"An Ecology of Mind: Teaching--Learning Recursive Systems"

Workshop Presentation

at the American Society of Cybernetics — Bateson Idea Group Conference: "An Ecology of Ideas"
July 10, 2012
Asilomar, CA

Jeff Bloom

The workshop presented at the ASC-BIG "Ecology of Ideas" Conference is re-presented here with some modifications and additions. The associated paper also is available here. Both the workshop (and its web version) and the paper relate to a university freshman course that uses Nora Bateson’s film, “An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson,” as its central organizing framework and conceptual focus.

Core Issue – Conflicting Assumptions:

If we are to take seriously the ideas of Gregory Bateson and the wider fields of cybernetics and complex systems, then we need not only to teach about these ideas, but also to teach as these ideas (or teach in a way that is consistent with complex systems).

Our intellectual and social heritage is steeped in positivism, mechanism, and reductionism. Even though we may teach about complex systems, assumptions of positivism insidiously work there way into our views and practices of teaching and learning.

By not aligning teaching (“as”) with the subject matter (systems), we run the risk of undermining our efforts to teach “about” the subject in ways that can be transformative.

At the heart of teaching about Gregory Bateson is the inseparability of Heart and Mind. As his third wife, Lois Bateson, says, "Gregory had a big mind, but he thought with his heart." Anyone who worked or studied with him can tell you how it felt to be in his presence and relate to him. His mind—heart and his vulnerability contributed to his powerful presence as can be evidenced in Nora Bateson's film about Gregory and his ideas ("An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter's Portrait of Gregory Bateson").

Introductory Video

The following video is being reworked. Please check back soon for the revised version

This introductory video provides a brief overview of some of my concerns in teaching, especially in teaching about systems.

The basic focus of this workshop and webpage is about a freshman seminar course I teach, which is organized around the film, "An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter's Portrait of Gregory Bateson."

Activity #1: Initial Exploration

  • Rather than spoil the fun, you should view the following slideshow (video) first, then go to the linked page for the follow-up to this part of the activity. Do this activity with other people (where each person jots down their own ideas) to add to the impact.
  • Take a piece of paper and pen.
  • As you view each photo, you will have 15 seconds to jot down some thoughts about what is taking place in the photo or what the photo is about.

Activity #2: Metapatterns and Pattern Thinking

Background Information on Metapatterns and Patterns Thinking

For additional information:

  • Volk, T. (1995). Metapatterns: Across Space, Time, and Mind. New York: Columbia University Press.

ACTIVITY: Patterns – Relationships – Systems

Take 10 minutes to explore inside or outside of this building. Find some “thing” to observe that is a system at some scale (e.g., a classroom you can spy on, a tiny living thing, etc.). Try observing close-up and move further away while taking in more of the surrounding contexts.

  • Collect, sketch, photograph (if you have the ability), and/or describe your “thing,” your system.
  • Describe all of the patterns you can find in your system.
  • Explain how they interact.
  • Examine the objects. Look for relationships, systems of relationships, patterns of relationships, etc.

* What relationships make up each object?

* What functions are associated with these relationships?

* Are there any shared (similar) patterns and/or relationships between the objects?

* What are the connections between any or all of these objects and you?

* Within what context(s) are these object found?

* What systems of relationship are found within and among these objects?

* What systems of relationships are found between these objects and various contexts?

When you return, be prepared to present you findings in 2 minutes or less.

PAPER That Accompanies This Workshop


  • Barabási, A.-L. (2010). Bursts: The hidden pattern behind everything we do. New York: Dutton.
  • Bateson, G. (1991). A sacred unity: Further steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Cornelia & Michael Bessie Book/Harper Collins.
  • Bloom, J. W. (2004). Patterns that connect: Rethinking our approach to learning, teaching, and curriculum. Curriculum and Teaching, 19(1), 5-26.
  • Bloom, J. W., & Volk, T. (2007). The use of metapatterns for research into complex systems of teaching, learning, and schooling. Part II: Applications. Complicity: An International Journal of Complexity and Education, 4(1), 45—68.
  • Carroll, S. B. (2005). Endless forms most beautiful: The science of evo devo. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Coward, L. A. (1990). Pattern thinking. New York: Praeger.
  • Kappraff, J. (1991). Connections: The geometric bridge between art and science. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Kelso, J. A. S., & Engstrøm, D. A. (2006). The complementary nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • McHarg, I. L. (1969/1971). Design with nature. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company.
  • Stevens, P. S. (1974). Patterns in nature. Boston: Little, Brown & Company.
  • Volk, T., Bloom, J. W., & Richards, J. (2007). Toward a science of metapatterns: Building upon Bateson’s foundation. Kybernetes, 36(7/8), 1070-1080.



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