of his or her “resting” worldview. This is often uncomfortable. Recall that for living, growing, evolving lifeforms, a state away from equilibrium, but utilizing outside resources to maintain and fuel that stable state, is actually the homeostatic state for a living thing.
- At this point, we can fully embrace and embed the new schema and lean into our cognitive disequilibrium enough to own it and use it to push us to a new or modified worldview—where we will “rest” until a new schema is input into the system of our worldview and brain.
A systems view/definition is needed to truly define the nature of life, as a living thing itself is a set of complex systems nested together within a larger ecosystem/environment. The human brain is a system (made of smaller systems of cells) nested in the larger system of the human body. Therefore, the complex nature of how it works, meaning how it takes in, makes sense of, stores, and then recalls new knowledge, must also be understood through the lens of systems theory.
Okay, still with me through this first crack at understanding learning from this paradigm?
Next, I’ll take a first crack at the third part of my question of why it is so difficult to change someone’s mind once it is set.
*One last note about the word “schema.” The most appropriate word choice to describe this “packet of information/experience” might actually be the word “meme.” Richard Dawkins created this term in 1976 to define the “unit” that carries cultural ideas, symbols, practices, knowledge, etc. from one person or generation to the next. As a gene is to physical traits, a meme is to cultural “traits.” Unfortunately, this term has been hijacked by internet kittens. Though, it may not be a perfect fit for my needs either, so I’m not going to try and take it back from the internet kittens. Instead I’m using “schema”. However, I’m open to suggestions for a better term to define the “packets of information” we take in and incorporate into our worldview.
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Capra, Fritjof & Pier Luigi Luisi. 2014. The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Cambridge University Press. United Kingdom.