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Learning at its Best

Holons, Fractals and Dendrites, Oh My!

I’m sure some of you are familiar with the theory of “holons” that forms a significant part of the foundation of holistic education.  According to this theory, originally posited by Arthur Koestler in the 1960’s, and taken up by many subsequent holistic thinkers (notably philosopher, Ken Wilber, physicist, David Bohm, and educator/historian, Ron Miller) the cosmos can best be understood as an endless sequence of wholes within wholes, each one a complete entity – a stable and intermediate form both autonomous and integral to another holon within a hierarchy.  This conceptualization marked a radical shift in paradigm from the 18th century modernist notion of reductionism on which our system of education is largely based, that is objects or phenomena are best understood by dissecting and reducing them to constituent parts within a closed system.  One significant flaw in this modernist approach being that “the whole” is seen merely as a sum of its parts rather than as something much more significant.  In fact, according to Koestler, wholes and parts in an absolute sense do not exist anywhere.  Nothing exists without some context, nothing is a disjointed or disconnected piece.

Within this holistic conception of the cosmos, holons range in size from tiny subatomic particles to the unimaginably immense multiverse, but all are whole and integral.  Humans and our cultures are intermediate holons along this hierarchy, influenced both by the holons that precede and those that follow.  Each holon is a self-evolving structure within an open-ended system.  Confusing but profound stuff, worth exploring, I think.

I was intrigued recently to delve into what seems to me to be a related field of “fractals.” Here I noticed striking similarity to the concept of holons but with an even more fascinating twist, namely that these smaller wholes bear striking resemblance to the larger wholes within which they reside.  In other words there is an endless pattern of “self-similarity” as one descends into the microcosm or expands into the macrocosm.This fractal patterning  can be seen in nature for example in the growth habit of ferns, brassica vegetables, ice crystals, snow flakes and many many more organisms and entities.  In humans we see evidence of fractal-like growth in the formation of human brain and nerve cells, dendrites, as well as our vascular structure and even DNA structure.  It is now widely believed that the human mind is particularly well-suited in its capacity to both perceive and produce fractals within different structures.

Recently a researcher at McGill University, Dr. Daniel Levitin used a computer model to help analyze the rhythmic structure of musical compositions by a wide range of composers.  Surprisingly, (or not) he found the presence of fractal patterns.  These fractals varied dramatically from individual to individual but were remarkably consistent and identifiable within the various works of a single composer.  The fractal pattern was like a fingerprint, unmistakably identifying the work of a particular creator.

So, what does all this have to do with education?  Everything!  For starters, what if that notion we pay lip-service to, that every learner is unique, is really true?  Maybe if we could find the right analytical tools, it isn’t just in musical rhythm that fractals are to be found, but also in written language, in painting, in speech patterns, and in all of our “hundred languages.”  This uniqueness of the individual after all is what our intuition as parents and teachers scream to us every day.  And the key to unlocking the learning potential of an individual, realizing the goal of a self-actualized human has nothing to do with mastering standards and everything to do with figuring out the fundamentally unique fractal patterning that makes an individual who he/she is.  This “uniqueness” is manifest in every strand of DNA, every brain cell, and every learning encounter within this particular individual and is divergent from that of every other.  It seems to me that this understanding is a game-changer.  Standards and standards-driven education, assessment and curriculum design are an affront to our very nature, based on a huge misconception of what it is to be human.  It’s not about  mastering a predetermined set of skills or list of facts, its about nurturing an individual’s capacity to become themselves.  As Abraham Maslow wrote, “Self actualization is the intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately, what the organism is.”  And Parker Palmer adds, “now I become myself.”

Second, think what the concept of fractals says about curriculum.  It is foolhardy and unnecessary to try and “cover the field” within a discipline.  All the key insights and principles can be found within the microcosm.  It is akin to William Blake’s famous insight “to see the world in a grain of sand and hold eternity in the palm of your hand.”  We don’t need to cover all of world history to see the key underlying concepts of social studies, for example.  They are all present within the social dynamics of 21stcentury American culture, or even this very classroom, or this particular encounter: prejudice, exploitation, power, decision-making, love whatever you want to explore, here it is.  The same of course is true for all disciplines.  In fact why do we need to divide whole human experiences into artificial and arbitrary disciplines at all.  Can we strive towards wholeness, oneness?  What would a holistic curriculum look like?  Is the concept of curriculum still useful, or do we simply have all the life around us, between us and within us to explore?

Ice crack looks like dendrite

To me the field of fractals (and holism for that matter) is a huge and heady concept with vast implications that I have just begun and will continue to think about for some time.  But I couldn’t resist sharing a little peek through the window here.  I invite you to explore along with me.  What do you think?

About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


4 thoughts on “Holons, Fractals and Dendrites, Oh My!

  1. When I look at my schooling and career, I think like this. I wonder which patterns I’m repeating without critically examining them. I wonder which patterns I can’t get rid of; I wonder which patterns to hold on to.

    If we can really look at children as whole beings, perhaps more of us can learn how and why each child’s learning and education should be unique.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 1, 2012, 7:22 pm
  2. Hi Paul, So say more about the implications for education…What does this mean for you, over at Salmonberry, or for me, up in Boston?


    Posted by Kirsten | March 2, 2012, 2:22 pm
  3. For me, Kirsten, really the huge shift from when I used to teach at a large suburban public school district is that my focus used to be pretty exclusive on covering curriculum and content with particular attention to the standards. Now, I truly believe that the specifics of the content are largely irrelevant. My task is to engage deeply with the kids as we dive into nearly any subject. It is from the microcosm that the universal is revealed. So we shun textbook accounts, and really look at a particular aspect of the world, history or science from as many different perspectives, using as many different senses and learning styles as possible. The point is the deep engagement – akin to Palmer’s “Community of Truth.”

    Ultimately though the living subject leads you into the realization that the subject is merely the vehicle allowing you access to intimate relationship with the child. The fractal stuff I’ve been looking at recently has reminded me that even beyond exploring any subject, the teacher-learner relationship, as well as the whole point of education, should be about unlocking the intrapersonal and individual mystery and unleashing the potential for self-actualization.

    What it has to do with your learner’s in Boston, I don’t know – probably something about the Red Sox.

    Thanks for the question!

    (childhood Yankee fan 🙂

    Posted by Paul Freedman | March 3, 2012, 11:22 am

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