Autopoiesis: Perspective on Sustainable, Meaningful Education


Which system of education fits in well with the way of learning children and at the same time leads to working on the solutions of tomorrow? The current education sets the bar too low for that. The task of education in the 21st century fits with the need to look, think and act more sustainably. This fits nicely with the assignment of education to let children learn optimally: through meaningful learning!

Autopoiesis: Perspective on Sustainable, Meaningful Education


Autopoiesis literally means “self-creation, self-production” and was introduced in 1972 by biologists Maturana and Varela. They give their perspective on the biological foundation of cognition and knowledge.

A cell consists of a number of parts such as a nucleus, the DNA, a membrane. The membrane is semi-permeable and this ensures that the cell can enter into a relationship with the environment. This changes, grows and develops the cell. Cognition, according to Maturana and Varela, can be characterized as an effective action that enables a living system to exist in a certain environment, thereby creating its own world. If we want to give children the opportunity to exist in a certain environment (the world of today), we will have to give them the safe space to enter into a relationship with the environment and thereby allow them to create their world, a world that more meaningful and sustainable.


“Mom, compulsory education … does it mean that they have a duty to teach me something?” Yoël, 6 years old

Education is at the basis of our society. As a carrier and developer of culture, and as a carrier for our economic development. There is always a lot to do, both in the schools themselves, in politics and in the media. Issues enough: the quality is not good enough, the learning outcomes are too low; the social relevance is lacking; the air quality in the classes is bad and so on, and so on. Usually, education is negatively interested. Incidentally, without structural solutions. From Agentschap NL (SustainableDoor Program) I was asked to do a study on education now and to a desirable interpretation of the education later. Desirable from the interests of the child and desirable from the interest of society now and in the future.

Central question: Which system of education fits in well with the way of learning from children and simultaneously leads to working on the solutions of tomorrow? In answering this question, the focus is on primary education and secondary education.

This article discusses in detail the functioning of the brain, the importance of entering into connections, the function of the frame of reference and the characteristics of current education. Finally, conclusions and recommendations follow the central question.

How does children’s brain work in learning processes?

Seen from the brain, there is an essential difference between adults and children. The rational part of the brain is only fully developed between 20 and 25 years. This means that young people are not yet well able to plan and understand what the consequences are of possible actions. This has not so much to do with the not yet fully developed brain but much more with the fact that young people lack the experience to be able to plan well and to oversee the consequences of their actions. This creates a gap between the more rationally operating adults and the children led by the intuitive and emotional brain.

Probably the brain has evolved in evolution in three phases: the instinctive brain (the reptilian brain, brainstem), the sensing brain (early mammals, limbic system) and the thinking brain (new mammals, neocortex) (Cain 2009, Fogarty 2009) . The rational brain is the youngest part of the brain, seen from the evolution. They are all an integral part of our brain but still have important subfunctions. When a life-threatening situation occurs, the reptilian brain is ready for action, every moment of the day. The reptilian brain never sleeps! If emotion plays a role, the rational brain is less available. This means that rational learning becomes more difficult if the learner feels negative emotions in having to meet expectations.

Meaningful learning and the brain

Research into the functioning of the brain in the field of learning has various consequences for education. In education, for example, we should pay very much attention to learning to deal with emotions. Negative emotions stand in the way of learning. Positive emotions on a subject make the subject meaningful. Meaningful, for example, is the feeling that you really matter or that you understand why you have to do something. That what you learn and do, is actually used and makes the difference. There appears to be a strong interconnection between the way a child learns and the world around him. If learning about social questions is linked to math and language, learning yields on these components are high. The same applies to learning with people outside school (companies, social organizations, governments) and learn about issues that appeal to children. Of essential importance is that this is not fictitious, in a story that reads a child in the classroom, but really, with real people and real companies, in a realistic environment, a living system; with real questions where the solutions of the child matter.

In quantum physics, cosmology and biology, scientists have independently, through very precise observations, established three principles of a living system: interdependence, diversity and self-organization. For education, this means that if we want to give children the opportunity to exist in a certain environment (the world of today), we must be able to give them the safe space to enter into a relationship with the environment and thus their world. to be able to create, a world that is more sustainable. 

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