How natural systems function as a model for education

Many of the people who have written and or spoken about education reform have reached the point where they agree that what needs to emerge is an organic education system to replace the old one-size-fits all mechanistic system.

Although many people involved in education say: “Yay! Wow! An organic system is exactly what we need” when they hear this suggestion as an alternative to our current system, they then go back to their highly mechanistic schools and suggest they need an organic approach, and are treated like a cancer that needs to be killed off as quickly as possible by the system. This is because people fear what they do not really understand. Even if many people within the system realise that it is failing, they have no idea how to transform it partially because they are frightened of change, but more because they cannot properly define the alternative, other than as a very vague concept.

What does organic education actually look and feel like?

How does it actually work? What do we need to do in order to be doing organic education?

When I really pondered the question of what an organic education system would look like and how it would work, I realised that what is inhibiting transformation to an organic education system is that very few people have truly explored how organic systems actually function. This is a prime example of “the illusion of knowledge” in action. Having tried to sell “organic food” for the last few years I realise that whilst “organic” is a wonderfully hyped marketing proposition; people have only a very vague concept of what organic actually means.

Most people know that organic means natural, but there is a common misconception that an organic system would just be less structured than a mechanistic system, or maybe even not structured at all. This is obviously a scary alternative for people who are used to structure – they may well fear that if we let children grow organically there will be no rules at all and children would run wild.

The good news is that organic does not mean unstructured at all. In fact, if we look at the way natural systems function, they all evolve in highly structured patterns, the difference between nature’s patterns and our traditional human system structures, is that nature’s patterns are non-linear and that they self-assemble from the bottom up, rather than being created linearly from the top down.

In defining children as organisms I described how the new multi-disciplinary field of Biomimicry has identified the functionally similar strategies or design principles that all natural organisms use to survive and thrive on planet earth. The interesting thing about nature is that it does not create systems in isolation of the organisms in the system – the organisms actually self-create the system as a result of their functioning within it. So nature uses these design principles over and over again to self-assemble its own systems. The amazing thing is that all the biodiversity on our planet has emerged as a result of nature following these few simple principles over and over again iteratively.

Nature self-assembles systems following fractal patterns

Recently I watched a YouTube video about fractal systems (see: and this was the “aha” moment for me that explained how natural systems actually self-assemble.

Everything organic, from solar systems to the smallest cells and everything in-between, self-assembles in extremely simple, highly structured but non-linear, infinite patterns known as fractals. Fractal systems are created by repeating a simple process over and over in a never-ending feedback loop. This never-ending fractal pattern is self-similar across different scales from microscopic to cosmic.

What fractals illustrated to me is that all natural organisms do not work in absolute terms (following detailed top-down, step-by-step rules which cover every eventuality), rather they self-organise from the bottom up following a simple fractal pattern, which, if applied in ongoing iterations to the process of evolving, will mean that the organism will evolve effortlessly and continuously (without end) without any external intervention, and always in harmony with all of life.

The best way to illustrate how a fractal works is visually. If you type: “images of patterns in nature” into Google you will be visually overwhelmed by the beauty and symmetry of nature’s infinite, non-linear, but highly structured patterns. In my drawing below I have attempted to illustrate a very simple example of how the complexity of nature is built by repeating a simple pattern iteratively:

Fractal nature1.jpg

One of the best known examples of how nature self-assembles is the way that so many natural organisms evolve following the Fibonacci sequence of numbers (1,1,2,3,5,8,13 etc). The Fibonacci sequence is possibly the most simple recurring pattern in nature. Each number equals the sum of the two numbers before it, and the difference of the two numbers succeeding it. It is an infinite sequence which goes on forever as it develops. The illustration below shows how this same pattern unfolds in everything from fern leaves to sea shells to the human body.


The above examples show the mathematical patterns inherent in simple organisms, but the beauty of fractals is that the exact same patterns work equally well at the systemic level. For example, the way that trees grow in a forest also follows the Fibonacci sequence, as does the way that animal populations grow. And there is a fractal mathematical formula for the way weather systems and even galaxies evolve.

A system that is self-assembled following a fractal pattern is called a fractal system, or another name for it is a ‘Complex Adaptive and Emergent System’ (CAES).

Peter Fryer and Jules Ruis in a 2004 article entitled “What are Fractal Systems?” (See: define a Fractal System as “a complex, non-linear, interactive system which has the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Such systems are characterised by the potential for self-organisation, existing in a non-equilibrium environment. Fractal Systems evolve by random mutation, self-organisation, the transformation of their internal models of the environment, and natural selection. Examples include living organisms, the nervous system, the immune system, the economy, corporations, societies, and so on. In a fractal system, semi-autonomous agents interact according to certain rules of interaction, evolving to maximise some measure like fitness. The agents are diverse in both form and capability and they adapt by changing their rules and, hence, behaviour, as they gain experience. Fractal systems evolve historically, meaning their past or history, i.e., their experience, is added onto them and determines their future trajectory. Their adaptability can either be increased or decreased by the rules shaping their interaction. Moreover, unanticipated, emergent structures can play a determining role in the evolution of such systems, which is why such systems show a great deal of unpredictability. However, it is also the case that a Fractal System has the potential of a great deal of creativity that was not programmed-into them from the beginning”.

Fryer and Ruis explain that the universe is full of systems of components (people, molecules, etc) that interact and connect with each other in unpredictable and unplanned ways. From this mass of interactions between complex and constantly adapting components, regularities emerge and start to form patterns which feed back into the system and inform the interaction of the agents going forwards. They call these “fractal systems”, or “complex adaptive systems”. These authors explain that fractal systems are all around us and that most things we take for granted are fractal systems, even when the agents or components of that system are oblivious of that fact. An understanding of fractal theory is therefore useful because it is a model for predicting what will happen next in a system, whether at the molecular level or at the level of global society. For me this theory converts a seemingly chaotic planet into a predictable system with broadly predictable behaviour, and from the converse perspective it provides the tools for consciously constructing a system by creating a simple functional pattern that exhibits fractal properties that will enable the system to unfold effectively and harmoniously without end.

Once I had discovered the concept of fractals I understood that biomimicry’s Life Principles are actually extremely simple fractal principles and, when they are followed over and over again (iteratively) by the organisms within a system, a seemingly complex, multi-faceted system emerges as a result – even exhibiting degrees of creativity that were not programmed into the system to begin with. Although all natural systems evolve following very simple patterns, through the process of replication and mutation, they can create infinite complexity. All of the biodiversity we see on our planet today has stemmed from single-celled organisms making small, incremental steps of variation, adaptation and mutation over 2-3 billion years.

The true beauty of fractal systems is that because they unfold virtually identically at both the cosmic and microscopic level, thinking global and acting local actually works very well in nature – nature doesn’t have different solutions for different scales of system, rather nature is a hologram of the same very simple fractal patterns at every scale of its existence. The holographic nature of fractal systems therefore indicates that it is quite possible to shift the world one person at a time and that change can be self-initiated. That is, we do not have to wait for the system to change before we change - we can be the change that shifts the system.

Why does nature choose these patterns?

Obviously nature has evolved the fractal patterns that it uses in order to achieve specific results. Although looking beautiful might be considered a good enough reason for nature to evolve the way that it does, in actual fact the patterns that nature uses are perfectly suited to nature’s functional requirements. For example tree branches grow in spiral patterns so that the tree’s leaves can collectively capture as much light as possible throughout the day for that tree’s photosynthesis process to be maximised.

Generally natural designs have evolved the way that they have in order to ensure every element of the system’s best survival (thrival) in a given ecosystem. When biologists look at natural systems they ask themselves: “Why did this organism (or system of organisms) choose this pattern for its evolution?” Another way to say this would be: “What function does this pattern serve?” The function is usually something like energy storage, or protection, or reproduction, or any number of others individually or collectively. The more we explore nature’s designs the more we realise that their form always fits their function perfectly, adapting effortlessly in-the-moment when they need to, and natural systems always operate in perfect harmony without any harmful side effects or unintended negative consequences resulting (except when humans interfere and upset the natural balance of things). This is certainly something humans can learn from.

The function of human systems

All of our human systems theoretically exist in order for human society to achieve specific collective functions or purposes, and yet most of our current human designs are failing miserably to achieve these functions. For example, the financial system exists as a store and exchange of value for and between people, corporations and countries, and yet it functions in such a way that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and ultimately this state of affairs is unsustainable and disharmonious for human society. Similarly, our education system theoretically exists as an enabler of learning, and yet it functions in such a way that many children are not enabled to learn, rather many of them feel coerced to learn in ways that don’t make sense to them, and so this system is also ultimately operating disharmoniously with plenty of harmful side effects and unintended negative consequences resulting.

Clearly there must be better ways to design and implement human systems and if nature can do it with fractal patterns, then why can’t we?

Could human systems be fractal systems too?

Since humans are organisms, human systems can (and certainly should) be fractal too.

The development of the internet, and particularly the rise of social media in the last few years, is an excellent example of a fractal human system in action. Despite not having a leader, or a national structure with specific boundaries, or a huge list of rules and regulations, or any external organisation, this amorphous system is exhibiting incredible self-organised order and almost unlimited creativity, efficiency and effectiveness. We can connect with someone (or many thousands of people) in another country instantly online, or transfer money across the globe at the touch of a button on a PC, but to visit that country with our physical bodies we need to go through an extensive bureaucratic process to get there – jumping through all sorts of hoops to obtain a visa, prove that we have the funds to embark on the trip, have a place to stay while we there, and will return to our own country after our visit. This online world is so much more fluid and efficient than the physical world because it was not pre-conceived as a top-down, linear system like so many of our other human systems were.

The internet and the viral nature of social media have provided a model for how this could and undoubtedly will happen in the human systems of the future. The important questions are: how does it do this and how can we create a fractal pattern that will replicate the behaviour of these fractal systems in our education system?

What this means is that instead of focusing on creating a specific end result with all the bells and whistles pre-installed and every outcome pre-determined, we should focus instead on defining an organic (fractal) pattern for the players in the system to follow in such a way that, as a result of following this pattern, the most appropriate education system will emerge (and continue to evolve effortlessly) at every level, from local to global.

All that is required in a fractal system is that everyone within the system obeys the simple rules that govern it (the pattern), and just like a computer programme or the Internet, the result will unfold and evolve from the micro-level to the macro-level perfectly harmoniously without any need for continual external intervention or micro-management. Unlike our current static human systems which do not evolve, because evolution is not built into their design, this system will never be out of date.

Defining a fractal pattern for education

In an earlier blog I mentioned that the founding philosophy or central idea of our existing education system is that children are like machines (and therefore should be taught mechanically). I have explained why this is an inappropriate pattern, so what is a better founding philosophy or central idea to guide the evolution of an education system for children who are organisms (and who should therefore learn organically)?

As Fryer and Ruis say, a system can be guided by very simple rules and this will not stop it being complex – they use the example of water: all of the water systems in the whole world are guided by the simple rule that water seeks its own level, and look at all the infinite varieties of water systems (waterfalls, rivers, lakes, oceans) that have emerged from following that one rule.

Having discussed in detail that, as organisms, every child is inherently capable (intelligent) in his or her own way and learns best is ways that make sense to them, I have realised that we already know what fractal pattern education should follow. This central rule or idea (founding philosophy) that should guide organic education is actually incredibly simple. It is:

the child is the central agent in HIS OR HER LEARNING PROCESS

This is a fractal rule because the process of each child operating as the central agent in his or her learning process will result in the emergence of learning webs for each child, individually and collectively.

Just as all the components of natural systems are able to meet all of their needs (individually and collectively) as part of the functional design of their constantly emerging fractal systems (without having to be told what to do or not do by an external authority every step of the way), so too can children meet all of their education needs by following this pattern iteratively. These iterations will eventually create an education system that works from the smallest local to the largest global level.

To use Fryer and Ruis’ properties of fractal systems: With this central idea or operating principle, our education system will be emergent, it will be full of variety, it will be interconnected, it will follow simple rules, it will be iterative, it will self-organise, it will function at the edge of chaos (in slight disequilibrium so that it will continue to evolve), and it will be nested within other systems.

This single simple operating principle is thus sufficient for an organic education system (learning ecosystem) to emerge. However, as I have already explained in a previous blog about whether school is necessary, not all children find themselves in the types of learning environments that are conducive to evolving to their full potential, so simply following this fractal pattern regardless of the environment in which those children live would result in some children failing to reach their inherent full potential.

Reverse engineering fractal learning ecosystems so that ALL children reach their full potential

As I have already explained, a natural ecosystem does not tell an acorn how to be an oak tree – that acorn has the potential for the oak tree already programmed in its cells. All that natural system does is to provide the water, sunlight and soil (the enabling conditions) for that acorn to develop its in built capacity (its fractal pattern) to become an oak tree. If the acorn is planted in poor soil without water or sunlight it will not flourish – only in the ideal conditions will it grow to its full potential as an oak tree.

Similarly, whilst all children have the potential for their fullest expression programmed in their cells, and this full expression will emerge as a result of them functioning as the central agents in their learning processes, whether they actually achieve this fullest expression depends on the quality of the learning environment in which they live.

As I mentioned in my blog about whether school is necessary, the difference between humans and other organisms is that humans have the capacity to nurture gardens even where plants would not thrive on their own. Likewise we have the capacity to nurture children even where they would not thrive on their own – the key is to design an enabling system that works in harmony with children’s natural instincts (nature) and not against them.

I decided to focus on artificially creating (reverse engineering) enabling learning environments (ecosystems) for children that provide the perfect conditions for their self-directed learning to flourish. These enabling learning environments are what I have called Future Schools.

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