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Emergence: It’s Not Just for The Birds!

Teachers can use emergence to promote student engagement.

By Bowers, D.; Hendrix, J.; Holmes, A.; Keag, T.; Kinney, A.; Simmons, K.; Hilpert, J. (Georgia Southern University)

Emergence is concept that is typically used to describe collective patterns, such as the V-shape that is formed when Canadian Geese migrate. No single goose determines the outcome, yet something cohesive and meaningful is formed. However, as one graduate student in my EDUF 8133 Interaction and Learning course recently put it, “emergence is not just for the birds!”  Meaningful group learning can also characterize the complexity of emergence (i.e. Anderson, 1972) because—despite the fact that no student has a prewritten script—something powerful and synergistic emerges. 

To explore this concept further, I asked graduate students to respond to three questions about emergence in the classroom. These questions addressed the nature of emergence, the delicate balance between order and randomness required for emergence, and instructional techniques that lead to emergence. These questions (and their subsequent answers) were derived from our weekly readings, particularly Sawyer’s (2004) argument that the metaphor "teaching as performance" should be modified to "teaching as improvisational performance" – which he defines as collaborative and emergent.

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Each student contributed to the same shared document, so the final product emerged from individual contributions. Thus, what is printed here is the result of our effort to produce an “emergent” report about emergence in the classroom. 

Sawyer (2004) discusses a creative style of teaching and learning that he terms improvisational. Like improvisational theater actors, students take turns interacting and contributing to an evolving dialogue. He argues this point by writing, “Student discussion must be allowed to take its own course, so that group learning can emerge from the interaction of the group” (Sawyer, 2004, p. 16). This quote is preceded by evidence from a classroom observation in which students discuss the solution to a math problem. The implications for learning that emerge move students beyond the memorization of a problem-solving formula that might be introduced using direct instruction. Students gain a deeper and more flexible understanding as they consider multiple perspectives and paths to the solution. 

To achieve emergence in a social network, a delicate balance between order and randomness is an empirical requirement (Watts, 1999). In learning communities, this translates into creating effective interactions for meaningful student learning. Teachers must be able to provide some structure, but not so much that emergence is restricted (too much structure can create a rigid environment where the creativity and ownership of learning is squelched). On the other hand, too little structure can be detrimental because students lose sight of positive interdependence (or common goals) and learning becomes counterproductive. A balance must be attained and maintained, seemingly “on the fly.”

To maintain balance, teachers must be well-versed in their content knowledge and pedagogy. Students need to be given general direction and, simultaneously, the freedom to develop ideas that emerge from group interaction. Furthermore, teachers need to be ready to adapt to the direction of the group without pause. This can be difficult, given our current educational landscape, but a good teacher will know how to direct the focus of the group while still allowing freedom of discussion. Often, this entails methods to facilitate interaction—such as Socratic questioning (McKeachie & Svinicki, 2012) or problem-based learning (Hmelo-Silver, 2006)—in order to encourage positive interdependence and problem solving.

The depth of understanding attainable from the emergent co-construction of knowledge requires a shift in focus from individual students to the quality of group interaction. In Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) contexts, this means that students learn by pursuing lines of inquiry and solving problems together, which can be difficult to achieve given the tendency for online learning to be individualistic (Stahl et al., 2006). This report is an emergent product of our online community working together to pursue a line of inquiry, and it is an artifact of interactions we want to share.  

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of emergence in physical or online classes. However, it is clear that—in order to continuously ensure student engagement—teachers must provide balance. Flexible frameworks can be achieved in any number of ways, but must follow the general instructional rule that some order in the randomness of classroom interaction (or some randomness in a highly structured environment) must be attained. The metaphor of teaching as improvisational performance positions the teacher at the heart of this complex balancing act.  

 

References

Anderson, P. W. (1972).  More is Different. Science, 177(4047), 393-396. 

Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2006). Problem Based Learning:  What and How Do Student Learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3),235-266.

McKeachie, W. J. & Svinicki, M. (2012). Teaching Tips:  Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers.  Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.

Sawyer, K. R. (2004).  Creative Teaching:  Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation.  Educational Researcher, 33(2),12-20.

Stahl, G., Koschmann, T., & Suthers, D. (2006). Computer-supported collaborative learning: An historical perspective. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 409-426). Cambridge, UK:

Watt, D. J. (1999). Small Worlds.  Princeton University Press.  Princeton, NJ.  

Wade George is the Director of Communications for the American Psychological Association, Division of Educational Psychology.

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