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Cell biology, human development, organizational theory, love, - and HANDWORK?


I want to share one of my favorite thoughts with you, as we handwork teachers enter new and un-chosen territory: teaching online as – almost – a way of life.

In one of my forays into academia, in a seminar on systems thinking, I had to read and reflect on an undergraduate text on cell biology. Surprise! (Systems thinking is a discipline which investigates how everything is inter-connected; and the microcosm reflects the macrocosm).

The ideas presented by Chilean cell biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela have become key to my approach to pretty much everything since then – including my approach to mentoring teachers, and embracing all those unwelcome, distressing, and uncomfortable changes we have had to make in the last few months.

In a nutshell, what they say applies to any living organism: a cell, a human being, a group or organization of human beings (in our case, this could be a school), and even a ‘movement’ (I would apply this to the Waldorf movement in general, this may be controversial).

Maturana and Varela say:

The conditions for life and growth are the same (there is no life without growth, no organic growth without life).

Three conditions must be present for life/growth to take place:

1. There must be a sense of identity. Without a clearly defined boundary, there is no substance to the organism/ group/ organization. Think of such groups as a book club, where everyone wanted to meet at a different time and place, read a different kind of book – this could not be a ‘group’.

2. There must be a semi-permeable membrane. This means that along with a clear sense of identity, there can be no rigidity, the organism cannot be closed off. The cell must be able to accept oxygen and nutrients; a person encounters challenges - or as a mentor of mine used to call them “growth nodes”. Groups and organizations may gain or lose members or staff, but the organizational identity continues.

3. There must be perturbations (I call them ‘pokey things’) from outside the organism. In our case, we can quickly recognize current uninvited challenges – distance learning, isolation, separation, lack of physical cohesion within a class, inability to be in the same room and as easily ‘encompass’ the class with our etheric, the potential need to rethink what is possible to teach online, and all the rest …………..

The authors Maturana and Varela go into much more detail, but there is a surprise at the very end of this cell biology text book. They state these conditions describe – or this way of being is – LOVE IN ACTION. Think of a good friendship or relationship. You stay yourself, but change with the welcome interaction with the Other. There are sometimes unexpected or unwelcome ‘perturbations’, but these lead to necessary growth, change, and continued life of that friendship/ relationship.

Writing this, I’m hoping we can use this lens to examine our handwork teaching. I welcome your thoughts.

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