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Brie Stark's picture


Discussion on the Emergent Approach to Education
June 16, 2009

    There were several problems in emergent education that Paul, Emily and I discussed.  Emily noted that there could be disciplinary problems and I could definitely see this occurring in a K-12 setting more so in a higher education setting.  I noted that my parents both teach in a prison system, educating inmates toward an associates degree (after they graduate) and that my dad in particular often tries to instigate an emergent type of classroom.  However, the inmates are focused mostly on getting through the classes rather than on the material, and because of the confined space of the prison, are often prone to sparking inappropriate debates or saying crude comments.  It is therefore hard to enforce discipline when the setting of the prison is so charged with emotions like anger and frustration. 

    Another problem we discussed was the focus on individual progress and subsequent testing to find out ‘worth’ or ‘aptitude.’  It seems, in class, that the individual wants to stand out and receive grades based on their own attitude and work.  However, it seems particularly irrelevant to judge just an individual’s progress because, in today’s society, there are very few new ideas created by sole individuals.  New ideas are usually the result of cooperative groups.  Therefore, why does the education system stress individual performance and then send the individuals into a real world focused on collaboration to provide new, possibly better ideas?  We need, therefore, to design a program that is not focused on the testing of individual aptitude, but focused on the whole of the person’s attributes, such as group interaction.  Often, when given a test, an individual will strive for what the teacher wants or what she knows as the ‘right’ answer and not step outside of the box—the limitations of receiving a good grade on the test hold her back from pursuing new ideas. 

    In an emergent course, we also discussed how the course becomes sensitive to the people participating in the discussion.  Often, the discussion topics and information presented are the same from year to year, but the course’s success will fluctuate.  We discussed that this success may be dependent upon the interest of the participants.  I also think that the group dynamic of the individuals—how they meld and work on processing and creating new thoughts—has a lot to do with course success.  Sometimes, people simply do not function as well with another type of person, and I believe this could lead to a lack of new ideas.

    I discussed an experience from a hopeful-emergent-style classroom that did not go very well.  I thought that the course failed to spur any discussion because there was not a point to work off of.  Often, the instructor would ask a question of readings that were too open-ended, to the tune of, “how did this make you feel?”  Many individuals, I felt, didn’t have a connection to make to this question and were thus not intrigued enough to make the effort to say something.  I think, perhaps, a small goal is necessary for a discussion.  The goal doesn’t have to be ‘correct’ or even entirely relevant to where the discussion will end—it just needs to stimulate a discussion.  Perhaps, “how does this relate to the current world event of genocide, and what reasons do you disagree with?”  This question may cause a stir of feelings, either in agreement or disagreement, which are interesting enough to comment upon and facilitate a discussion.

    Working off of that idea, I think it is necessary to show as many sides of an issue as is possible.  When I read articles focused only on peace, for instance, I become disinterested.  If I read an article on why causing a war worked for one country, I would think to myself and decide whether or not I agreed or disagreed with this article, which would cause a stronger influence of feelings.  Since I would read both a pro-peace and pro-war piece, I could then better formulate my own opinion and categorize my feelings in order to participate.

    As discussed before, testing seems to put a damper on the emergent education philosophy.  An emergent environment is meant to stimulate new ideas, not to conform to old ideals.  If the classroom is preaching that there is no ‘right’ answer and encouraging discussion to culminate into a new idea, the subsequent giving of a test where a ‘right’ answer is encouraged will ultimately backfire upon the emergent classroom that once existed.  The students will resort back to pleasing the teacher and looking only for the right answer, rather than exploring options.  It seems to me that a better way of assessing progress could be done in several ways.

    First, I think that participation points could be a useful tool.  If the students are not told that participation points are awarded, I do not believe that students would purposefully try to say as much as possible in order to receive a better grade.  I also think that students’ assessment of others, when working in a group, is a helpful anchor to base grades upon—this fits in with what I mentioned earlier about gathering a new perspective.  However, participation points also has a downside: students may focus on just pleasing the teacher and conforming to what they believe the teacher wants to hear or the discussion is aiming toward, rather than letting themselves think outside of the box.

    Second, I believe that open-ended essays or papers can facilitate new ideas and help in the grading process.  While it is harder to come up with your own idea for a paper, I believe that this process could help to broaden a student’s interests and knowledge in the topic.  When reading the paper, the grade could be based upon how much the student has stepped outside of the box or has explored a new realm to an old question. 

    Third, we discussed that growth should be a component of grading.  It is necessary, through emergent teaching, for the developmental process to be the most important factor—not the end result.  For that reason, why shouldn’t we factor in that growth process into the grade?  While it is very hard to decide how to do this, I think this must be discussed and implemented in order to make the grade more comprehensive.

    Emergent education has a long way to go before it is accepted into the contemporary education mold.  First, because contemporary education stresses individual achievement and grades above group participation, new idea forming and developmental growth.  Second, because education is often tailored to tests where one answer is ‘correct’ and thus leaves no room for further exploration.  Finally, because emergent education would cause a great change in the education system, where new methods of deciding things like entrance into graduate school would have to be assessed.  Without having the GRE and a GPA, perhaps interviews, letters of recommendation and even group activities would become a forefront building block of admission. 

    We wondered, too, if emergent education did continue to grow and grades subsequently began to become irrelevant, if students would begin taking classes according to what they are interested in rather than what is required.  What change would this cause in teachers?  Would teachers become more passionate when teaching a class full of students who took the course because they genuinely enjoyed it?  How much would this change the educational system as we know it? 

    I think emergence definitely has a place in the educational system today.  It has been used in social society for a very long time and has been extremely effective.  The creation of new medicines, of stories, of movies and of many other things has been the result of collaborative, emergent thinking.  Education should reform itself in a way that students who are educated are subsequently prepared for the ‘real world’ after school—individualism is not the only factor in society, and therefore should not be the only factor in the education system.

Examples of Innovative Emergent Techniques

Odyssey of the Mind: “is an international educational program that provides creative problem-solving opportunities for students from kindergarten through college. Kids apply their creativity to solve problems that range from building mechanical devices to presenting their own interpretation of literary classics,” (  In the program, “students learn skills that will last a lifetime. They work in teams so they learn cooperation and respect for the ideas of others. They evaluate ideas and make decisions on their own, gaining greater self-confidence and increased self-esteem along the way. They work within a budget, so they learn to manage their money. They see that there’s often more than one way to solve a problem, and that sometimes the process is more important than the end result.”  Both Emily and I took part in this program in our grade-school years, and we found to be a particularly innovative way of introducing younger children exactly how society does function—it is geared toward group participation, equality of participation, formation of new ideas, rather than on individualism and self-achievement. 

University of Cincinnati Scholarship Program: A friend of mine participated in this activity and I thought it particularly interesting.  While people are selected to participate based on test grades and GPA, it is a program that is starting to evolve into a more emergent approach and has the potential to develop further.  “The Cincinnatus Scholarship Competition at the University of Cincinnati transforms the typical scholarship application process into a dynamic interactive event that celebrates student leadership, academic excellence, and personal growth. Rather than filling out tedious forms, the brightest and most promising prospective freshmen will be invited to accept a renewable scholarship award or compete on campus for more than $18 million in University of Cincinnati four-year scholarships” (  My friend described the process as being divided into groups, given a problem to solve and thus delving into a conversation with the other group members.  The officials would roam around the room observing group collaboration and noting individual performance in relation to problem-solving and group dynamics.  This approach, I feel, is one step toward involving an emergent philosophy into the college admission process that could possibly alleviate the individualism-oriented goals of the SAT or ACT.



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