The following is a working draft of an article which the authors have submitted for publication. It reflects their experience teaching in Bryn Mawr's Summer Institutes for K-12 Teachers and is made available on Serendip as a contribution to the repertoire of ways one can think about all levels of education, both theoretically and in practice. Your reactions and comments are welcome.

Emergent Pedagogy:
Learning to Enjoy the Uncontrollable
and Make it Productive

A Conversation in (and on) Process
Among Doug Blank (Computer Science), Kim Cassidy (Pyschology),
Anne Dalke (English, Feminist and Gender Studies),
Paul Grobstein (Biology, Center for Science in Society)
(Bryn Mawr College)
and K-12 Teachers
in the Philadelphia Public School System

PDF Version

The optimal classroom is often visualized as a clearly structured system: the teacher is the center of a radially organized network of well-defined spokes, sending out carefully packaged information to students located on the rim. Much of our frustration as teachers may arise from the effort it takes to try and achieve such a classroom, to fit ourselves and our students into a pattern which, we will argue here, is in conflict with other patterns that may develop more spontaneously and are well suited to many pedagogical objectives.

There has, of course, long been extensive discussion within the pedagogical community about ideal teaching and learning environments. Presuming that their primary task is to help students enhance their abilities to think independently, many contemporary educators have followed the strong arguments of Dewey and Freire for less centralized and less rigid structures: hands-on practices, multiple ways of knowing and thinking, group interactions, flexible specification of desired outcomes, and astute editing and feedback by teachers (see, for instance, the work of Eleanor Duckworth and others). The epistemological focus has shifted, over the past decade, from presumptions that are outcome-based to those that are process-oriented and developmental (Yaden et. al.). Particular attention has been paid, in recent years, to the ways in which classrooms networked for computers and internet access have contributed to collaborative work (Corcoran).

We agree that such teaching methods are effective ways to encourage independent thinking and learning. What we have to add to the conversation is a novel rationale for such a position, one that derives from rapidly developing interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary inquiries in the sciences and social sciences into what are known as "complex" or "emergent" systems (Waldrop, 1992; Johnson, 2001; Buchanan, 2002; see also Complex Systems and Emergent Systems: A Discussion ).

We offer here an introduction to the concepts of "emergence" that are relevant to discussions of pedagogy, and make explicit their implications for classroom practice. We describe our own experiences of teaching in these terms, focusing on a Summer Institute on "Exploration and Emergence" that was explicitly aimed at exploring the relevance of this conceptual framework for pre-college education. We also discuss the distinctive methods of assessment which emergent pedagogy requires. We conclude with a critical overview of how well emergence works as a framework for understanding and facilitating both individual learners and classroom structures. This necessarily includes a consideration of the degree to which less deliberately structured classrooms can be effectively implemented in the current educational climate and some suggestions, particularly in the area of assessment, for how to deal with such problems. Throughout this essay, our voices are blended with those of our pre-college partners in the Summer Institute, as together we explore the unique benefits and challenges of an emergent classroom.

Using emergent systems as a model of teaching and learning makes at least three significant contributions to our thinking about teaching, in three very different dimensions. It invites us into an awareness that the brains of individual students and teachers operate as emergent systems that are neither possible nor desirable to control fully. It invites us to appreciate as well that the activities and benefits of a classroom are not all individual interactions between teacher and student. Interactions among students are equally important; students and teachers are collectively contributing to a somewhat unpredictable project with an insistently social dimension, which is in turn crucial to the individual achievements of all involved. Finally, emergent pedagogy encourages us to consider more carefully the relations between the individual classroom and the larger educational community of which it is a component.

I. Emergence As A Contemporary Conceptual and Pedagogical Perspective

The advent of easily available and usable computing technology–like the development of earlier scientific tools such as the telescope and the microscope–has enabled a whole host of observations never before possible. Because of the rapidity with which computers can perform well-defined calculations, they have made it possible to explore the consequences of relatively simple interactions between relatively simple things in ways not previously possible. In a variety of different disciplines, this new capacity for observations has generated significant insights into phenomena long believed too complex for serious analysis.

Out of these observations comes a new and quite general conceptual framework that can be used to explain phenomena ranging from water boiling to tree branching to consciousness. These are some essential, common, and perhaps surprising characteristics of emergent systems:

These principles of emergence hold in a wide variety of different situations, and have been examined in fields ranging from physics and biology to psychology and animal behavior. They are also relevant to pedagogy, challenging us to think about education not in terms of carefully pre-planned, hierarchical structures, but rather with an understanding that complex organization has a high probability of arising out of the bi-directional interactions of autonomous, somewhat randomly behaving elements. To put it differently, hierarchy is not the only conceivable form of organization in educational environments. Hierarchical organization is neither necessary nor necessarily preferable in these interactive systems that can achieve substantial organization and evolution without the direction of a central authority.

This claim has immediate implications for classroom teaching. An awareness of the emergent process might enable those of us currently committed to clearly structured and centralized classrooms to understand why it is difficult to achieve our "optimal" organizational structure: we may be working within (and against) an emergent system that is moving towards quite a different pattern than the one we have in mind. Acknowledging the operation of a distributed emergent process may make it possible to leave some of the work of effective organization for learning to the system itself, rather than placing the sole obligation for it on ourselves.

In short, the emergence perspective offers a potential framework and theoretical support for a rethinking of pedagogy that begins not with a concept of pre-planned structure and hierarchy that we then, in the face of difficulty, relax, but rather with the notion that the interaction of autonomous elements can lead to a productive, self-organizing structure. We do not at all suggest that teachers are irrelevant in an "emergent" classroom, nor that emergent pedagogy makes teachers indistinguishable from students. Nor do we believe that the emergence perspective is a license for a lack of teacher preparation or inattention to other responsibilities of teaching. We do think that the roles of teachers can be quite profitably re-imagined from the perspective of distributed organization.

In an interactive system, the teacher’s primary task is not to conceive and implement organization de novo, or in isolation from other participants in the classroom. Instead, her distinctive role is to create the kind of rich environment within which productive organizations can emerge from the interactions of all participants. The teacher has the additional task of encouraging, facilitating and nudging a process of emergence, of helping to assure that it evolves in directions that are engaging and productive for all. Finally, the teacher is the major synthesizer and reflector, the one who has primary responsibility for making classroom activities visible and meaningful to all participants.

The demands on the teacher may actually be greater in an emergent classroom than they are in a hierarchical one. Preparation requires anticipation of a wide range of possible directions. Implementation requires close on-going interaction with students, as well as a substantial degree of flexibility. Taking emergence as the norm rather than as something to be fought against offers teachers themselves the opportunity to participate in and enjoy the extraordinarily rich and generative capabilities of a distributed system. Planning then becomes a process of imagining experiences and facilitating interactions that will lead to relevant, but to some extent unknown, outcomes. The classroom thus becomes a place for discovery not only by students, but by teachers as well. Most importantly, teachers in an emergent classroom are relieved of an uncomfortable burden: They cease to be the setters of standards by which students are judged, becoming instead role models for the kinds of inquiry in which they want their students themselves to be engaged.

Another important contribution of emergent thinking to pedagogy is the way it broadens the lens to include the group level. Thinking only in terms of enhancing students’ ability to think independently, the focus of teachers and students tends to become narrowed to individual achievement. Recognizing that growth and change occur because of interactions among elements highlights the importance of contact among individuals, and of overall group dynamics. Students need these interactions to provide experiences, viewpoints and stories alternative to their own, which will enable them to alter their individual stories in new ways. Conceptualizing the classroom environment in terms of emergence thinking highlights its inherent social nature, and invites us to attend to the role of the group in individual performance, as well as to the contributions individuals can and should make to the learning of other participants.

In addition to its significance for rethinking both the classroom and interpersonal dynamics within it, emergence helps us to see individuals in new ways. Brains, which constitute the agents in the emergent system that is the classroom, are themselves well described as emergent systems. Brains can be seen as having two somewhat distinct information-gathering systems, each with its own particular style (Grobstein 2003b, Grobstein 2004). The dynamic interaction between the two of them is what yields learning in its richest sense. The two styles correspond, roughly, to analytical processing and the distinctive styles and assets of intuitive learning. The latter is the more fundamental, in the sense that it is always active whether or not one is aware of it (in oneself or others); both students and teachers are always, intentionally or unintentionally, learning this way. Intuitive processing may also be better than analytic work in situations involving larger numbers of variables and uncertain cause-effect relationships (Damasio); it is greatly facilitated by hands-on activities.

Analytic processing is the "reflective" system, the one that works in terms of ideas, principles, and simple cause-effect relationships. It is the one that comes into play when students (and teachers) are encouraged to "think about" what has been experienced, and are able to generate new insights from them. It may, however, also be the system that is responsible for much of the "in one ear, out the other" phenomenon that results from "by rote" pedagogies that fail to productively engage intuitive processes. "Understanding," as the goal of the educational process, is frequently equated with analytic processing, but is better understood as the outcome of a dialogue between the intuitive and the analytic systems, a shared effort to generate a common story (Dalke and Grobstein, Grobstein 2004). In this sense, the bi-partite character of the brain implies that understanding is itself an emergent process, the result of an essential interplay between experience and reflection. The objective of an emergent classroom is to facilitate continuing interaction between intuitive and analytic aspects of thinking as a fundamental aspect of the learning process.

Several additional characteristics of brains are highly relevant in the present context, and may contribute to our understanding of why an emergent classroom organization is effective (Grobstein 2003a):

Emergent classrooms, with their emphasis on autonomous, explorative interactions, may be particularly inviting to these information-gathering brains.

Thinking about the minds in our classrooms as emergent systems has several important implications for pedagogy. As emergent phenomena with different (genetic) starting points and subsequent (experiential) influences, individuals differ from one another to varying degrees; have their own inclinations to organization that may or may not accord with the inclinations of others or the collective organization; and reflect a degree of autonomy and randomness–so evolve in ways that cannot be fully predicted in advance.

Several additional pedagogical principles follow from these basic characteristics of brains as emergent systems:

The last three points on this list warrant some further comment. Just as the emergent perspective alters but does not eliminate the role of the teacher, so too does it alter but not eliminate the significance of content, by placing it in context. Rich content is essential for the dynamics of the emergent classroom. It is selected in order to facilitate the exploratory process of education. An important presumption here is that the point of education is help students become more effective independent inquirers, rather than to train them in particular skills, or to infuse them with sets of information or particular ideas. This presumption has important implications for the broader educational context, including issues of assessment, within which successful emergent pedagogy needs to be pursued, and which we will address further below.

II. Case Study: Trying It Out With Teachers as Students (and Vice Versa)

During the summer of 2003, we convened a Summer Institute for urban public school teachers called "Emergence and Exploration: Bridging Cultures in K-12 Curricula." Institute materials, including the work and comments of participants, are extensively documented on the web at Emergence and Exploration. While we had multiple goals for the institute, our central intention was to introduce teachers to the idea of emergence so that they could engage the concept in ways that would be helpful in their own classrooms. We imagined that emergence might be useful to them in at least two forms. One was the use of the concept as a viable, alternative explanation of phenomena formerly explained with a more centralized, top-down causal structure. This was the content dimension of our seminar; it included presentations on topics as diverse as tree branching, ant behavior, evolution, problem solving, emergent art and writing, and racial segregation. The second goal was to use emergence as a language for talking about pedagogical strategies. We invited teachers to use an emergent structure for their own curricula and classrooms, providing an alternative to the "banking" and "hub-and-spoke" methods in which the teacher functions as the sole director of learning, from whom knowledge is "efficiently" passed in a downward direction.

We attempted to accomplish these goals in several different and interrelated ways. We showed teachers how emergent models might be used to explain various phenomena. For example, a biologist demonstrated how the apparently "intelligent," goal-directed branching of plants could be explained using a very simple rule in a series of local interactions. A mathematician showed how the "swarm intelligence" of an ant colony gives rise to a complicated social structure in which none of the ants need "understand the larger picture." We also exposed teachers to ways that emergence might be useful outside of scientific disciplines. We invited our participants into "stop-action" dramatic performances, in which the audience could re-direct the plot (and so recognize what a large difference a small intervention might make in the outcome of the script). We also explored with them a variety of ways in which both painting and poetry-writing might be generated spontaneously by an interactive process that "loops" between the analytic and intuitive processes of an artist’s brain, as well as interactively among brains in a group of collaborators.

In addition, we provided time and opportunities to play with computer models of emergent systems so that teachers could see how they worked, and how they could be used as part of a curriculum to facilitate discovery of the properties of emergent systems through playful exploration. The character of the computer simulations itself is worth some explanation, since it helps to illustrate the concept of emergence and is a good and easily accessible way both to learn more about it and to implement it in classrooms.

The system we used is the most recent descendant of a long line of educational computer tools. Logo, the original of these, was designed to be a simplified programming environment for children and was designed in the 1960's by a team lead by Wally Feurzeig at MIT. Later, Seymour Papert added the concept of a small robot that, using the Logo language, could be instructed to draw simple and complex pictures on a piece of paper. The robot came to be called a "turtle." Much later, Mitchel Resnick applied the Logo philosophy to thousands of graphical turtles, each moving independently and simultaneously on a computer screen. His system, StarLogo, specifically designed to allow children to explore ideas in emergence, is detailed in Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams. In our workshop we used a more recent implementation of StarLogo, Uri Wilensky’s NetLogo. NetLogo is free to use for educational purposes (see Netlogo) and, since it is written in the Java programming language, will run on most computers. NetLogo comes with many "case studies" that allow students and teachers to load a predefined model, pose questions about it, create new experiments, and make predictions about what may happen.

Our modeling of emergent systems in the Summer Institute was not limited, however, to computer simulations. We also tried to model for participants, both in the structure of our sessions and in our interactions with them and each other, forms of pedagogy that were emergent. We were particularly responsive to new concerns and interests, setting aside planned lessons, for instance, in order to make room for the exploration of "tangents" as they arose. Because we allowed a good deal of autonomy to the unique perspective of each participant, sessions sometimes went in unexpected and enriching ways. We also asked participants to prepare a project, using the ideas of emergence either in its structure or content, which they could take back for use in their schools.

Our ways of structuring work times and our uses of particular technology were also intended as models of emergence. For instance, we asked the teachers to create their take-home project using a wiki wiki web ("wiki" for short): a set of web pages that operates as a meeting place for working on common interests. Wiki systems are fundamentally editable web pages that encourage comments and updates. Simple to learn and use, they aim to provide an accessible and transparent way to publish, collaborate, and exchange ideas with others over the web. A deliberate attempt to move beyond having a "webmaster" who has centralized control of a website, wiki is intended to enable distributed teams to work together productively. Wiki had several advantages for our purposes, the biggest of which was that it allowed for easy editing and collaboration. Formatting a web page in wiki is more transparent than traditional languages for web-creation, and therefore easier for teachers to use right away. Wiki pages are also available on the web as soon as they are made, and thus accessible to others without delay. By having teachers always active both during "informational" sessions and in creating projects of their own, we were providing them both with direct experiences of the benefits of active learning and tangible experiences of the intrinsic nature of active exploration. When sessions were more interactive, participants were more engaged and didn't notice that they were working well beyond the allotted time.

III. What Emerged

On the final day of the institute, when our participants presented the projects they had designed, on a wide range of topics, it was heartening for us to see how each one demonstrated an understanding of possible applications of emergence in the classroom. The final projects included an "emergent" lesson on teaching parts of speech (by asking students to play with different words and "morph" nonsense sentences); an invitation into "new ways of expressing yourself" (for students in special education); pages called "surprised by learning" (which showcased a range of hands-on activities), "interacting with the text" and "digging in deeper" (using multiple strategies in the science classroom). There were also projects on "teaching techniques for student motivation," "pond ecology"; "emerging scene" (designed to allow students to create a visual and written interpretation of a photograph), and "genealogy" (which explored the relationship between that topic and diversity, while attempting to balance literacy, science, mathematics, social studies and technology).

Even more striking than these projects (and, in line with emergent thinking, a far better index to the value of the time we spent together) were the very rich discussions generated during the institute, particularly those centering around two topics: teaching evolution in the schools, and segregated living and schooling patterns in this country. We had laid the ground for both of these by asking a series of abstract questions about where patterns come from: Do we impose them on the world, or are they there for our perceiving? Can we be more open to surprising patterns, ones we don't expect to see? Or can we only see the patterns we look for? Are all the patterns we recognize good ones? (What about the categories--especially the labels of disability--that school systems put on kids?) Do we have more free will in "bottom-up" systems such as those described in emergence, than when an architect designs or controls what is happening, as in Lowry's The Giver (a book which many of the teachers used in their classes)?

Participants agreed that "the unconscious is pattern-seeking all of the time, as a thermostat seeks to find the ideal temperature," but were particularly struck by the varied interpretations that arose in response to a given prompt (such as a picture we invited them all to read). As one of them wrote on our web forum, "I think the patterns that we see (at least our initial ones) are influenced from our life experiences, and the mood we are in at that time. Yes, some patterns are imposed from nature (weather patterns, movement of the planets, etc.), but we impose the vast majority of patterns."

Quite significant was the recognition, early in the session, that such patterns are revisable, and that it is the task of education to promote such activity: "I will also go out on a limb and suggest that the patterns we impose on the world are the ones we can change if we want to. I will also suggest that changing patterns is the most important work we do as educators." This insistence that patterns, randomly generated, could be altered by education became a leitmotif of the institute: "We have instinct, but we have a program that counters instinct. We call it intelligence. The more we counter instinct the more we increase intelligence, or vice versa." By inviting teachers to be active (by reading a picture, or "experiencing" life as an ant) and then asking them to reflect on those experiences through discussion and written work, we were inviting them into the interplay between two different, but complementary, aspects of learning: intuitive experience and analytical reflection.

Participants also reported being "struck by the many ways that learning took place in collaboration": "I liked the interaction with the system, but, I enjoyed the interaction with my neighbors and instructors as well." They were very quick to see the application, both of their NetLogo simulations and the interactions among us, to their classroom dynamics:

Fascinating! Just imagine ants'... instincts....Using my classroom as a analogy, I have noticed that my students have a similar system, in that they seem to attract certain individuals in their cooperative groups. . . .

Although I never assign them to a particular group, they seem to know instinctively which grouping would be best for them. There seem to be one person in the group who sorta set the pace, and the rest of the group members are comfortable following their lead. . . .

I found that the Ants and plants was a good way to open up to the kids about how we are social creatures. I would use it in my classroom and try to use it to teach how working together can get things done. . . .

The discussions about Ants and Plants makes me think about group behavior, especially even when no clear rules or outcomes are stated. I have seen in groups of educators, students, families, churches, and other social organizations, that people tend to follow certain patterns of behavior, even when not communicated verbally. Sometimes we select the people in which we do not mind being in close proximity to all on an unconscious level. These patterns as they expand later can determine our neighborhoods, community and etc. . . .

The teachers could also readily observe how they were affected by their interactions with others. As one participant put it,

What I liked most about yesterday’s class was ... how we all looked at the same image, yet came away from it with such varied responses. The idea that the picture represented some aspect of life for so many fascinated me as well. As the participants read their comments I saw a pattern emerging. Was the seed for finding a pattern in the picture planted and did I miss it?

Another commented on the same exercise, "The different opinions allowed me to view the picture from a different perspective." Teachers were able to experience first-hand how each one of them brought a distinctive perspective to the interaction and how they (and the students in their classrooms) might be altered by these distinct perspectives.

Such perceptions about how interactions among members of a group can generate change proved quite valuable when we turned our attention to the charged question of teaching evolution in the classroom. Asked to describe their understanding of the relationship between a statement describing "God as the creator of all things" and another identifying evolution as "the central unifying concept of biology," one participant replied, "Knowing simple past changes create new forms over long stretches of time can be separated from religious opinions when teaching the subject. Computer models like those in NetLogo can be useful in this area." Another observed, "I think the far more important question is where our obligation lies. Are we educators or indoctrinators? If one is sure of his/her ideals as an educator, then the teaching of evolution, or any theory for that matter, is a no brainer." A third added, "If I get a new idea that is more useful to me than my present assumption, I'll integrate it or adopt it. That's evolution." A fourth said, "Life emanates from the bottom up. Novelty is part of the process. See what works, change or get rid of what does not."

The unendingness and perpetual revisingness of the emergent process became the central lesson of our Summer Institute. For us as facilitators, the discussion of evolution was a particularly risky area in which to encourage an emergent approach. Evolution was anathema to the deeply held religious beliefs of many of the participants. But exploring the concept of emergence over the course of two weeks led more than one teacher to observe, "that evolution stuff wasn’t so bad!" Being ourselves fairly like-minded, we found unexpected and useful new directions for our own thinking from engaging with the wide range of experiences and perspectives of institute participants.

One of us summarized, in a web posting, an understanding which had emerged for him in our discussion about teaching evolution: "To ‘believe’ in a story is, for me, to end the ongoing process of discovery, of ‘getting it less wrong,’ and that's not something I'm inclined to do. I'd rather go on changing/evolving/emerging." A participant said similarly, "the conflict between creation and evolution can be viewed as an emerging belief/theory/principal. As I continue to learn, reflect, experience, my understandings change. I can combine both theories, and come up with an explanation that satisfies me (for now at least)."

Participants found themselves contributing in a range of surprising ways to what we came to call the "shape of our common sand pile," with all of us functioning as "grains of sand." We began the second week of the institute, for instance, by asking the teachers to describe what their neighborhoods were like, and how they came to live, stay, or move from there. We noted that many of us made those decisions based on what schooling was available for our children. We then explored various versions of the "Racial Segregation" model of NetLogo, which are easily available as lesson plans (Thinking About Segregation and Integration: An Interactive Scientific Exploration Using Models).

In this model, two thousand red and green turtles are randomly distributed on a grid. Each type of turtle has a slight "preference" for being around like-colored turtles: A red turtle that finds its neighbors to be at least 30% red-colored will be "happy." If its neighbors are more than 70% green-colored, it is "unhappy." As students click on the "go" button to start the simulation, all "unhappy" turtles move to a random location. The process repeats until all turtles are happy. Even though these turtles prefer just 30% of their neighbors to be like-colored, the surprising result is neighborhoods that are sharply segregated.

Using this model enabled our participants to see how unexpected outcomes arise out of individual decisions: Choices made on the "small, local" level get translated into unexpected patterns on the "city" or "global" level. We talked at length with the teachers about the ways in which decisions based on preference (for neighbors like ourselves, for instance, or for teachers who could recognize our children's potential) could end up creating fixed patterns of discrimination in which people refuse to recognize the worth of people different from themselves.

In the following session, we divided participants into groups, with instructions to perform a scenario in which race, identity or diversity had been an issue in their teaching lives. The audience was encouraged to "freeze the action" for discussion, to change the direction of the performances, and to shout out what was going on in the heads of the actors. The performances, the audience participation, and our conversation about them afterwards clearly highlighted two central themes of emergent pedagogy: how a very small local intervention can make a big difference in the classroom, and how we often act based on intuitive feelings, without knowing exactly what they are or what will follow from them.

We ended with a charged discussion about whether our students must be taught what they need to be successful, in the ways they want to be successful, or whether they can see themselves what is required, and acquire it as needed. (Denise Pope Clark identifies this as the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation). We closed in agreement that true education proves a wide range of opportunities for kids to explore, that there are a variety of ways to make this happen, but that we all want them to have choices.

IV. Reflections on our Experiences

For some of us, taking an emergent approach to pedagogy was a long-time practice; for others it represented a significant departure from our usual teaching style--so we were watching with a particularly critical eye as the institute unfolded. One concern which arose over the two-week period was that the teachers were not truly collaborating, not really working together to create new ideas and approaches that resulted from building on one another’s ideas or from the synergistic interaction of different ideas. Their collaborations seemed to some of us largely limited to helping one another master aspects of technology, dividing up labor ("I’ll look for links about genealogy, while you find a good image"), or editing for spelling and grammar.

It was particularly difficult to get the teachers to take advantage of the collaborative properties of the wiki philosophy. For example, on the second afternoon of project work, the teachers’ assignment was to go onto each other’s wiki pages and make suggestions for changes. But--with various degrees of politeness--the participants refused to alter one another's work. Many of them were plainly uncomfortable doing so. While scientists and social scientists frequently collaborate in such ways at the collegiate level, such activities are not part of the pre-college education culture. Some teachers, clearly intimidated by others in the group, were particularly reluctant to touch others’ work for fear of rebuke.

Most of the teachers really did not want to have their work played with by others. This reluctance seemed largely to have to do with the public nature of the wiki documents: because the pages were so easily accessible to others, and because we had identified their pages with their names, participants wanted to control the public face of their creations. (We had a similar experience as we wrote this paper: One of us was quite eager to use wiki as the site for crafting multiple drafts of the essay; another was equally reluctant to have the thinking-aloud of others attributed to him and accessible to others for alteration in a public forum, before he had reviewed and approved the draft.)

Some of us were also worried about our use of easily manipulatable web technology. While teachers were not required to work exclusively on wiki in the creation of their final projects, all of them did. Afternoons were largely spent tinkering with web pages: central activities included finding images and links, manipulating images and font color, and so forth. Participants seemed to thoroughly enjoy the aesthetic dimensions of easily creating attractive pages. These activities are not trivial, but we found ourselves asking whether they came at the expense of deep thinking about pedagogical change. Had we invited the teachers to avoid hard conceptual work by replacing it with the playful work of technical logistics?

Although we questioned, to varying degrees, some of the effects of our use of technology, the teachers’ perspectives did not reflect our concerns. When asked how they liked playing with the new software, participants described a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction; one even indicated that wiki could function for her students, as for herself, as a "gateway drug" into more sophisticated web tools. But far more striking was the way in the teachers recognized that "NetLogo allows you [to] visualize in a short period of time patterns forming and changing," "is a great starting point to elicit discussion on patterns in the real world for my students and whether patterns are there or in our minds." Learning to reconcile our views on emergence with the experiences of the participants helped us to rethink the ways in which we evaluate the outcomes of the work we are doing as teachers. Perhaps emergent pedagogy really does work even if what we intend doesn’t fully come to pass quite as we intended it. In the end, we learned from our pre-college partners how successful they had been in achieving collaboration and interaction, both in discussion and hands-on activities. Even the technology worked better for them than we thought it did.

The Matter of Assessment

A pedagogical approach that identifies learning as the product of local interactions between unique, independent agents--and so may produce results which are not exactly what was intended--raises a number of important questions about how to assess what has occurred. Who determines the outcomes of learning? Pre-service teachers are specifically taught to articulate learning objectives for their classrooms. Most teachers typically follow this same procedure in preparing for class, and these objectives form the basis of their assessment at the end of a unit of study. Clearly the emergent approach means that assessment cannot be based entirely on the comparison of outcomes to a fully pre-specified set of objectives. To the extent that both teachers and students take responsibility for the outcomes of their learning, that those outcomes are indeterminate, and that knowledge emerges from the distributed system of the classroom, there is a need to think more deeply about how outcomes can both be articulated beforehand and evaluated afterwards.

The emphasis in the emergence approach on the interplay of individual and group activities poses a second set of issues regarding both expectations and assessment. As one of our participants quite eloquently explained,

Working with others can feel like something is breaking. . . . For me this process can be very painful due to internal censors. I am unduly worried about how I am viewed by others. This leads to me being less than honest, less productive and less assertive than what I can be. I guess you can say that I am "emergent challenged"

….How will the past two weeks affect my classroom? Well, I think I am more respectful and appreciative of the emergence of each person. I can view, not only the evolving child as a special and beautiful process, but also how that process influences the evolution of the class. This process is not 100% under my control (not even 50%), but that is fine. I can trust that the process will lead to a more creative class.

Standard assessment practices tend to focus on individual achievement. We worry about how individuals will fare and (particularly at the collegiate level) think little about how the group works together. Group-level thinking may be even more rare in the process of assessment: we judge our own success and the success of our students largely by how each has performed independently, rather than focusing on how well each one has done within the interactions of the group, or how the group itself has progressed as a whole. This can create problems both for the implementation of the emergent approach and for the assessment process itself, which needs to reflect not only individual measures of achievement but also measures of interpersonal and group function.

It is important to remind ourselves that individuals benefit in important ways from positive group functioning. Fundamental to the emergent approach is the idea that individuals are altered by their interactions with others. A group that engages in significant interactions increases everyone’s learning opportunities. Functioning productively in a group is also a skill that individuals can carry forward to new educational environments, creating future valuable experiences.

Conventional assessment also focuses on how well students have mastered (that is, can report back) particular content. But emergent pedagogy has a different orientation: content becomes the product of unique interactions, which may take students far afield of their ostensible task. The learning objectives of an emergent approach have less to do with content than with process, growth and development. The specifics of what is taught are often secondary to the acquisition of learning methods and processes of inquiry. For example, in our Summer Institute, we did not expect that most of our participants would be teaching about ants or plants in their own classrooms. These were topics for engaging them in learning NetLogo, so that they could apply that emergent tool, using other contents, in their own classrooms.

Some of the most exciting outcomes of emergent styles of pedagogy may be particularly tricky to evaluate for another reason. The satisfying paradox of the emergent approach is that it facilitates both independent and collaborative thinking, teaching students to initiate and sustain their own learning through interactions with others who enrich and stimulate their learning environment. But such important and valuable outcomes are difficult to assess, particularly over such short time spans as the duration of a class. They are likely to be most evident across greater periods of time, and may only be apparent in future behavior, rather than in the particular product of any given class session.

For instance, one of the most important and positive outcomes of our Summer Institute came in the form of an increase in positive affect and self-esteem in our participants. Many of them remarked on how important it was to them that they were treated as authors of their own learning. They were impressed that we recognized their contributions to our interaction. Being treated as valuable colleagues may have been for them the most important and long-lasting outcome of the institute. As one teacher remarked,

When I am working with other professionals, using the resources of a college or university, most importantly the staff of those institutions, when I feel valued as a teacher and as a human being, I am motivated to try a little harder. And the results--those free ideas--are priceless.

Many of the participants mentioned "collaboration," "connecting linkages," and "discussing our thoughts with our peers" as significant aspects of the institute. Teachers who feel empowered by this form of respectful interaction can return to their own classrooms more able to empower their students to engage in the same form of respectful interaction. As one of them reflected on the last day of the institute,

Just imagine! Giving students the opportunity to take ownership of their ideas, creations, and opinions. Allowing them the confidence to feel comfortable with their thoughts….The concept of "EMERGENCE" relates to this approach to education. Also as an educator this approach would allow me to identify the various ways in which students learn. Just Imagine!!!!

For all these reasons, it seems that assessment, as it is currently understood and practiced, forms one of the greater barriers to the wider implementation of emergent pedagogical practices. We think it important to suggest some ways that assessment can be modified to bring it into greater alignment with the emergent approach. It seems particularly important not to give up goals or objectives, but rather to see them as flexible and open to constant evaluation. By making goal-setting itself an emergent process, both students and teachers can have constant access to goal formation and revision. Teachers should of course have at the outset a sense of the general area within which they want exploration to occur, and so a general sense of what skills and abilities they expect their students to be able to develop in that arena.

It is also important to recognize that some students will be uncomfortable without firm goals and a definite plan of action. These students may benefit from the establishment of intermediate goals, and they may be helped by periodic reflections on where they have come from and where they are, even if they cannot know, ahead of time, exactly where they are going. Emergent approaches that emphasize the moment of local interaction may sometimes make it difficult for students to see the bigger picture, which may make it hard for them to mark their progress. Interim reflections can be important moments to highlight progress for both those students and their teachers.

On-going, in-the-moment reflections on learning may also provide a richer forum for assessment than more traditional end-of-process, product-focused assessment. Our own experience in the Summer Institute was consistent with this idea. Throughout the institute, on various web forums and in many classroom discussions, we asked participants to reflect on what they were learning, where the group was, how they were responding to the process, how they saw the institute affecting their future behavior. Such queries provoked deep reflections and rich dialogues about what was going on. In sharp contrast, when we asked participants to assess the institute at its conclusion, using a traditional rating scale and open-ended questions, we received very high "objective" marks, but very little feedback that was particularly meaningful. Participants observed only that "it was interesting," or "I learned that people have unique viewpoints."

Emergent approaches seem to call for the evaluation of developmental process rather than assessment of retention of particular content. This approach is consistent with a current movement known as "dynamic assessment," in which the most accurate evaluation of students occurs through the observation of their learning process. In this type of approach, students are given some sort of baseline measure, and then taught a new skill. Assessment involves an ongoing evaluation of how students respond to instruction and, more importantly, how they apply this newly acquired skill to a new problem (Lidz and Elliott).

Emergent approaches also seem to call for students' input in assessing their own progress. "Progress" may sometimes only be discernible in those who are living it, not to those who are observing it. One objection to the idea of student assessment is a current body of research suggesting that students are poor at assessing their own learning. Some research has shown that college students are frequently overconfident in their estimations of their own performance (Bornstein and Zickafoose; West and Stanovich). However, we do not think that the accuracy of self-assessment in emergent approaches has been tested empirically. In addition, while students may turn out to be inaccurate in evaluating the cognitive aspects of learning ("how well did I learn this?"), no one can dispute their accuracy in reporting their attitudes. Such attitudinal changes are important outcomes of emergent approaches. Listening to student voices in assessment is in keeping with a larger progressive movement in education to give greater weight to student voices in educational reform (Cook-Sather and Shultz).

However, some aspects of "progress" in emergent approaches may not be evident to students. Evaluation should include some measures of actual behavior, although the effects of learning on behavior may only become evident with the passage of time. Assessment should not be limited to the time frame of the learning experience itself, but should extend to some reasonable future time.

Assessment in an emergent system should also be multi-dimensional; it is not reducible to a single rubric or axis. Indeed, the evaluator may even have difficulty articulating the standard used to judge progress. (We have all had the experience, as instructors, of "knowing it when we see it.") A chief argument against this tacit approach to grading is that it is somehow unfair or mysterious, but even our most "objective" way of evaluation entails a tremendous amount of subjectivity. It is our experience that when this type of subjective evaluation occurs within the context of a rich process of dialogue, trusting interaction and openness to input, both faculty and students are more than satisfied, because they have mutually authored a shared tacit understanding of the work they have done together.

Finally, we recommend adopting goals and assessing progress at the level of the group for both teachers and students. Success or failure may be judged, at least in part, by how well the group interacted and progressed. It also may be useful to invite students to reflect on their participation in the group. They may need help in seeing the value in saying things that are not thought out, of exposure to perspectives different from their own, of relying on others, and of feeling responsibility toward others in turn.

V. Conclusions

Participants in the 2003 Summer Institute came to understand intellectual inquiry as an intelligent response to exceptions, to the conflict generated when what is expected to happen does not. The compelling argument for emergent pedagogy is that all the individuals in our classrooms are themselves emergent systems, designed to explore, and designed–if one direction of exploration fails–to back up and try a different direction. Such blockages can always be productive, if they are understood as invitations to try a new path. Our job as teachers in such a system is at least three-fold: to create rich environments, so that multiple possibilities are always available; to function as a node for sharing information among our students, so that they are aware of such possibilities; and to summarize and abstract the variety of insights students bring to their work, so that all can build out again from that reduction. Sociality increases the possibility that novel approaches are always at hand–and socializing with the Philadelphia public school teachers certainly increased the range of our own.

In our attempts to teach emergence in an emergent manner to a group of K-12 teachers, we encountered a number "blockages," which we have already discussed. All of us were concerned, too, that it would be difficult for the participants to reconcile the principles of emergence, however successful they may have been in our institute, with the realities of teaching in urban, public school classrooms. The teachers themselves identified a number of possible problems:

These are all significant barriers to implementing emergent pedagogy. However, in the light of the potential benefits of emergent pedagogy, each barrier--like the matter of assessment--can also be regarded as an opportunity to reflect productively on current educational practice. For example, is it actually the case that "playful, creative classroom work" will necessarily be less effective and "less efficient" at preparing students for the kinds of tests being used in the current environment, which insists that "no child will be left behind"? We are not persuaded that this would in fact prove to be so. We suspect that there are very real savings to be achieved by creating classroom environments in which students are encouraged to take greater personal responsibility for their own education and the education of those around them. We are quite certain that students learn better when they are encouraged to master material in a context where that material is relevant to their own interests. In short, it might well turn out that emergent pedagogy is the optimal route to better student performance, even in the current realities of economics and assessment.

It would be irresponsible of us to assure teachers interested in adopting the emergent approach to pedagogy that it guarantees success in the present educational climate. Indeed, doing so would be inconsistent with the deep message of this essay: There are no guarantees, only a process of learning. At the same time, emergent pedagogy represents a particularly promising path for future exploration, promising not only for our students, but also for ourselves and for the future of the educational enterprise as a whole.

Emergent pedagogy encourages our students to see themselves in the classroom as the creative shapers of their own lives. As a practice and a potential, emergent pedagogy also encourages teachers to be creative shapers: We too have the capabilities we want our students to recognize and strengthen in themselves. We are "designed to explore, and designed–if one direction of exploration fails–to back up and try a different direction."

Our exploration of emergent pedagogy raised a number of questions, both for us and for our pre-college partners, for which we have not yet found answers. But writing up this account of all we have most enjoyably learned has led us to trust that new paths will, in time and interaction with others, emerge. Exploring and encountering barriers that lead us to new explorations constitutes the excitement of the educational enterprise for us, as it should be for our students.

We end this essay by encouraging our fellow educators to try out some forms of emergent pedagogy themselves. In so doing we have in mind not only the health and well-being of our students and ourselves, but of the educational enterprise of which we are all a part--as well as the national and world communities which depend on that educational enterprise. Education serves a variety of functions. We think none is more important than assuring that all humans have the capacity to think for themselves, in order to function effectively in the local, national, and world contexts that are themselves complex emergent systems. For educators like us who see a significant need for effective renewal of the educational enterprise, we offer emergent pedagogy as a pedagogical style for the classroom, as an avenue to meaningful change throughout the educational system, and beyond it as well.

 

 

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