The Use of Metapatterns for Research into Complex Systems of Teaching, Learning, and Schooling— Part I: Metapatterns in Nature and Culture


  • Tyler Volk
  • Jeffrey W. Bloom



We justify the concept of metapatterns as functional patterns or functional principles that are common to a large set of systems that encompass both biology and culture, by starting with the fact that evolved systems, whether biological or cultural, are produced from any iterative sequence of replication, variation, and selection. Therefore the systems that result, with specific functional parts, are formed as wholes that fit particular contexts. The principle of convergence in biological evolution, in which similar structures are independently evolved, is the model that can be extended even beyond biology. If the contexts of evolved systems across widely separated scales are similar, the resulting evolved systems can exhibit convergences that themselves occur at diverse scales. These grand convergences are the metapatterns. For example, the functional advantage of dynamically separating systems from their environments sets the context for the evolution of the metapattern of borders across various scales. We outline fifteen additional examples of metapatterns. We also examine the correspondences and differences between metapatterns as a multi-scale approach to systems and the approach from complexity science. We suggest that metapatterns could serve as tools for thinking about a diverse range of topics, and could thereby motivate the transference of generalizations. Finally, we propose that because metapatterns are employed in human thought, they will be useful in formulating new questions for education research, which is the subject of the companion paper.

Author Biographies

Tyler Volk

Tyler Volk is associate professor of biology and science director of the environmental studies program at New York University. Address: Biology Department, 1009 Silver Center, 100 Washington Square East, New York University, New York, NY, 10003- 6688. He has a long-standing interest in the structures and functions of systems at all levels, and, in addition to the book Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind is the author of Gaia’s Body: Towards a Physiology of Earth and What is Death?: A Scientist Looks at the Cycles of Life. Phone: 212-998-3736. Website:

Jeffrey W. Bloom

Jeffrey W. Bloom is professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ 86011. He specializes in elementary science education. His research interests involve complexity in thinking and learning, teaching for complex learning, and classroom and school communities. He can be reached at 928-523-0665. His personal website is at: His project website is the Exploring Science Site at:






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