eco-systemic thought

Eco-systemic thought: Education, Learning, and Citizenship in the 21st Century by Maria Cândida Moraes

The following is my version of a chapter in one of the books by Brazilian educational researcher Dr. Maria Cândida Moraes. The original work is in Portuguese, and apparently there are no English versions of her work available online. This is a personal work of translation which aims at sharing the extremely pertinent thought proposed by Moraes with my English-speaking community. I also felt compelled to engage in this translation, for it requires a certain density of understanding which I find extremely rich. In the words of Moraes herself:

“We know by experience that in all translation there is some betrayal, and that in all interpretation there is reconstruction by that who interprets. Pedro Demo (2000) comes to the rescue by saying that ‘hermeneutically speaking, knowledge never manages to stay the same, even if it wanted to. Transmitting is never just reproducing […] and all copy is, at least partly, also reconstructed’ (ibid.: 125)” ~ Maria Cândido Moraes

I hope you enjoy reading Moraes as much as I have.


moraes Part 3: The Eco-systemic Paradigm for Education (pgs 241 – 246) 

Today we know that, adjacent to the roots of quantum, biological, and complex thought, there are epistemological seeds capable of grounding the process of knowledge construction, the development of learning, networked knowledge, self-organizational processes, autonomy, and creativity. These are seeds which can also influence human thought to develop towards a new way of constructing and reconstructing not only education, but also, and most importantly, a better repositioning of the learner/apprentice with regards to the world and life, providing a more adequate perspective of what reality is as well as the meaning of the individual’s own humanity.

The epistemological grounds provided by these theories strongly oppose the traditional causal model present in instructionist theories, at the same time offering some important pedagogical keys embedded in these macroconcepts and that, perhaps, might be better understood and explored by educators and science in general. Today, more than ever before, we have come to the realization that our school is reproductive, authoritarian, and autocratic in that it works with knowledge in its most linear approach, materialized in the teacher that talks and the student that listens and copies. The more aligned the student is with the teacher’s own linearity, the better his grades.

In reality, the theories approached here unfold the complex nature of knowedge and learning. They also reveal certain meaningful parameters, principles, and values which may serve the reconfiguration of a new educational scenenery and which may foster pedagogical practices that are more dynamic, integrating, complex, and holistic, and which thus require a greater conceptual clarity with regards to knowledge, learning, and the complexity involved in the educational processes.

Education, culture, and society are all complex systems, whose workings entail diverse areas of human knowledge, and which require a broader, more ample view of the solutions for their issues. We have an educational reality which is systemic and which, therefore, requires a treatment compatible to its nature.

This same complexity is present in the knowledge construction and learning processes, whose non-linear nature is seen in the interpretive processes which are dialogically complex because they are intrinsically reconstructive and productive, as explained by Pedro Demo (2000). We know by experience that in all translation there is some betrayal, and that in all interpretation there is reconstruction by the one who interprets. Pedro Demo (2000) comes to our rescue by saying that “hermeneutically speaking, knowledge never manages to stay the same, even if it wanted to. Transmitting is never just reproducing […] and all copy is, at least partly, also reconstructed” (ibid.: 125).

However, we know that such comprehension is not easy, especially to those educators who are accustomed to grouding their work in specific theoretical references. In every day life, a majority of people is also used to perceiving and interpreting the world from the perspective of classical physics, which apprehends the visible reality as being structured, stable, and most events as predictable, predetermined, and rationality being the state of mind best suited and most greatly used for the construction of technical-scientific knowledge. Nonetheless, we also perceive that physicists themselves stimulate, in their heated philosophical discussions, the possibility that there is something wrong in the materialistic realism founded on the notion that real objects are independent from subjects or from the way in which we observe them, thus signaling some epistemological developments (Goswami, 2000).

Today, it is no longer possible for us educators to ignore the epistemological implications of the scientific knowledge involving the concepts of self-organization, complexity, chaos, undeterminism, and non-linear dynamics which determine living systems. We notice that these macroconcepts or new themes, when allied with cognitive science (Varela et al., 1997), set forth a more challenging vision of the morphogenesis of knowledge, a non-linear vision of the dynamics of reality, which, more than ever, unveils the intricacies between cognition and life (Maturana & Varela, 1995). For these authors, living systems are cognitive systems, and life is a process of cognition. The interactions which take place within living organisms are aways cognitive interactions that are built upon the very flow of life. It is in this flow of life that, upon actions and reactions, we shape our world and are shaped by it. From this structural imbricacy, subject and world emerge together. And what is the meaning of that for education?

We have come to realize that this theoretical reference corroborates to a better understanding of the complex bio-psycho-sociogenesis of human knowledge, as explained by Hugo Assmann (1998). In this view, one acknowledges the evolutionary trajectory or the presence of heredity in the constitution of human beings, associated with the diverse environmental contexts in the way human competences develop and evolve.

From Biology, we have learned that each learner possesses his own structural dynamic, which is unique and untransferable, and which does not admit replication. It is something constitutive of his personality, of his ways of being, of learning and of ‘feelthinking’ (Moraes & Torre, 2002). It is, after all, something inherent to the learner’s way of knowing and being in the world. By the same token, inspired by Maturana, we know it is from the congruence between his structural dynamic and his historical-cultural journey that the individual is capable of interpreting reality and of realizing his own humanity.

From Physics, we understand that reality does not exist outside of the observer, which explains why we create the world in our image and likeness. From Physicochemistry, especially with Prigogine, we learn that equilibrium states, both in mechanics and in thermodynamics, resonate in biology as it does in society. Fluctuations resulting from both external and internal causes may result in new structures and, under certain circumstances, noise, disturbance, randomness, detours, and other conditions, morph into a source of order and renewal.

Which meaningful implications do these concepts suggest? One of them is the acknowledgement of motivation as the driving force of self-organizing processes, and that it depends on what takes place inside the system. Motivation is always endogenous, happening from the inside out. And to what extent is the cognitive dimension of the individual a part of the self-organizing dimension of life? If we consider the notions that “the whole is in the part which is in the whole” (Morin, 1995: 109), it becomes easier to undersatnd that the cognitive dimension also possesses a self-organizing dynamic, not only in relation to autonomy, but also in the individual’s actions upon the world around him, since autonomy depends on the group of the individual’s relations with his environment.

From this new theoretical framework, what is it to learn and to know? If we must define this paradigm more clearly, what are the dimensions which might be involved in this theoretical construction?


MORAES, Maria Cândida. Pensamento Eco-Sistêmico: Educação, aprendizagem e cidanania no século XXI. 2 ed. -Petrópolis, RJ: Vozes, 2008.

Complexity, Heutagogy and the Role of the Teacher

I have been immersed in readings of complexity lately. I must say it has been quite messy, for I have found myself wandering from one author to another and back to one again, and in the meantime I have also been reading from the resources that my cherished pln has been sharing on all of my online community platforms. While we’re at it (at ‘messy’ that is), I have felt compelled to share some of my impressions and thoughts on the subject of complexity from an educational standpoint, which will hopefully help me make sense of all of the… erm… complexity that I’ve been taking in. Coming and going from the writings of Maria Cândida Moraes to Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela to Edgar Morin has been absolutely amazing. It is a deep dive into the ocean of (seemingly, and I suspect literally, endless) imbrications pertaining complex thought and its affordances in the arena of education.

Moraes’ (2004) Eco-systemic thought drinks from Maturana & Varela’s (1984) concept of Autopoiesis, which implies that all living beings are naturally capable of continuously (re)producing the elements that make up their own selves/structures via interaction with their environment/ecosystem. It is this constant interaction, or metabolic process, which enables the continuity of life. This life-ensuring cycle takes place within living beings, which are open, autonomous, self-organizing systems inserted in larger systems, ad infinitum. Within the living system are its components, and such components are organized in a given way. Organization is another key concept for Maturana & Varela, in that it is the way in which any specific group of elements are articulated or organized, defining the class to which that being belongs, in other words, defining its identity. For Morin (1997, as cited by Moraes), a complex unit or system emerges from the articulation of interactions among the components that constitute that system. Therefore, a complex system is made up of its components plus the interactions among them which re-organize the system, ultimately ensuring the continuity of its existence.

Going back to the idea of systems within systems, Moraes says that life itself may be recognized as a system of systems of systems, where the processes are imbricated and attached to one another. A system is made up of parts which are in themselves systems made up of parts. In the words of Morin (1995, as cited by Moraes) “the whole is in the part which is in the whole”. Therefore, to understand the parts of a whole, an understanding of the whole is fundamental. Similarly, to understand the whole, one needs to understand its constitutive parts. Moraes (2004: 65) goes on to extrapolate that construct, saying:


Society as a whole is also within each one of us from birth to death, by means of family conversations, culture, school, language, and the kinds of individual intelligences that prevail in society. The individual carries within himself the different modes of expression of the society to which he belongs. Similarly, the cognitive dimension of the individual is part of the organizational dimension of life. That, in a way, conveys the idea that human knowledge depends, fundamentally, on the relation of the individual with the outside world, of his active engagement with his surroundings. ~ Maria Cândida Moraes

Enter Stewart Hase & Chris Kenyon with their concept of Heutagogy – the study of learning as a self-determined process. According to these guys, heutagogy sets forth a pedagogical model which is in steep opposition to the model informed by teacher-centered learning. In their paper (2001), they explore the theoretical grounds onto which heutagogy is constructed, citing Rogers (1951), who advocates that learning is as natural a process as breathing, and that it is an internal process which is controlled by the individual/learner. Rogers (1969, as cited by H&K) suggests that willingness to learn in an ongoing fashion is a natural disposition in individuals, basing his student-centered approach on some key hypotheses, among which are (1) that learning can only be facilitated, and (2) that meaningful learning depends on how relevant or useful the learning of something will be for the maintenance or enhancement of self. I can see TEFL pros nodding as they read this, since this is an all-too-familiar approach for us.

Hase & Kenyon (2001) situate heutagogy within the scope (and as a development) of andragogy,  in that heutagogical practices have been useful in informing distace education rationale with its self-directed learning notion. It is only natural that self-directed learning be associated with adult learners, in my opinion. It is also among the reasons why online education offers learning opportunitites which are mostly seized by (and therefore catered to) adult individuals. Self-directed learning requires the intensity of commitment and hard work, as well as the acquisition/development of certain skills, such as tech skills, which children or teenagers would not commonly have the discipline/method for, or strength of intrinsic motivation which an optimal learning experience in an online environment generally requires from the learner. That is not to say that children and teenagers are not tech savvy or are not overall motivated to learn. It’s more that they are at a point in their cognitive development and social lives that naturally (and biologically) pressupose a certain level of rebelliousness, of playfulness (both of which might also and very well serve as drive for adult learners, but that is enough matter for another post entirely).

This whole argumentation around complex systems, self-directed learning, adults, children and teenage learners, brings me to the controversy of Sugatra Mitra’s model of self organized learning environments (SOLEs) and a blog post written by Jeremy Harmer on a talk Mitra has recently given in IATEFL 2014. Harmer concisely and effectively put into words what many of us, TEFL pros and educators alike, have certainly been puzzling over. Harmer begins by questioning Mitra’s educational utopia by addressing exactly the notion of self-directedness and motivation in learning.


Any teacher with experience knows that it is one thing to put educational temptation in a child’s way (or an adult’s); quite another for that student to actually be tempted.  Mitra’s claim is that this always works, a kind of learner autonomy nirvana. Yet we know this is just not true. Some students try to be autonomous and some don’t. Some succeed and some don’t. In any group different roles are played; not all learners learn equally. There is nothing wrong (and everything right) with discovery-based experiential learning. It just doesn’t work some of the time. ~ Jeremy Harmer 

My point exactly, Jeremy. He goes on to argue that good teaching is about an awareness of one’s role(s) as a teacher. It’s about intervention and mediation. And may I add that it’s also about coaching and nurturing. We teachers are, after all, complex systems ourselves, who are part of the ecosystem materialized in formal education. Learners are also complex systems in constant re-organizational dynamics (learning), not only of academic content or any given subject-matter, but also of what it means to be part of a larger complexity which is the society in which they are inserted and to which they will hopefully contribute in order to implement maintenance, change, or even improvement. Harmer also critiques Mitra’s statement that knowledge is no longer necessary, since all knowledge and information is now available online. Mitra not only belittles the effectiveness and value of the education system, equivalently bellitling the role of the teacher, but he also fails to acknowledge the literally vital role that learning plays in an individual’s life. As advocated in Maturana’s autopoietic theory, living beings are open complex systems that need to assimilate matter/information from its ecosystem in order to reorganize itself, ultimately ensuring the continuation of life. As Harmer so eloquently (and fiercely) puts it:


Our knowledge is, on the contrary, the seat of our intuition and our creativity. Furthermore, the gathering of that knowledge from our peers and, crucially, our elders and more experienced mentors is part of the process of socialization. Humanity has thought this to be self-evident for at least 2000 years and though it is the responsibility, perhaps, for younger people to constantly challenge the status quo, still that social interaction between experience and inexperience, age and youth etc is the way society grows and how children become socialized. ~ Jeremy Harmer

Which brings me to the role of the teacher. It is my belief that an awareness of such discussions is part of the role of the teacher. Never before in the history of mankind have we teachers been so intensely challenged to think and rethink, to learn and relearn. It is of the utmost importance that teachers become deeply aware of the complexities of the learning process. Educators have a duty to keeping up with societal change so as to engage such changes critically, reorganizing self to rise up to the challenges that are unfolding. Educators need to be aware that they are mediators of the internalization/processing of information, knowledge, and culture, and that as living beings, and humans for that matter, we do so via affectivity.

To come full circle in this post (which is already too long), Moraes (2004: 69) says:


Affectivity is ever nurturing and transformational of living beings. In reality, we internalize all that we need to keep our organization alive, so that we can develop, evolve, and transcend. ~ Maria Cândido Moraes

And there’s that too, human warmth and affection. And there’s also context. Cultural and social context. Educators are sense-makers, learning-experience designers, and contextualizers of learning.

sphere ala escher

Hand with reflecting sphere by Katsuhiro Otomo