Principles of Self-Organization: Learning as Participation in Autocatakinetic Systems

Sasha A. Barab, Miriam Cherkes-Julkowski, Rod Swenson, Steve Garrett, Robert E. Shaw, Michael Young

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

111 Scopus citations


Modern science has been built on a Cartesian or Newtonian (mechanical) world view giving rise to an artifactual view of mind and suggesting that particles (learners) are continuously working to destroy order (are recalcitrant), which can only be maintained by an external artificer (the teacher). At the core of the Cartesian worldview is the absolute separation of mind and matter. Beginning with the separation of mind and body, Cartesianism is grounded in a set of dualisms that separate individual from environment and leads to the belief that knowledge refers to a self-sufficient immaterial substance that can be understood independently from the individual, environment, and context in which it is situated. In contrast, we make the argument for an alternative set of assumptions predicated on a relational ontology and grounded in recent developments in the understanding of self-organizing systems. In our view, knowing, meaning, and cognition are actualized through the dynamic between learner (self) and environment (nonself), and that which is neither the learner nor the environment. We further argue that the ecologized, or self-organization, model (relational ontology) establishes that (under the appropriate conditions) the particles (learners), in effect, "want" to or strive opportunistically to order themselves once the intention has been properly initialized. From this perspective, instruction involves establishing the appropriate field conditions or connecting the learner into a system (a set of relations) through participation (e.g., as part of a community of practice) in the service of an intention. The type of learning that we are advocating cannot be handed to the learner wholecloth but develops itself through dynamic activity (participation) as part of a system as a whole. Central to this line of reasoning is the assertion not only that learner practices and meaningful relations that arise due to their functional significance as part of a dynamic system are fundamentally different from teacher- or textbook-owned descriptions of practices and meanings, but that they are in this way far richer, more meaningful, and more functional. Context and participation, to put it directly, not only matter but in a deep and fundamental way are everything. In parts of West Africa they use an ingenious little device called a Monkey Trap. The trap itself is a very simple design, in which rice is placed in the center of a box that has a tube running from the outside to the center. When the monkey places his hand in the box, which is just wide enough for his unclenched fist to pass through, he grasps a handful of rice and while holding the rice he cannot remove his arm. In spite of the fact that the monkey could remove his arm if only he would let go and unclench his fist, the trap is surprisingly effective. The trap's effectiveness can be credited to the monkey's thoughts in relation to the affordances of the trap, not solely the mechanism of the trap or the monkey's thoughts. (Yoruba Oral Tradition).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)349-390
Number of pages42
JournalJournal of the Learning Sciences
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 1999
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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