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Emergence and Education

. . . to surpass the given and look at things as if they could be otherwise.

Maxine Greene


Given all the curricular expectations placed upon educators, how do we teach in a way that helps students create meaning and significance in their learning? How do we convey a sense of purpose and engagement in their schooling experience that becomes transformative in their lives and in their future? These are questions that I, and my collaborator David Reid-Marr, wanted to explore in our book Emergent Teaching: A Path of Creativity, Significance, and Transformation. 

What we call Emergent Teaching arose out of our deepest concerns that education has become too absorbed with just accumulating information. Information alone can fail to awaken within students the desire to create a better world. What is important for all teachers to understand is that each of us can give learners information but we cannot give another person meaning. Meaning is created from within and cannot be imposed or transmitted from someone else. Information, by itself, has no meaning. 

The human brain is not a computer and the human being is not a machine; we are living, complex adaptive systems. An education that treats the learner as a machine or a computer to be programmed has missed the mark.

Unfortunately, a great deal of schooling is about transmitting lots of information to students without helping them find connections to their lives and dreams. When learning has a sense of purpose, however, when it taps into the imagination; and when it is part of our real or imagined experience then it has power to be transformative. Learners need space and time to process and consolidate how learning relates to their lives and to the future they envision. Meaning emerges from this process.

The heart of education is that it is purposeful, visionary, and relevant to the lives of students and the needs of society now and in the future. When students are engaged in this kind of education, learning is naturally internalized and incorporated into creative and responsive action.

In living systems, emergence is a type of “bottom-up” intelligence. There is no predictable outcome nor is there a leader that leads the way. The cosmos and every dynamic system have the qualities of emergence. If we apply this to education, it is giving students the opportunity interact with the natural processes of meaning-making, to consolidate experience over time, and to make choices about what to do with this learning and what its significance is for their lives.

Emergent assignments tend to be parallel to the curriculum. For example, a fourth grade class was doing a one-week science lesson on plants. The teacher created an emergent assignment, however, where she provided each student with a small plant to take home.  She asked them to spend ten minutes a day for six weeks caring for this plant and others if they wanted to. She invited them to keep a journal about the experience, to talk to the plant, notice small details about it, notice plants and trees in the community, create questions that interested them. 

As students engaged in this activity on their own terms and a brief time was made available at the end of the six weeks to present and report about the experience. Students brought an array of questions, reports, information they had collected, drawings and excitement. They wanted to do something with what they had learned. They asked if they could create a garden at the school and bring plants into the classroom. They made plans to visit a nursery. The teacher built upon the values of caring, responsibility for the natural world, beautifying the world. The learners created these actions from their own interests and understandings – from the bottom up.

To help create emergent assignments the following questions may be helpful:

  • Is the assignment open-ended?
  • Does it include the student’s subjective experience?
  • Are there collaborative opportunities involved?
  • Is the assignment experiential?
  • Does it include opportunities to be creative?
  • Does it encourage personal choices and responses?
  • Is there a consolidation or culmination?

Emergent teaching is not a methodology. It is an approach to teaching that allows “bottom-up” knowledge to be developed by the students and to guide learning as it unfolds into layers of substance, meaning, and creative possibility.


~ Sam Crowell, PhD.

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