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Biology of Cognition-Constructivism and Its Implication for The New Epistemological Concept of Learning and Teaching I Gst.

Putu Sudiarta Abstract The term constructivism` can be referred to many varieties of constructivism from the philosophical, cybernetic, radical, until the sociological constructivism. But it is the profound concept of the Biology of Cognition by the Chilean Biologists H.M. Maturana and. F.J. Varela, which argues the epistemology of constructivism as theory of knowledge based on the modern research in biology and physiology instead of on philosophical tradition. It is also this version, which constitute a very important, practical and theoretical perspective in current education research. In this study, these main stream of the modern constructivism is reviewed and its implications for new epistemological concept of learning and teaching are discussed. 1. Introduction Many teachers in Indonesia as well as in Asia believe the old Indonesian idiom 'rajin pangkal pandai' corresponding to the English proverb practice makes perfect' and consider it to be a general principle for all kinds of learning. Through imitation and practice, again and again, people will become highly skilled. Therefore, 'the face' of teaching and learning are usually characterized by a large amount of routine practice, problem solving and frequent tests. Is practice an effective way of teaching and learning? It seems, this question could not be answered just simply by 'yes' or 'no'! On the other hand, from the experience that excellent student is diligent in their practice and the fact that students from Asia often top the list in several international assessments, for example, of mathematics and science competitions. Let us see for example the result of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) (Beaton et al., 1996). As a young educational researcher, who has some years experiences in the teaching mathematics in secondary school as well as in the university level in Indonesia, I tend to attribute this achievement to the traditional way of teaching and learning: a large amount of routine practice, problem solving and frequent tests. This tendency has a consequence that learning for example mathematical learning some times appears dull and boring, so that some students have no interest in learning. In this case I would like to note that learning could not be equated as learning handicraft. So 'pandai' or 'perfect' in this context should be interpreted as 'understanding' not just simply the word 'can'. My proposition is not without any reason. Let me cite the following paragraph: Learning was linked to horticulture as metaphors of tilling, planting, sowing and grafting were employed. Successful learning was detectable by doing: the student has 'mastered' the material when he 'could' do it'(Steedman, 1991, p.18). Therefore, it is also easy to find the fact that teachers usually formulate the instructional objective of their teaching program using the word 'can' rather than 'understand', for instance; the student 'can' write 'can' count, 'can' proof, etc., instead of; the student 'understand'! And why? This might be predominant influence of the behaviourist approach that learning objective must be 'objectivised' as observable change in behaviour, which can be checked (Howson et al.,1981, p.5)

I Gst. Putu Sudiarta, Math Dept-Undiksha, 2010

Obviously, it is much easier to observe and measure whether the student 'can' add two numbers or not than whether they have understood the addition concept or not! Teachers often are satisfied and stop until 'can' is reached, because of the limited time, or because the difficulty to measure and to concretize the word 'understanding'. The issue of practice or training first, or understanding first is nearly the same dilemma as the question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. One constructivist, Von Glasersfeld (1997, p. 12) tended to separate the notions between 'training' that aims at observable behaviours and 'teaching' that aims at understanding. I do not fully agree with this strict separation, but I agree that learning should aim at 'understanding' and therefore, should not just be reduced to training. I also believe that with some 'necessary conditions' training can promote 'understanding'. So this 'necessary conditions' remain to be explained appropriately. How might students understanding oriented teaching and learning processes look like? Since some years I have been studying some theories of learning, but I am much influenced by constructivism as a theory of knowing and as an orienting framework for educational issues. I believe that constructivist perspectives can give better contributions and explanations regarding the nature of human thinking and learning, which can be used as a new orientation to the concept of teaching and learning. So in this study I am interested in developing a theoretical framework for the problem of teaching and learning based on the constructivist perspective. 2. Theoretical Background: Maturanas and Varela`s Biology of Cognition The term constructivism` can be referred to many varieties of constructivism from the philosophical, cybernetic, radical, until the sociological constructivism. But it is the profound concept of the Biology of Cognition by the Chilean Biologists H.M. Maturana and. F.J. Varela, which argues the epistemology of constructivism as theory of knowledge based on the modern research in biology and physiology instead of on philosophical tradition. It is also this version, which constitute a very important, practical and theoretical perspective in current education research. For the next pages I will review briefly these main stream of the modern constructivism proposed by Maturana and Varela. Perhaps I can be forgiven for trying to summarize such a profound set of concepts in a few pages like this, if the reader realizes how much enthusiasm I have for getting better explanations about the nature of human thinking and learning and then for contributing better perspectives concerning the concept of school learning and teaching. I believe that Maturanas and Varelas Biology of Cognition which puts its profound concept by viewing the organism as an autonomous autopoietic living system, can offer us some new perspectives to open a new dialog in educational research, in which how our young student should be treated as an autonomous cognizing subject. 2.1 Trying to Find the Origins of Life As biologists, Maturana and Varela began their research with the question, which is seemly never entirely resolved: what is life? This may be described in various ways such as reproduction and genetic, heredity, growth, irritability, metabolism and so on. But Maturana and Varela (1987,p.49) rejected such traditional criteria of life, as chemical composition or a list of properties, because one could never be sure that the list was complete. They chose as the criterion of life, a statement, not about its structure or its properties, but about its organization. This is the new starting point of Maturanas and Varelas Biology of Cognition which also viewing and understanding

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of the nature of living organization not as an open system defined in an environment but as unities through the basic circularity of their production of their components (Maturana 1980, p. viv). 2.2 Organization and Structure According to Varela (1979,p.10) any explanation of a biological system must contain at least two complementary aspects, one referring to it as an organization and the other referring to it as a structure. The first must account for the specific (dynamic) configuration of components that define it, whereas the second for how its particular components enter into the given interrelations that constitute it. Maturana and Varela (1987, p.54) call organization of a system refers to a set of relations between components that define a composite unity as a composite unity of a particular kind (class), constitute its identity. They also claimed that the pattern of relationships among the components must stay the same (invariant), if it is to remain a member of a particular class with a certain system identity - or to remain alive, otherwise the system will die or disintegrate (Maturana and Varela 1980 p. xx). The structure of a system refers to the actual components (all their properties included) and the actual relations holding between them that concretely realize a system as particular member of the class of composite unity (see Maturana & Varela 1987, p. 54). Examples of this are the expression of specific proteins from the DNA in the cell nucleus or the effect of various hormones upon the organs of the body. Obviously, these details can change continually duringthe lifetime of a given organization. The organization and structure of living system are each other complementary. That means that organization can only exist in terms of relationships amongst structures and structures exist only in filling the roles in those relationships. Because all interactions between components in a living organism are simply due to their molecular properties, the system organization can be said to be structure-determined (i.e. determined by the molecular properties of the structure) yet, at the same time, it is actually something quite different from that structure. 2.3 Autopoiesis Regarding the question what constitute living system? Maturana and Varela claimed that what characterize the living system is nothing else but the autopoiesis. This term refers to the construction of productive network of organization of living system and could directly mean what takes place in the dynamics of the autonomy proper to living system. It means literally self-making or self-producing (Maturana & Varela 1987, p.50) More formally they defined autopoietics system as follow: An autopoietic system is organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it ...as a concrete unity in space which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network (Maturana & Varela, 1980, p. 78-79). By definition an autopoietics system is self contained and self-referential and has a typical properties. It is always conserving its identity by undergoing structural change. It has to change, so to say, to stay the same or to survive. It exists in molecular interactions, but the result of those molecular interactions is itself. It is an autonomous system. Its autonomy arises from its organization as a self-producing system. A cell is

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an example of an autopoietic system, since a cell in fact, can be considered as a network of molecular production in which the molecules produced constituted the network of molecular production. Also the fact from modern biochemistry that DNA, through RNA etc, specified protein synthesis, while protein synthesis was essential to the synthesis of DNA itself, is a very important example for the idea of circularity of autopoietic system. Maturana's and Varelas new term of autopoiesis, has opened a completely new space in the dialogue about the nature of the process of living system, cognition, language, culture and other social phenomenon, and then proposed a reinterpretation of what seems already fixed available to us based on the modern research in neurology and biology. 2.4 Autonomy and Operational Closure Autonomy means, literally, self law. In order to understand this term, it is easier to contrast it with it mirror image, allonomy or external law, what we usually call external control, that is a process which characterized by instruction of specific, unambiguous signals. Whereas autonomy is more like a conversation or a construction based on the internal regulation. According to Varela (1979,xii) these two images autonomy and (external) control do a continuous dance. One represents generation, internal regulation, assertion of ones own identity, that is definition from inside. The other one represents consumption, input and output, assertion of identity of other: definition from outside. Their interplay spans a broad range, from genetics to psychotherapy. By the definition of autopoiesis it is clear that the autopoietic system is an autonomous system, because it operates based on its own self law for example self law of the cell metabolism, in which its network of operations includes no control from outside. It is entire within this boundary, which it includes in its operation. Every autonomous-autopoietic system is, by definition and by above reason, operationally closed (see Varela for example 1979,p.58). That means, it is closed by virtue of its organization, in the sense that it is entirely specified by its organization. The process is working to keep the organization constant, not because of the outside inputs from the environment. That means, it organizes, regulates itself and operates closely under the law of its own internal structure and organization. It needs no external control from the outside environment. Of course, living system is energetically and materially open to the environment, (e.g. taking in food), but operationally they must be closed. In its interaction with its surrounding medium it is structure determined, not externally controlled. That means, that its operation cannot simply be considered in terms of inputs and outputs as suggested by behaviourist or cybernetics model. However, this autopoietic system can be perturbed by its surrounding medium and it can compensate for this perturbation. 2.5 Autopoiesis and Its Environment In fact, the living system exists in and with its environment, and it simply could not exist without its surrounding medium. Nevertheless it is neither a process of information transfer nor instructive control of interactions with inputs or output, that constitutes its relationship, but it is what Maturana and Varela called structural coupling by means, that is the structure of the autopoietic system, that determine its states and domain of allowable perturbations from the environment, but it is also its structure will allow the system to interact with the environment without loss its identity or disintegration (See Varela 1979 p.32). An autopoietic organism exists only in its connection with its medium and that connection represents actually its individual ontogeny, that is, the history of its structural transformation, also of

I Gst. Putu Sudiarta, Math Dept-Undiksha, 2010

maintenance of its identity through continuous interaction and coupling with its medium. This history of interaction and coupling will continue as long as the organism can hold and maintain its organization. 2.6 Nerves System as Closed System Until recently many researchers in neuroscience view the brain as an input-output machine, which picks up information from the environment and processing it, to produce an accurate picture of outside world in mind. Instead of this predominant opinion Maturana and Varela viewed that the nervous system is an autonomous system that operates as a operationally closed network with no inputs or inputs, that its cognitive operation reflects only its organization, and that information is imposed on the environment and not pick up from it (Maturana and Varela 1973; Varela 1979, p. 240). To the question: what does it mean that the nervous system operationally closed? Varela argued, agreed with Matura that the nervous system is a closed network of interacting neurons such that a change of activity in a neuron always leads to a change of activity in other neurons, either directly through synaptic action, or indirectly through the participation of some physical or chemical intervening element (Varela 1979 p. 242). Therefore, the organization of the nervous system as a finite neural network is defined by relations of closeness in the neural interaction generated in the network. To be emphasized at this point is, although the nerves system is operationally closed, it also can be perturbed by the elements of environment. The environment can change its status by coupling to the nervous system as an independent agent at any neural receptor surface. But the changes that the structure of nervous system can undergo without loss its identity (loss of defining relations as a closed neural network), as a result of the perturbation from the environment, are fully specified by its connectivity, and the perturbing agent only constitutes a historical determinant for the concurrence of these change. This new point of view has significant consequences for what representation and communication can possibly mean. It also provides a deep epistemological view of knowledge in man and nature. 2.7 Language and Information For Maturana and Varela the understanding of the origin of languages requires the recognition of a basic biological function of autopoietic living system, in which language is not simply recognized as a denotative symbolic system for transmission of information. In fact, language is connotative and its function is to orient the orientee within his cognitive domain and not to point to independent entities nor to transmit information from organism to other organism, in a manner such that the intended meaning were copied from the sender into the receiver. From this point of view it becomes apparent that there is no transmission of information through language. That means, the listener might be perturbed by the messages represented by the speaker, but his nature as an autopoietic-autonomous system allows him to operate internally upon his own state, to choose where to orient his cognitive domain. The choice is caused by the `perturbing messages but the orientation thus produced is independent of what the message represents for the orienter. In a strict sense, Maturana said: There is no transfer of thought from the speaker to his interlocutor, the listener creates information by reducing his uncertainty through his interactions in his cognitive domain. Consensus arises only through

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cooperative interactions in which the resulting behaviour of each organism becomes subservient the maintenance of both (Maturana 1980,p.32) Although there is no transfer of thought between the speaker and the listener, they can in some sense develop what Maturana and Varela called a consensual linguistic domain, as a result of communicative interactions between them. But it is the observer, who beholding these communicative interactions, can describe these interactions as denotative. For him, a sign or a message appears as denotating the object which the conduct of the orientee specifies, and the conduct of the orientee appears determined by the message. 2.8 Cognition and Knowledge The notion of cognition, in popular usage, is most commonly associated with information processing, as in a computer model, in which objective information or a certain correspondence between symbol in one structure and symbols in another is represented. From this point of view the function of cognition is: to recognize and represent objectively the existing world (in the philosophical term: ontological world) such that the organism can act adequately based on the objective knowledge of the world which is represented by the cognition. But for Maturana and Varela cognition is a biological phenomenon and can only be understood as such; any epistemological insight into the domain of knowledge requires this understanding. They claimed that cognition occurs regardless of whether there is a nervous system or not. It is the sum of all interactions of the living organism in its operational domain. A cognitive system is a system whose organization defines a domain of interactions in which it can act with relevance to the maintenance of itself, and the process of cognition is actual (inductive) acting or behaving in this domain. Living systems are cognitive systems and living as a process is a process of cognition (Maturana and Varela 1979,13) That means that the way an organism specifies itself (its autonomous identity) through its interaction is not separable from the way its cognitive performance is understood. In Varela`s words, the mechanism of knowledge and the mechanisms of identity are two sides of the same systemic coin (Varela 1980,p.211). Since the structure of an autopoietic system specifies a domain of possible interactions with its which is compatible with the maintenance its identity, as what Maturana and Varela called cognitive domain, then it is significant to say that all process of cognition take place in this domain. It follows that perception, thinking, knowing and learning take place within this cognitive domain, by means, it is a process within all allowable interactions which maintain the autopoietic identity of the cognizing organism. Varela said that perception is equivalent to construction of invariance through the coupling with the environment by means of which the organism becomes viable in its environment. And knowledge is also invariance and regularities derived from and pertaining to our experiences (Varela 1980, p.276). He further said that all invariance and regularities are our construction based on our structural coupling with the environment. From this perspective follows that knowledge is our construction that must begin with our experiences, and has nothing to do with the representation of the ontological reality that exist independently outside the cognizing organism and that why, it cannot be treated as a thing that can be transferred from one person to another. Another consequence of this perspective is that, knowing and also learning are not simply an act of duplicating or replicating of what is supposed to be already there, outside the knower or the leaner. Instead, learning as a phenomenon of

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transformation of the nervous system associated with a behavioural change that takes place under maintained autopoiesis, is a result of the continuous structural coupling between the cognizing organism and its environment. Varela said that learning is constituted by the change in the domain of the possible states that nervous system can adopt, which takes place throughout the ontogeny of the organism as a result of its interaction with the environment. To close this theoretical background let me cite the significant conclusion about the nature of knowledge and cognition by Glasersfeld as follow: 1. Knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by the way of communication; - Knowledge is actively built up by the cognizing subject. 2. The function of cognition is adaptive, in the biological sense of the term, tending towards fit or viability-cognition serves the subjects organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of an objective ontological reality (von Glasersfeld 1995 p.51)

3. Its Implications for The New Concept of Learning and Teaching Since more than two decade the constructivism has delivered a large influences on educational research. The discussions involve almost all aspects of education, from questioning the legitimacy of deduction of constructivism as a theory of knowledge into the field of education (see for example Hoops 1998), proposing constructivism as a new paradigm to didactic and pedagogic (see S.J. Schmidt 1987, 1989, etc.), until questioning How does constructivist oriented learning and teaching in practice look like? (see Vo 1994, Dubs 1995,etc.). For the next pages I intend to discuss the implications of the constructivists perspective presented before on school teaching and leaning concept. The pedagogical consequence of constructivism on the concept of learning and teaching has taken a great attention because of its following opinions. (a) Constructivism draws a new perspective of learning as a process of construction of individual reality of actively cognizing subject instead of reducing to a simple process of transmission of facts. In fact, that until recently, the model of teaching and learning still refers to the process of instruction, based on the hidden assumption that knowledge can be transferred intact from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the learner. This refers to the some traditional views from behaviourism, psychology of cognitive, computer gestalt and objectivism. All these views generally assume that knowledge can be considered as an objective facts in the real world that exist independently outside the cognizing subject. So that from these perspectives learning can simply be viewed as a process of representation of such facts, or a process of picking information, or also a process of sending inputs, to be memorized and stored in mind of the learner, to be presented a gain in language. On the other side, teaching is also just a matter of transferring inputs or stimulus, in which the results or outputs of learning can be exactly observed, measured, forecasted and controlled by the teacher. Then most of teachers usually belief that teaching well simply means organizing well these stimulus-respond process. They are also sure that if they teach well, then their student will also learn well. But unfortunately, teaching and learning are not synonymous; we can probably teach, and teach well, without having the students learn. There are also many evidences that students who have learned well by mastering such objective knowledge, but fail when they ask to perform their

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knowledge in other circumstances for instance related to the real daily live (see for example Thissen, 1997,71). Or let see the following citation: Thus, while students are able to complete the word problems at the end of the chapter in their science textbook, they are unable to use that knowledge to calculate the time it will take them to travel to Grandmother's house at a certain speed and distance (Cunningham/Duffy/Knuth 1993, 23). For this phenomena constructivism has an alternative explanation, which views the cognizing subject and its nature as an autonomous living system in balance and in coexistence with its surrounding medium, in which they interact each other without losing their respective individual characteristic border. According to Maturanas and Varelas Biology of Cognition a living system is autonomous, perturbed by events in the surrounding medium and compensating for them with changes to its structure. Autonomy in this context arises from the living system's organization as a cognizing system. Autonomy means that the organism subordinates all changes in the environment based on its own structural states, to the maintenance of its organization no matter how its structure may have to change to do this. In other words, the environment is the source of the perturbations, not the source of instructions for the acting organism. That means, from inside of an autopoietic organism there is simply no instruction, no directed influence, no control from its surrounding medium. But we, as observer see it, as it were. In fact, for an organism there is only perturbations, that must be compensated continuously through the change of its structure in order to maintain its autopoietic organization. That is the nature of learning. From this point of view learning has nothing to do with instruction but with perturbing elements of environment. Neutrally, we can say that learning is a result of the structural coupling between the learning organism and its perturbing environment. Learning only refers to the process of construction of the individual reality concerning the perturbing agents, that must be compensated in other to maintain the individual characteristic border. Concretely, for the young students learning refers to the process of construction of their individual reality in which all perturbing agents (beliefs, perceptions, values, etc.) will be actively selected, perceived, under consideration of their existing experiences in other to the maintain their individual reality to secure their coherence and their coexistence with their surrounding medium (their classmates, teachers, parents). The constructivist view have permitted us to have a new look at learning, showing that it cannot be reduced to a simple process of transmission of facts. It emphasize on an orienting of active learning As von Glasersfeld said, knowledge is not passively received but actively built by he cognizing subject and cannot be seen as a commodity that is found ready-made but must be the result of a cognizing subject's construction. So learning is something that children can only do by themselves. (b) Constructivism draws a new perspective of teaching not as a simple process of organizing of stimulus respond, but as a process of learning to find out an appropriate perturbing learning environment, in order to help the learners to maintain their individual reality. What does it mean appropriate perturbing learning environment? Since learning from the constructivist point of view is always related to the maintaining effort of the individual reality of the learning subject, then teaching must concern with this individual reality of the student. That means teaching must be about organizing authentic problem or real situation relating to the students individual reality. It is claim that the authentic learning environments which must be

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prepared and organized by the teacher, is significant factor that deal with the meaningful learning. Authentic learning environments present students with meaningful activities that lead to far transfer: defining problems, identifying resources, setting priorities, addressing subsets of the problem, exploring different approaches to problems, and generating a variety of appropriate solutions (Kommers/Grabinger/Dunlap, 1996, p.229). In other words, the authenticity of the learning activity refers to the activity of the learner in the learning environment relative to the environment in which the learning will be used. In these context teaching can be referred to a process of contextualized of formal knowledge by mean of presenting knowledge in most possible authentic context that related to the real live of the student. Shortly, learning and teaching should take place in an authentic situation, in which possible real experiences are concerned. Each experience with an idea - and the environment of which that idea is a part - becomes part of the meaning of that idea. The experience in which an idea is embedded is critical to the individual's understanding of and ability to use that idea (Duffy /Jonassen 1992,4) 4. Conclusion I conclude this study with an emphasis that meaningful learning begins, when the mental (cognitive) action begins, and this begins when appropriate perturbing agents from the environment exist and disturb the learner. Learning is then the construction of individual reality towards the reality of perturbing agents from the environment. The construction of individual reality is a continuous process of change or transformation in the current cognitive domain, in which the changes that can be observed by the observer, is served to again to maintain the individual reality towards the environment in which the learner exist and co-exist with the other learner. Consequently it follows, that learning cannot simply be considered as a stimulus responds process, etc, but it is something what children can 'do' by themselves. If we are talking about learning mathematics, which characterized by its abstract (mental) object, so then learning is something what children do mentally in their mind by themselves. Then the rest of history goes further based on the perturbation concept until the new equilibrium phase is reached. From this point of view it follows that teaching is not any more simply a matter of sending stimulus or organizing of the stimulus-respond process, but it is also a process of learning of finding, preparing and organizing appropriate authentic perturbing agents, that is called authentic learning environments, which can present students with meaningful activities that lead to far transfer: defining problems, identifying resources, setting priorities, addressing subsets of the problem, exploring different approaches to problems, and generating a variety of appropriate solutions. References 1. A. E. Beaton, et al., Mathematics Achievement in The Middle School Years: IEA's Third International Mathematics And Science Study (TIMSS), Boston: Center for Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy, Boston College, 1996.

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2. E.V. Glasersfeld, Wege des Wissens: konstruktivistische Erkundungen durch unser Denken, Heidelberg: Carl -Auer-Systeme Verlag. 1997. 3. E.V. Glasersfeld, Radikaler Konstruktivismus: Ideen, Ergebnisse, Probleme. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1997 4. F.J. Varela, Principles of Biological Autonomy, Holland: Elsevier North Holland, Inc.,1979. [5] G. Howson,. et al., Curriculum Development in Mathematics, London: Cambridge University Press. 1981, pp. 84101 5. H.R. Maturana and F.J. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. London: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980. 6. H.R Maturana and F.J Varela, Der Baum der Erkenntnis: Die biologischen Wurzeln menschlichen Erkennens, Germany: Der Goldmann Verlag, 1987. 7. S. Lerman, Articulating Theories of Mathematics Learning, in Paul Ernest, Studies in Mathematics Education Series 4, London: TheFalmer Press, 1994, p. 41-49.

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