• Barbara Widhalm California Institute of Integral Studies


living systems, autopoiesis, sustainability education, transformative learning, multiple ways of knowing, educational systems design


How can we design learning experiences so that they mimic an ecological, living system? How can learners fully experience the group as a living, vibrant, organic whole and unleash its creative? The process of stimulating “living systems awareness” and self-organizing creativity in learning communities, such as any courses, workshops, or conferences, is a truly integrative challenge that involves multiple dimensions of learning experience design: how we set up the visible and  invisible learning space (structural-spatial dimension), how we pace and allow for flow according to nature’s rhythms (rhythmic-temporal dimension), how we allow for creative expression from the whole person (expressive-extrarational dimension), how we encourage the mind to understand and utilize systems analysis and systems design across disciplines (cognitive-rational dimension), and how we integrate this awareness in our practice (practical dimension). If all these aspects mimic and stimulate living systems dynamics, learners are more likely to co-create life-sustaining ideas, designs and structures. Particularly, there is value in nurturing autopoiesis in the classroom, which is a process of self-organizing, self-renewing development in living systems. When a system has a semi-permeable boundary, when there is rich information and resource exchange within that boundary, and when the system draws inspiration from its environment outside the boundary, something new arises that is greater than any participant could have come up with on their own. In order to revert the downward spiral of the industrial growth society, we urgently need to develop a multitude of life-sustaining innovations and regenerative design ideas in education. Because of the fragile state of the planet, an autopoietic approach to teaching is very timely. By integrating living systems awareness through multiple ways of knowing, learners can internalize the principles and processes that sustain all life on earth more fully and are therefore better prepared to take action in an increasingly unpredictable world. This paper explores how to utilize the principles of living systems as metapatterns to guide instructional design. It summarizes key insights from the author’s recently published dissertation Nature as Guide to Vibrant Learning. The author then introduces a series of guiding questions and instructional design examples that allow for the integration of living systems awareness in any project or group process, across multiple dimensions of learning experience design. Particular emphasis is placed on the structural-spatial, rhythmic-temporal, and expressive-extrarational dimension, which deserve much greater attention in education for a healthier world.

Author Biography

Barbara Widhalm, California Institute of Integral Studies

Instructor and educational design consultant: University of New Mexico, California Institute of Integral Studies, and Sonoma State University. Program Manager for National Science Foundation project in sustainability education for technicians, Laney College



How to Cite

Widhalm, B. (2013). TEACHING LIVING SYSTEMS AWARENESS AS A CHANGE AGENT SKILL FOR A VIBRANT SUSTAINABLE WORLD. Proceedings of the 56th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2012, San Jose, CA, USA. Retrieved from https://journals.isss.org/index.php/proceedings56th/article/view/1852



Designing Educational Systems