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Emergent Pedagogy II

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain,  Education, Mental Health

During the summer of 2009, Paul Grobstein, Wil Franklin, Brie Stark, and Emily Lovejoy will be thinking about science education, education, the brain, and mental health and trying out ideas in a summer institute program with K-12 teachers. These pages (see updated list) are a place for ongoing thinking by the four of them, and any one else interested. To contribute your thoughts, use the forum entry form at the bottom of this and other pages. Postings will be checked to prevent spam and so may be delayed in appearing.



Background reading for the second conversation:

"Education as life itself: freedom, integration, and beyond"

(a manuscript in progress by Alice Lesnick and Paul Grobstein

Excerpts from draft introduction

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom  … Paolo Freire

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself ... John Dewey

Teachers and educational scholars are accustomed to dichotomies in the theory and practice of education: between content and process, between coverage and open-ended inquiry, between skill development and individual creativity, and between order and disarray.  And teachers, at least, often deal with such dichotomies by a “some of both” approach, by a series of semi-independent balancing acts in which the balance in any given situation is a function of local circumstances and taste, and often somewhat strained. Perhaps though these dichotomies are all facets of a single underlying more general opposition, the one about which Freire wrote: an opposition between “integration” and “freedom.”  And perhaps there is a way to conceive and enact education that doesn't inevitably set integration and freedom in opposition. 


An understanding of "life itself" as an ongoing process of change formed and informed by biology and culture provides a way to see these apparently conflicting interests as instead necessarily and inextricably intertwined in a mutually supportive way.  It also points directions for changes in educational practice that would help achieve a more coherent, useful, and broadly-based picture of education to guide policy and practice. In particular, we suggest that creating and sustaining abundant, flexible connections and exchanges between the classroom and the world at all levels of the educational enterprise promises to help people -- as living beings, biological and cultural -- to themselves pursue integration and freedom in tandem, in ways that do not involve sacrifice of either one for the other. 


Our business, at all levels of the educational enterprise, should be not to prepare students for particular challenges that we anticipate, either at other levels of the educational system or in the "real world," but rather to enhance their abilities to respond creatively and productively to all challenges, including the inevitable unknown ones.

Some initial reactions:

Further discussion on on-line forum below ...


Brie Stark's picture

When I first read the paper,

When I first read the paper, the concept of learning through life didn't seem like a foreign idea.  However, I soon realized, while talking with the other members of the discussion, that it was potentially not as 'common sense' oriented as it had seemed to me.  The first that came to my mind was this question: where did the mentality of ending learning when leaving school result from?  Why do we consider school to be the end of a learning period and life to be something inconsistent with learning?  Why is there a concept that school is preparing us for a life where we do not 'learn' anymore?

Wil brought up an interesting idea.  It seems that, for instance, times like the Industrial Revolution brought about what we call the 'traditional method' of education: that is, lecture style classrooms.  This brought an idea to mind.  It seems that these lecture style classrooms are brought about, not only because they are efficient, but because both students and teachers are afraid of being 'wrong,' or of being 'inconsistent.'  Teachers are tentative to being challenged and not having an answer; students are tentative to provoke an idea and be considered 'wrong.'  This lecture style classroom really hazes over these uncertainties, these feelings of not knowing what will occur and therefore alleviates that 'problem.'  But, is it really a problem?  To me, it seems that we must become comfortable with the uncertainty because there seem to be a lot of positive features resulting from this comfort: ability to hear and consider other opinions, formulate new thoughts and, as this paper encourages, learn throughout life rather than just through the schooling process.

I believe that one of the biggest things holding back our schooling from moving from traditional lecture format to more emergent format is the consideration of a concrete outcome.  For instance, when we enter college, we must declare a major.  This major, in the way it is considered in society, expects the person concentrating in the major to pursue an exclusive "job" in regards to that major.  We thought that, perhaps, if the student were allowed to choose courses of study by way of interest, it could change this "curriculum based on one concrete output" method.  Not only would it let students have more of a choice without the boundaries of a designated major, but it would also promote life-long learning because the students would be interested in the subject and would be more prone to learn outside of the classroom by pursuing many different options involved with their interests.  Another interesting turn of events that I believe this would bring would be a change in the teacher's curriculum: the courses they teach would ultimately reflect the students who chose to take them.  Wil suggested setting five questions to be addressed during the course as the only means of a curriculum, and then students enrolling if they find those questions to be interesting.  I think this opens up a great set of possibilities for furthering the process of education in life, rather than just ending at the college level.

Many simple things make complex things.  Ants, particles of food, earth and sun make a colony: smaller entities make a larger whole.  In order to better understand that whole, we must understand the smaller entities.  For that reason, I think that the reforming of what the 'outcome' of education is--that is, rather than focusing on the outcome as being 'one job' with no further need to learn, the outcome should be focused on life learning.  A possible simple suggestion: end a particular course with questions, not concrete 'truths.'  If we change the outcome--a simple entity--we then begin to change the traditional education the system, which is the complex whole. 

I think another reason for the lack of 'life-long learning' that is promoted by schools is that people actually misinterpret what 'learning' means.  'Learning' can mean an assortment of things, like working with another person on the job and learning their methods, reading an article about a new idea and applying it in a situation; etc.  But, I believe society has a label upon 'learning' that is strictly educational: we can only, technically, 'learn' in school.  That really encourages the fact that 'learning' seems to end when school ends and that life is another entity entirely.  However, we all realize that we constantly learn throughout life--why, then, is it considered a separate entity?  I believe that the development of thought, which happens throughout life, shouldn't have any boundaries: school 'learning' shouldn't be separated from 'life' learning, and so on.

There is no global truth, only truth in context.  There could be a particularly factually based 'truth' in one context that is not applicable at all in another context.  I think this is another benefit of having emergent classrooms as well as de-emphasizing the 'outcome' and emphasizing the developmental process of learning.  By emphasizing the developmental process of learning, we do indeed come to new realizations, but those realizations aren't necessarily the final 'outcome' or final 'truth' and should be explored further.  For this reason, many people would argue that these emergent style classrooms teaching in this way for lifelong learning fail to present facts.  I would argue that they present facts as a secondary level to discussion, which is the primary level.  The facts that the world has discovered are definitely there -- but when they enter discussion, they may or may not be applicable/true to the context they are being discussed in.  I believe a lot more can be learned when approaching education in this manner.

Finally, a psychologist once noted that these education practices might've resulted from the split between the cognitive unconscious and the conscious.  At one point, it is hypothesized that there was no bi-partite brain configuration, only a unified system of the conscious and unconscious.  However, when our conscious somehow separated from the unconscious and formed the story teller function--the function where we confabulate our reality, as reality is really a figment of our minds--we gathered the ability to 'think' in different ways.  This also created a problem that hadn't been present before: we could think and we could thus conform, and were less likely to reflect upon ideas and often held our ideas back for fear of not being accepted by other individuals' story tellers.  For instance, in a one-god religious culture, an entire group of people is apt to agree that there is, indeed, only one-god.  This leads to more cohesion of the group and thus more conformity.  This cohesion and conformity make it far less likely that the story of their existence can change, and they are less likely to reflect upon their past and add new details.  In a multi-god religious culture, many people may believe diverse things about the diverse religious figures--this does not lead to the strength of cohesion and conformity that the one-god religions feel, and it is thus more probable that they be able to confabulate, add and reflect upon their culture's stories without feeling estranged from the group dynamic.

An Attempt for a Conclusion:

It seems that, in an attempt for a conclusion, that things like the Industrial Revolution have lead to the concept that education primes a person for one job in life, and that learning ends when the individual leaves the schooling environment.  Therefore, individuals do not, in life, look for more opportunities to learn.  They separate learning in school from life in general, as if they are two separate entities.  I have argued that they should not be two separate entities, but rather considered to be components of a developmental learning process that consumes life. 

I have hypothesized that a small change in a simple component--the outcome of a course or a curriculum, for instance--can change a greater complex object, like the education system. 

'Truth' is relevant to situations and should be treated such in emergent classrooms that encourage discussion (where facts are secondary and discussion is primary).  The facts are distributed but a concrete goal of interpreting those facts is not, which leads to novel ideas and develops the learning process. 

The concept of avoiding uncertainty should be overcome by a desire to learn more--there is no 'wrong' answer, in any one situation.  I have also stated that emphasizing the meaning of the word 'learning' should be based on lifelong goals, not simply a term associated with schooling or the education system. 

The concept of group dynamics and consciousness tends to draw people into a mold where they are less able to reflect and reconfabulate old stories (like the education system, in some instances) and therefore cannot recreate ideas. 

In general, simple things contribute to complex things, and I believe that by understanding and discussing the ideas mentioned above, we can grow and change the complex entity of the traditional educational system.  Our world is changing--new innovations are made everyday--and so too must we change our way of looking at the system of learning.

elovejoy's picture

post-discussion comments

After reading the article, Paul, Wil, Brie, and I had a discussion on our initial comments and reactions.  One thing that we discussed that really resonated with me was the idea of what is considered to be "right" and what is considered to be "wrong" when learning.  Throughout my days of learning, I have always been afraid of uncertainty and being wrong.  I think a lot of this stems from my parents emphasis getting good grades in school.  I have always only spoken up if I was very confident that I knew the "right" answer.  And, a lot of my teachers and professors have made students feel that there can only be one correct answer.  This is extremely intimidating for students, and I think it is important for teachers to reflect on the way they respond to  students comments so that they create an environment in which students feel comfortable.  Uncertainty, probability, and being wrong make people nervous.  In our discussion, we thought about the question of when and how did it come about that we expect people to be "right" and to know what will happen next?  I think it is crucial to create experiences for students where they do not feel the pressure to know specific answers.  The idea of education as life itself seems like it fosters an environment in which students are able to be comfortable with this uncertainty.  Being uncertain about things allows for other people to contribute their thoughts on the topic to make you think about things in a different way.  Additionally, being "wrong" or not knowing an appropriate answer allows for further exploration of a topic.  If someone does not understand something, they can use different resources to learn more about it, whether it be through the use of books, the internet, onoline forums, discussion, etc.

We came to an agreement that it is a good idea to tell students that the goal of the class isnt to learn more about a topic, but instead, that the goal is to enhance their skills as inquirers.  Inquirers cannot be "wrong," but instead they seek to learn by asking questions.  The best way to do this is by creating useful experiences for students outside of the classroom.