Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Emergent Pedagogy: Approaching Education (an article)

Brie Stark's picture

Emergent Pedagogy: Approaching Education

Brielle Stark, June 19 2009


Background reading: "Emergent Pedagogy: Learning to Enjoy the Uncontrollable and Make it Productive" (pdf)


Subdivisions: Initial Thoughts; Daily Life; Necessities & Suggestions for Success; Examples of Techniques; Possible Obstacles; Conclusions and Questions

Initial Thoughts on Emergent Pedagogy

        The concept of emergent pedagogy is not only an interesting concept, but also a very applicable education method that can easily find its roots in the organization of our brain.  At the foundational level, our brain does not uphold the ‘hierarchical’ concept that much of the world believes its social interactions and subsequent results revolve around and depend upon.  It has been implied, through research on neurons and behavioral outputs, that the brain does not have a certain dictator or central figure in its system.  It is comparable to the emergent pedagogy idea of education because, if we are on the right track to discovering how our brain produces behavior, we may also find that learning is influenced in a similar way: by using many systems that coordinate with each other over time to produce a synchronized or common thought.  In the emergent pedagogy paper by Dalke, Grobstein, Cassidy and Blank of Bryn Mawr College, the common thought is emphasized in particular: it is not essential that the common thought be the ‘correct’ answer to a problem, but rather, it is the developmental journey to producing this thought that is most important.
        I have found from personal experience that I do crave individual advancement and commentary, and that when placed in a group environment, it is hard to have those needs satisfied.  However, having been a part of an emergent atmosphere last semester, I found that the production of ideas and the culmination of many diverse thoughts (from many genetically and experientially diverse people) lead to very interesting results that I may have never found in my own conscious thought process.  Realizing this small factor opened my eyes and I began to value the differing interpretations of my peers in a different manor.  We were all genetically diverse, with environmentally different backgrounds, and therefore had much more to offer—the discussion became multi-faceted and took many turns, but lead to a result that was somewhat tangible to each member of the discussion.  While at each turn most of the discussion members were blind to what followed, the learning process of taking those turns helped to facilitate and encourage further discussion in order to reach a new idea that embraced a part of each member.
        It is the learning process that is the fundamental building block of emergent pedagogy.  In a lecture-style classroom with a plan that is concrete, both the teacher and the student learn only what has been set out for them: the teacher learns nothing more and the student learns only what the teacher already knows.  While this seems adequate in a standardized testing environment, in the real world, this scheme seems ill equipped to foster new ideas.  A previous teacher of mine once posed this question: is there ever an original idea anymore?   I think she had a point, when looking through the lens of emergent pedagogy.  When teaching what has already been discovered and not allowing for the supplementation of diverse outlooks and ideas, no original idea can be formed.  However, when opening the classroom to a discussion environment based on the culmination of diverse ideas from diverse people, original ideas are much more apt to be produced because they are the result of pre-formulated ideas being adapted when new, diverse information is received.  To answer my teacher’s question, I would say that, in today’s educational environment, the concept of an original idea seems far-fetched; through the lens of emergent pedagogy, the original idea seems to be a result of a path of development.
        In all, emergence will not be easy to adapt to in the classroom because of the long history of structured education.  However, teachers and students must learn to embrace both their pre-designed ideas about education while incorporating an emergent aspect—just as emergent pedagogy states, the emphasis is on the learning process, and thus teachers and students must partake in such a learning process to incorporate emergent education into their plans.


Daily Life

        I recognize emergent pedagogy in my daily life.  Look at the Nobel Prize Winners for the past few years—there has rarely ever been a single nomination for an original discovery.  There is almost always a group of people working toward a common goal and discovering a novel idea.  Another applicable situation to emergence is national law—our ruling bodies and our people often have debates over personal experiences that lead to a change in a national law or expectation.  Without these personal experiences melding with other diverse outlooks, no new law could ever come to be.  For example, growing up, a girl was brutally murdered down my street.  Before that murder, there had been no law requiring sex-offenders to register with a bureau before living in a neighborhood.  Following the murder, many people came together to have discussions revolving around the prospect of registering sex offenders, which, over time, lead to the creation of a law requiring any person convicted of a violent crime to register with a specific bureau about his or her whereabouts.


Necessities and Suggestions for Success

        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.
We wondered 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,” (link).  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” (link).  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.


Possible Obstacles

        Therein lies a problem.  Today, we rely on standardized testing to test the aptitude of individuals K-12 and for college and graduate school entrance exams.  How, then, do we move forward to embrace the concept of emergence in the classroom and test aptitude?  Or, do we test aptitude at all?  Do we rely simply on the recommendation of many teachers about a student’s learning process?  Can we create some kind of test to delve into the developmental process of learning that one has experienced through emergence?  I think these are all valid questions that should be addressed in terms of emergent pedagogy.
        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.
        B. Vallabha (see post) brings up the point that, if a case study were made where a child was pursuing an education for motives such as financial help for her family, that emergent education wouldn’t perhaps be the best option.  However, I do not believe that it is the concept of emergent education that we’re dealing with in this case study – rather, I think we’re dealing with a failed concept of individualism and lack of ability to be esteemed as an individual in order to make progress.  This concept relates back to the fact that standardized tests are a crucial key to acceptance into college, which is ultimately what this case study aims for: to receive an honorable college degree in order to ensure financial dependence following college.  Or, even more, good individual high school grades can lead to a better job in the workforce immediately following high school.  Therefore, I honestly don’t believe that emergent pedagogy is the culprit here – it seems that our concentration on standardized testing and focus on individual progress without group interaction – is what drives this argument.
        Now, say there was a way developed by enthusiasts of emergent pedagogy for a student, such as the case study, to be evaluated at a group and individual level without the usage of grades or standardized tests—whereas these evaluations would be equal to the tests and grades and be looked upon with as much credit by the workforce and college.  Would this not conclude that emergent pedagogy has little to do with this scenario, but rather that our world is focused on rewarding individual achievement with grades and judging this individual achievement by subjective testing?  I would think this more of a problem than emergent pedagogy, itself.
        I stated before that working and education is dependent upon group dynamics.  If this case study wants to ‘make it big,’ there is probably a greater chance of achieving this if she has been encouraged to perfect her group relationship skills throughout school rather than being encouraged to perfect her individual knowledge.  If she were only encouraged to perfect her individual knowledge, this knowledge would be sorely limited by ignorance to the outside world—she’d have no other viewpoints except her own and far less experience relating in groups (than she would have had with emergence); in today’s society, it seems that progress is being made tenfold faster with group dynamics than with individual progress.
        While I do believe B. Vallabha brings up a good point, I believe this point can be addressed from a viewpoint that is a consequence of our educational system based on individualism, not on the encouragement of an educational system of emergence.  Emergence breeds success in both the social realm and educational realm.  As we have discussed before, education does not and should not end at school’s end—rather, life is a period of growing and development.  Even if this case study’s motives are for financial success, won’t she have to learn how to achieve that financial success over time?  Gaining financial success won't simply appear because she received great individual grades during school.  What better way to prepare her for the real world of emergence than through an educational system of emergence?  The only possible obstacles in her way have been mentioned above, and I believe that, in the future, these obstacles will become lesser as we begin to understand the value of emergent pedagogy.
        Vallabha mention that emergent education may force values upon an individual.  I think this can be argued several ways.  The concept of education today is to sit in a lecture-style classroom, having ideas thrust upon you, with the intention of you believing and learning them.  In an emergent classroom, I believe that there is a buffer for this seemingly-value-pushing 'modern' education: you have the ability to force an opposite opinion, of which you could not have ordinarily done in the 'modern' education environment.
        I would also argue that there is no value-neutral classroom because achieving a value-neutral system is nearly impossible---there are too many facets to cover in a class in order to present every  opinion and be truly value  neutral.  We discussed, in the previous posts, that for an emergent style classroom to be effective, the teacher must present arguments/articles from differing viewpoints in order to spark an opinion or a new idea.  This is probably the closest to value-neutral we'll ever get.
        During a small discussion, Paul brought up the notion that emergent classrooms could be considered as indoctrinating.  However, I honestly think that every style of class can be considered indoctrinating--'modern' class-style being the most indoctrinating.  As I stated above, the modern class thrusts knowledge upon an individual and argues that the knowledge is truth and must be understood as such.  In an emergent classroom, ideas are explored from differing perspectives and the indoctrinating aspect is lessened by the impact of opinion and argument.

Conclusion and Questions

        It seems, then, that emergence is not a novel concept in the realm of everyday life, but rather, an original idea in regards to education.  The arguments for its success in education are strong, and I believe that, over time, emergence will become an adequate source of learning and information-gathering, if not a better source.  As I stated before, there is an argument that the creation of original ideas seems much better suited for an emergent atmosphere than a structured one. 
        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.