August, 2003



In the Fall of 2001 I decided to petition to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of the United States Department of Justice to be recognized as an "alien of extraordinary ability," a status that, when granted, should accelerate the process of obtaining a so-called Green Card. I wanted this document because it would facilitate my working for the Learning Development Institute, which is legally based in the US. Thanks to the many friends, both inside and outside the USA, who wrote in support of my petition, the status was granted.

Both the idea that I am an "alien" and that my abilities are "extraordinary" are at dissonance with my self-perception as an ordinary human being who sees himself as a citizen of the world rather than as someone whose priorities are linked to those of any particular country. I thus wrote a set of autobiographical notes, distributing them to those who wrote in support of my petition as well as to the INS, in an attempt to give insight into who I am from my own, different, perspective, yet arguing that there is enough in my background that is extraordinary and that thus could provide a basis for my seeking the special privileges I was interested in.

Looking two years later for something to add to my personal Web site in terms of a short autobiography that could complement my formal resume, I found these notes useful to the extent that I only had to rewrite the introductory paragraphs and make minor edits to what followed.



The most extraordinary aspect of my life has been the extraordinary people I have had the opportunity to meet and interact with. I have learned from them. Like any profound learning experience such learning has given meaning to my life. It has also frequently led me to change course. In the process I have become acquainted with an interesting variety of areas few other people combine, exploring the natural sciences, the sciences of social and human behavior, technology and the arts. In addition, as I traveled around the world, I learned a total of nine languages, six of which (Dutch, English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish) I use actively, my knowledge of three other languages (Arabic, Hebrew and Setswana) now having become rather latent. In my perception most of my diverse experiences have become integrated into something holistic, over and above the particularity of what each of them represents. Nonetheless, even though I stopped practicing the trade of theoretical physicist a long time ago, I find myself more recently being attracted back to that field and, when asked what I am, now often respond by saying something like: "I'm a theoretical physicist by original vocation and background as well as by continual state of mind." It is therefore only fair that I start off by describing myself from the latter perspective.



So, I am a physicist. My interest in the nature of things and the things of nature dates back to my early childhood years. What I learned by reading books from the library and by carrying out experiments with whatever I could lay my hands on has been more influential in my becoming a physicist than anything else. Yet, I recognize the importance and great value of my formal training, of discovering the force of discipline in formulating questions and seeking answers, and of gradually becoming part of a scientific community.

In 1965 I graduated with the degree of "Natuurkundig Ingenieur" from the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands. That degree is now unfortunately extinct. It used to be a prestigious academic qualification, offered by Institutes of Technology in such countries as The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. It had no equivalent elsewhere in the world and was generally seen as between the Masters and the Doctoral degree as defined in the Anglo-Saxon system. Typically, one would do qualifying research, resulting in a research report, which had to be approved before one could go on for graduation level research, which was to be conducted autonomously under the supervision of a professor. The average duration of study was seven and a half years. I completed the program in the minimum period possible of five and a half years. My desire to actively start doing what I had aspired to as a young boy much contributed to putting me on the fast track. Another aspect that pushed me forward was my dislike for the formal structure of the curriculum during the early years. I still feel that it kept me for an unnecessarily long time away from being what I wanted to be: a physicist. So, I was interested in getting it over and done with.

For my qualifying research - a one-year project - I worked as an experimentalist in Prof. B. S. Blaisse's Low Temperature Physics laboratory, investigating nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in rare earth salts at very low temperatures, contributing in the process to the laboratory's work environment through an improved design of the experimental setup. Despite my success as an experimentalist (my qualifying research with Blaisse had received the qualification "cum laude"), I chose to branch off in another direction and opted to pursue a specialization in theoretical physics for my graduation research. I was privileged enough to be admitted to the very small group of top-level students who could work directly with the renowned Ralph Kronig, whose scientific importance may be derived from the frequency with which his name is cited in the Archive for the History of Quantum Physics. Kronig and I co-authored in 1966 a paper for the Royal Netherlands Academy on the research I did for my graduation (A rigorous solution of Dirac's equation. Proceedings of the Royal Netherlands Academy, 69B, 332-335.). While a student of Kronig's, I was honored and privileged to be given the unique position of Graduate Research Assistant with him. Only one such position was available. I held it for as long as my graduation research lasted (about a year and a half.)

Following my graduation, and thanks to the recognition I got for my accomplishments as a graduate student, I received a succession of fellowship awards (specified in my resume) that allowed me to apply my newly acquired knowledge and skills to the quantum theoretical study of molecular biological phenomena, then a pioneering new field of research, during the nineteen-sixties. I worked in this area in Israel at the Technion in Haifa and in The Netherlands at the University of Leiden. For my work in Israel I had won the 1966/1967 Government of Israel Exchange Scholarship between the Netherlands and Israel. For my work in Leiden I received one of the prestigious "EMBO Fellowships" from the European Molecular Biology Organization, which was then in its second year. EURATOM, at that time still the parent organization of EMBO, also supported my taking part in specialized post-graduate training in molecular biology in 1966 at the Free University of Brussels, Belgium. A few months earlier several Swedish foundations, through the University of Uppsala, had supported my taking part in the illustrious gathering of Quantum Molecular Scientists in Abisko and Uppsala, Sweden, during the post-graduate summer school in Quantum Chemistry, Solid State Physics, and Quantum Biology. Perhaps most influential on my growth as a scientist was my attending in 1967, with financial support from the institutions concerned, the Post-graduate Course on Biological Organization on a Molecular Level, co-organized by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and the Laboratoire de Biochémie Physique in Paris, France. It was in that context that I met Aharon Katchalsky. The encounter with this great scientist and humanist, who died in the terrorist attack on Tel Aviv airport in 1972, opened my eyes for the thermodynamic properties of open (and thus also living) systems as well as for the inseparability of human knowledge and human beings.

Ruben Pauncz (inventor of the Alternant Molecular Orbital Method) wrote me in 2001 reminding me of the proof I found for a symmetric group theory problem while working with him at the Technion in Haifa. He said he still kept it in his notes. I recall ignoring his advice then to have it published. I was aspiring to greater things and didn't judge this to be one of them. Exactly the same thing happened later to a small contribution I made to the mathematical understanding of the photosynthetic process while working at the Biophysical Laboratory in Leiden with Lou Duysens (who hypothesized in 1956 that chlorophyll is oxidized in the primary reaction of photosynthesis; see e.g. Perhaps my reluctance to publish anything less than the superb can be excused, taking into consideration that I had the privilege of working with some of the greatest minds in a then emerging field. Being blinded by the brilliance of others, by far my senior in age and competence, I had not yet realized that even small contributions to building knowledge are valuable. That discovery had to wait until I better understood the intricate process of human learning and the building of knowledge throughout history. In fact, my years as a practicing physicist were very much also the years in which I started trying to understand what it means to know. This explains how my emphasis and interests shifted gradually away from research into the quantum theoretical basis of the fundamental phenomena of life to the problems of human learning and, more generally, human existence and consciousness.



The above shift was helped, in addition to my having been part of, and having reflected on, the exciting enterprise of building scientific knowledge, by two things. From the time I was a university student, and initially in the first place as a way to earn some money, I had engaged in teaching other people the things I thought I knew, both at secondary and at university level. While doing so, I discovered that I did not really know what I thought I knew and that I started to know things better by helping others to learn. Another contributing factor was my long-term interest in philosophy. I had taken all possible courses in philosophy offered at the Delft University of Technology at the time I was pursuing my physics interests there (1959-1965) and enrolled in parallel courses in philosophy (as well as astrophysics) at the University of Leiden (1962-1964), a two-hour bicycle ride away from Delft. Later, during the academic year 1970/1971, I enrolled again in philosophy classes at the University of Amsterdam. By that time I had also developed an interest in human and social development in an international development context.



Without ever losing the mindset of a physicist, I think, I became interested and involved in the development of learning and human capacity in an international context at a variety of levels and in different settings. My resume gives some detail. I lived and worked for more than 25 years in countries of the so-called developing world. The experience contributed greatly to my own development.

I developed my expertise in helping others to learn initially in an intuitive manner. Thanks to the advice and help of a good friend, Abraham Zalzman, I later dedicated myself to the disciplined study of this field and obtained both a M.Sc. and a Ph.D. in Instructional Systems Design at the Florida State University (FSU). I had the immense privilege of being among the last group of students to get exposed to the lectures by the renowned Robert Gagné. It was even a greater pleasure that, as a Graduate Assistant at the Learning Systems Institute, the office where I worked faced Gagné's. It led to frequent informal encounters with him.

While conducting my studies, as well as afterwards, I received awards and distinctions. They are mentioned at the end of my resume. The one that I value most, because it was related to something I experienced as relevant, is the 1987 DID Award for Outstanding Practice as a Graduate Student in Instructional Development, which was given for my work to develop a science learning module for a Mozambican adult audience (elementary school teachers) using the Dick and Carey model for its design.

The years of my study at FSU were also years of intellectual productivity in general as I combined study at FSU with my ongoing work in Mozambique. The importance of combining study with work cannot be over emphasized. Among other things, I invented in those years the so-called Motivational Messages (MM) strategy [Visser, J. & Keller, J. M. (1990). The clinical use of motivational messages: An inquiry into the validity of the ARCS model of motivational design. Instructional Science, 19, 467-500]. This intervention was first tested in face-to-face instructional settings and has since also found its way into the rapidly expanding field of distance education, including online learning environments. The original 1990 article continues to be cited.

Several decades of conscious reflection on human learning, based often on my hands-on involvement in its development, have led me to the conclusion that learning is a seriously underdeveloped concept and that much still needs to be done to overcome its state of underdevelopment. This conclusion has inspired my work with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as Director for Learning Without Frontiers, a program which I had the opportunity to design and develop, thanks to it's having been prompted into existence following the advice of French philosopher Michel Serres. An article on "Learning without frontiers: Building integrated responses to diverse learning needs" (Visser & Berg, 2000), published in Educational Technology Research and Development, 47(3), pp 101-114, received the 2000 Award of the International Council of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology for Outstanding International Journal Article.

The experience of building and directing Learning Without Frontiers subsequently led me to create the Learning Development Institute (LDI), which focuses on a transdisciplinary research and development effort to give learning new meanings and generate related practice. LDI's efforts have attracted the participation of some of the best minds in this area from around the world. My dual background as a physicist and as a researcher and developer of learning provides me with a unique set of skills and insights that allow me to contribute to the study of learning from a distinctly transdisciplinary perspective. This rather exceptional circumstance led the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) to invite me in 2000 to a short-term researcher in residence position for work on "complex cognition." My relationship with the Santa Fe Institute has since continued. I am currently particularly interested in issues of robustness of the learning landscape, a concept related to my view of learning as an ecological-evolutionary phenomenon [see e.g. Visser, J. (2001). Integrity, completeness and comprehensiveness of the learning environment: Meeting the basic learning needs of all throughout life. In D. N. Aspin, J. D. Chapman, M. J. Hatton and Y. Sawano (Eds), International Handbook of Lifelong Learning (pp. 447-472). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.] In view of the transdisciplinary nature of my interest in the sciences of learning, I also maintain a close association with, and am a member of, the International Center for Transdisciplinary Study and Research in Paris, France. The same interest led me to serve in 2001 as a reviewer for the interdisciplinary project of the Santa Fe Institute Consortium on "Increasing Human Potential," a project that focuses on early child development from a neuroscience perspective.

My work as Founding President of the Learning Development Institute since 1999 - it started as an overlapping activity with my UNESCO responsibilities, gracefully and enthusiastically encouraged by UNESCO's then Director-General, Federico Mayor - has particularly focused on creating networked research communities around significant focus areas such as the "Meaning of Learning" (MOL); "The Scientific Mind" (TSM); "Problem Oriented Learning" (POL); and "Learning to Learn and Think" (LLT) as well as specific initiatives, such as the "Book of Problems" (BOP), about all of which information can be found at In addition to networking, this work has also led to my involvement as Senior Researcher in a variety of areas, such as the Learning Stories Research Project. I'm the Principal Investigator for MOL and TSM.

When I was invited in 2001 to join the austere and highly select group of individuals who, for many years, had been involved in setting the standards for quality in instruction and human performance improvement (the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction), I wrote back that my ideas about learning were rather off-mainstream and that I thus felt that I would be less useful to what was already a superb contribution to the instructional design field, fearing that it could only suffer from my deviant ideas. I was assured, though, that my "contributions to the field [were] well known" and that my "divergence [was] welcome and to be encouraged." My membership in ibstpi, in addition to being seen as an honor, is yet another opportunity that has started to enrich my already rich experience.



I see art and science as intimately interrelated. If I felt less happy while working as a physicist among physicists, it was mostly because some of my colleagues were less sensitive than I to experiencing their efforts as having something to do with beauty. In addition to my developing interests that went beyond strictly physics, as described above, this was another factor that contributed to the shift I made away from becoming a lifetime physicist. Did my artistic feelings result in the production of works of art? Well, I probably shouldn't care. There was a time, though, in the mid-nineteen-seventies, when I thought of myself in the first place as devoted to the arts. I was a documentary and artistic filmmaker then and engaged in essayistic writing on the side. A film made at that time won a merit-based grant in 1975 from the Rotterdam Arts Council while it was still under production. After it was finished, had been on national TV in The Netherlands, and had circulated in other countries and participated in several festivals in the US, Europe and the Middle-East, the film won a prize (in 1978) at the Third International Festival of Films and TV-programs on Palestine, Baghdad, Iraq. Not the kind of honor that I expected would impress the INS under the circumstances that prevailed when I submitted the petition to which these notes were attached. Nonetheless, the film, called "The Dream," made an honest attempt to portray the world of Palestinian refugee children as represented in their drawings and verbal commentary, as well as through poetry of resistance, against the backdrop of a tragic and lasting conflict between two great peoples whose lives I had had the privilege of sharing. If I hadn't made that film, someone else should have done so.

I never completed, and may never complete, another film I started working on during that same period. It is called "Confrontation" and is entirely based on one single sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, "Walking man." The project, which I was working on in 1975 and 1976 with the kind collaboration of the Kröller-Müller Museum in The Netherlands, was overtaken by the developments in Southern Africa. Mozambique had become independent in June of 1975 and I had the opportunity to join its only university at that time, the Eduardo Mondlane University, then led by the historian Fernando Ganhão, whom I first met in August 1976. That meeting became the crucial starting point for a 13-year long commitment to the development history of one country. For my role in it, I received in 1985 an "Honors Diploma" out of the hands of the then Minister of Education, Graça Machel.

My possibly most rewarding experience of working all those years in Mozambique was my involvement in the training of the very first contingents of Mozambique's secondary school science teachers. I deliberately list this experience under the heading "Art." Had I not had the kind of sensitivity I had been able to perfect through my work as a cinematographer, I might not have been able to benefit so much from my working with large groups of young, almost totally unprepared, people to create, together with them, a learning experience that neither they nor I could have imagined before it started. Some of that work was reported on in a presentation in 1989 at the Annual Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology under the title: "The application of instructional technology in 'impossible' circumstances: The case of Mozambique." I never found time for writing it up in the form of a formal paper, despite the encouragement to do so I received from those who saw the work.



I hated composition while in school, particularly because the topics I was supposed to write about had no appeal to me. Most likely, I also was a bad writer. My writing skills have since improved. Formal writing, for me, started at the age of 14, when I published my first two articles in a magazine called "Ahoy," aimed at youngsters and adults who enjoyed constructing things. Constructing something is probably the best context for learning. One article was about how to make a hand-held microphone; the other article dealt with how to construct an electrically driven gramophone. The first article was experimental. I had actually built the microphone and could ship it to the editor so that illustrations could be added to the text. The second article was theoretical. I never built that gramophone, but was convinced, in my mind, that it would work. So was the editor. When I was asked to also ship the prototype gramophone, I sent drawings my father helped me make and wrote that I had meanwhile taken the device apart as I needed the parts for other inventions. I earned a total of 24 Dutch guilders and am still convinced that the gramophone should have worked if someone had decided to build it.

Constructing things has been part of my life since I was a child. It interfered - from my perspective, it interacted - in an interesting way with the intellectual development I was supposed to undergo while studying physics and mathematics. Those who saw me approach my learning goals were horrified when, days before I was supposed to sit a tough math exam, I all of a sudden pulled out boxes with electronic components and started building an amplifier. Just in time I would get back to my books and be well prepared when the exam took place.

In similarly stressful circumstances, while working in Mozambique in the early nineteen-eighties, I found much relief in building two harpsichords, a couple of clavichords and a guitar, which I continue to play. In Mozambique this effort, as well as weekly rehearsals of actually making music, were the basis for the only chamber music concerts offered in that country during the many years of the civil war.



Apart from the fact that I walk an average of at least 70 miles a week, and by doing so covered in seven years a distance equivalent to the earth's equator, I actually believe that I am quite ordinary, ordinary in the sense that any other person could have followed and can follow similar paths. In fact, I'm happy to have come to know many people who do. If I do stand out from others, it is through the opportunities I have had and particularly through my gradually developed propensity to explore and exploit such opportunities. Doing so has resulted in variety of experience and skills, in depth as well as diversity, and in a well-developed set of wide-ranging competencies in areas that rarely come together in a single person. I tremendously enjoy being conversant with so many areas. It helps me greatly to take charge of the task I have set myself to rediscover the true meaning of human learning.

Jan Visser