Living Systems: A Pedagogical Approach

- Written by Ayla Mullen, Springhouse Faculty -

Living Systems Theory understands living individuals and communities, from a single turtle to a school community, as complex systems defined by the relationships between their component parts. According to physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra, living systems thinking is a transdisciplinary mode of inquiry that seeks to understand how living individuals and communities work - by what relationships and interdependencies they sustain themselves, transform, and thrive. It values both quantitative and qualitative knowing, and most importantly, it re-situates relationship as the most essential component of any system. Springhouse recognizes itself as a living system, and our values and pedagogy are emergent from this understanding.

Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown recognize four main Principles of Living Systems:

  • Wholeness - Every system, from molecule to ecosystem, is an irreducible whole. “Its distinctive nature and capacities derive from the dynamic relationships of its parts. This interplay is synergistic, generating ‘emergent properties’ and new possibilities, which are not predictable from the character of the separate parts.” We recognize differences and diversity as the components of our wholeness, and we honor diversity rather than assimilation.

  • Autopoiesis - Living Systems are open systems (they interact with their environment) that maintain an ever-changing equilibrium through their ability to self-regulate and self-create. This ability to “self-make” is called autopoiesis, and it can be understood as the ability of every individual participant both to transform a community and, in turn, to be transformed by that community. Springhouse recognizes the classroom and the school itself as a living system, and fostering opportunities for autopoiesis within that system is at the heart of a Springhouse education.

  • Emergence - Living systems not only maintain a flowing balance, they also evolve in complexity through responding to feedback - in the words of Fritjof Capra, moments of instability or challenges within a system will force “a breakdown or, more frequently, a breakthrough - the spontaneous emergence of new forms of order. This spontaneous emergence of order at critical points of instability (often referred to simply as ‘emergence’) is one of the hallmarks of life. It has been recognized as the dynamic origin of development, learning, and evolution.” Springhouse values emergence in learning, in community development, and as an essential vehicle for change-making in the world. To this end we value challenges and instabilities within and between individuals and the Springhouse community as opportunities for emergence and strive to create the fertile conditions and resiliency that invite these forms of generative problem-solving.

  • Context - Every system is a complete whole in its own right as well as being a nested part of many surrounding larger systems. This complex network of connection and interdependence is the web of context. Thus, Springhouse is nested within the context of the greater Floyd community, which is, in turn, nested within the regional ecosystem of rural Appalachia. Each system carries all of its concurrent histories, complexities, and conflicting forces into the web of context. Celebrating the interdependence of this diversity and multiplicity is what weaves strength, resiliency, and sustainability into any community. Springhouse fosters contextual understanding and the deep sense of belonging that arises from it.

Barbara Widhalm explains how integrating living systems principles into educational design can infuse a learning community with vibrancy and “self-organizing creativity” as well as creating “change-makers for a more just, sustainable world.” She writes that “There is a disconnect if the learning modality embodies a traditional hierarchical structure...while the content explores decentralized, pluralistic, highly interdependent dynamics.” Springhouse is reimagining the purpose and practice of education by creating greater coherence between our learning modalities and the content we explore.

Published on August 6th, 2018

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Springhouse Community School is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. It is also a community of people with respect for diversity. The school emphasizes the dignity and equality common to all persons and adheres to a strict nondiscrimination policy regarding the treatment of individual faculty, staff, students, family members, volunteers, subcontractors, and vendors. Springhouse is an equal opportunity employer. In accord with federal law and applicable Virginia statutes, the school does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, age, national origin or ancestry, marital status, parental status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, political affiliation, disability, or status as a veteran in employment or in any program or activity offered or sponsored by the school.

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