Sunday, October 21, 2012

How An Emergent Curriculum Works: Hardwired Into Our DNA

Contrary to the traditional popular ideas about how social animals organize themselves, researchers Tim Roper and Larissa Conradt have found that it's in fact not the sexually dominant alpha males who make decisions for the group, but rather that important decisions are actually made via a natural democratic process.

Barring clear and present danger, members of red deer herds, gorilla bands, African buffalo herds and other close-knit animal societies vote their readiness to move by standing up and pointing themselves in the direction they want to go. When a significant majority have stood and/or pointed themselves in the chosen direction, the group moves on in the direction they've chosen together. In a statement that until recently the scientific community would have considered unorthodox or heretical, Roper and Conradt concluded that "democratic behavior is not unique to humans."

And from researchers Anna Dornhaus and Nigel R. Franks who have found that some varieties of bees and ants engage in information pooling and consensus decision making:

Democracy is not something that humanity invented.

Or as author and radio personality Thom Hartmann puts it:

Without exception the natural state of group-living animals is to cooperate, not dominate. Democracy, it turns out, is hardwired into the DNA of species from ants to zebras. And it includes all of the hominids from the great apes to Homo sapiens.

Even amoeba show evidence of democratic behavior. (Read the full article here, although I don't necessarily think, as the author does, that the scientific findings about animals can or should be applied directly to American politics.)

A few days ago I wrote a post about a group of Woodland Park children engaged in moving a ladder from one place to another:

. . . it was a kind of magical occurrence, one that I could see happening before my very eyes, but even though I was right there bearing witness, I'm still not quite sure how it happened. "We" decided to move the ladder, everyone was their own boss. Decisions were made, not through a deliberative or negotiated process, but the way a flock of flying birds or a swarm of bees decides to turn this way or that. The longer it took, the more kids joined in bringing ropes, turning shovels into levers, pushing, pulling, bracing as they saw fit. It was a "hive mind" project.

I was actually thinking about Roper and Conradt's red deer studies as I wrote that, but hadn't the time to dig up a link. Without any adult intervention other than to keep an eye out for their safety, the kids engaged in exactly the kind of democratic process found right across nature, the kind of small group democratic process most of us engage in every day, whether it's making a decision about where to meet friends for drinks after work, organizing ourselves to clean up a neighborhood park, or working out childcare arrangements among a group of busy moms, all without "sexually dominant alpha males" (or females) bossing everyone around. In the context of nature, hierarchy is the anomaly, while democracy is the norm.

A few days ago in a forum for preschool bloggers in which I participate, a teacher asked for a definition of an "emergent curriculum." As I watched the comment section fill up, I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with what folks were writing. I kept wanting to chime in, but then stopped myself, feeling like any answer I gave would be incomplete, contradictory, or even unnecessarily combative.

At bottom, the term "emergent curriculum" refers to learning that bubbles up from the interests of the children themselves. Where it gets complicated is how this process happens. With varying degrees of success, pedagogues and others have attempted to codify this, to package it up, to create philosophies, methods, techniques and guidelines to stimulate and manage the process by which learning becomes child-lead. Reggio Emilia, Montessori and Waldorf are examples, all of which are, at heart, child-lead learning.

Having now spent the better part of a week reflecting on how I would answer that teacher's question, a teacher who without knowing it, judging from the blog she writes, is already an "emergent teacher," I've come to the conclusion that it's impossible without resorting to examples. In the case of moving the ladder, for instance, it was a purely democratic process, one in which the teacher only played the role of keeping children safe. The entire cooperative process from beginning to end, from idea to execution, emerged from the children themselves, a "magical occurrence." 

I suppose at one level, this ladder moving project represents a kind of "ideal" of emergent curriculum, one in which it is child-directed from conception through completion. People might ask, "But what did they learn?" And I could answer they learned the lessons they were ready to learn about social skills like cooperation, team work, negotiation and agreement. I could talk about physical and mathematical concepts like leverage, gravity, weight, and angles. I could mention the language skills they practiced as they explained themselves or voiced their opinions and ideas. Not to mention what they learned about using their own bodies as they climbed, pulled, pushed, and braced. And everything they learned was spot on developmentally.  I, the teacher, didn't have to know any of this in advance. There was no need for me to direct. My role was to simply do what I needed to do to create a safe space in which they could explore and experiment while solving a "problem" they collectively and individually sought to solve. And I, as the teacher, need not now stand in judgement, testing to determine what they learned, the proof is indeed in the pudding, with each child taking from the process what he or she needed or wanted to know.

This is but one example of how learning emerges in an emergent curriculum. You never know where it's going to come from. Sometimes it is the teacher who does or says something that sparks the flame. Sometimes the wider society thrusts itself into your preschool world, like the celebration of holidays or a fire in the building next door. Sometimes learning emerges suddenly, in a flash and then gone, and other times it builds slowly over the course of days, weeks and even months. Sometimes "success" can be measured by having a ladder finally wrestled into the place we wanted it. Sometimes "success" is merely having made the attempt. Sometimes the thing that you think is emerging morphs into something entirely unforeseen. And as you might expect, the role of the teacher emerges right along with the rest of the learning, taking whatever form the project or activity demands. I feel like I'm at my best as a teacher when I'm running alongside the children, not out in front, not pushing from behind, but right there with them, keeping them safe, chattering, answering questions, maybe providing a little vocabulary or appropriate "trivia," but mostly just learning right along with them -- not learning the same things they're learning, but rather using the process to construct my own learning as an adult and teacher, just as the kids construct their own learning.

Over the course of the next few posts, I'm going to provide examples of what an emergent curriculum looks like at Woodland Park. They won't all fit the gold standard of the ladder moving project, but I think you'll find that they all take advantage of the democracy that's hardwired into our DNA.

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Judi Pack said...

Is this also what people mean by "synergy?"

Annicles said...

So really the teacher's job is to allow the balance between outside influences and inside experiences be expressed through playful learning. The "stuff" the teacher provides are as many open ended loose parts as possible and a keenly observational eye to help the children learn naturally. Sounds simple and scary.

Ms. Yingling said...

Wow. This is so different from what is happening in the middle school, where the emphasis is shifting to testing so much. Interesting blog, but I am just as glad I am in the middle school. Just where my own talents lie.