Emergent Knowledge and Institutional Learning

Discussable Object in #Philosophy12

“…if educators wish to encourage the emergence of meaning in the classroom, then the meanings that emerge in classrooms cannot and should not be pre-determined before the ‘event’ of their emergence.”

Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta

A conception of learning I have been exploring and experimenting with in the last year has been attempting to design learning which imagines knowledge as an emergent event. Building on the constructivist perspective that knowledge exists in the act of its creation, meaning can be seen to emerge as it is assigned contexts of identification, value and purpose by individuals, as well as cultures. But even while such progressive perspectives on knowledge may be embraced by school administrators and teachers across institutionalized learning, the emergentist view presents a unique challenge to the design-minded educator.

In attempting to conceive of education within an emergent epistemology, Deborah Osberg and Gert Biesta explore the question of “whether it is possible to maintain an emergentist conception of meaning in an ‘educational’ context, which in turn raises the question of what is meant by education.” Educational designers are forced to consider such questions in providing a context for learning in which meaning can be created by participants, and yet still fulfill the mandated curricular aspects of a particular course of study.

Osberg and Biesta outline the pragmatic critique of such “unguided” learning thoroughly:

The idea that meaning can be ‘created’ in the classroom has, however, been regarded with a good measure of suspicion by many educators because of its association with the much criticized ‘romantic’ or ‘anti-authoritarian’ version of progressive education in which the role of the teacher is downplayed to the extent that it does not matter precisely what is learned as long as students are leaning something. It has been argued again and again by conservatives and radicals alike that this pedagogy has no real ‘educational’ value. On the one hand, the ‘untutored’ approach puts people in the position of having to ‘reinvent the wheel’ before they can egt anywhere, and, on the other, it allows for anything-goes inventionalism, where people can simply ‘make things up’ rather than deal with the ‘reality’ of the world. Dewey (1984: 59) himself – one of the foremost proponents of progressive education – claimed the ‘romantic’ approach was not only uneducational but ‘real stupid.'”

In reflecting on these learning experiences, I agree with the authors’ assertion that “for an emergentist conception of meaning to contribute to discussions about education it must not reduce the concept of education to untutored learning,” and hope here to shed some light on the role of instruction in an emergent setting.

Fortunate last semester to consider the curriculum of our locally-developed Philosophy 12 course alongside these ideas, last fall’s class’ Metaphysics unit took the form of a “discussable object.” For my part, I hoped to engage the content-aspect of the course curriculum here by experimenting with what Paulo Freire called “the program content of the problem-posing method,” which he proposed should be:

“constituted and organized by the students’ view of the world, where their own generative themes are found. The content thus constantly expands and renews itself. The task of the dialogical teacher in an interdisciplinary team working on the thematic universe revealed by their investigation is to “re-present” that universe to the people from whom she or he received it – and “re-present” is not as a lecture, but as a problem.”


Before delving into the explicitly content-oriented aspect of the unit (the nature of metaphysics), the class held a handful of discussions and negotiations to reach a rough agreement of the questions raised by the topic – essentially revolving around the seminal, What is? –  and sought consensus around how those questions would be explored, shared and represented.  As the group deliberated on the themes and ideas brought about in their own study of an individually chosen metaphysician, practical aspects of the unit plan were analyzed and revised to align the assignments’ form authentically with an emergent view of content.

From my perspective, the notion of not apprehending the direction or meanings yet to emerge from the collective inquiry created a challenge in defining my role as teacher, a topic I brought as my own part in the group’s investigation and inquiry. In developing a scope and sequence for the unit’s activities and assignments, my own obligations – to the Ministry of Education, our course curriculum, as well as the individuals in the class itself – were only one part of the collected spectrum of needs expressed in these formative discussions, and were integrated into the emerging course of action as we progressed together.

As a co-investigator and mentor, rather than de-facto leader of the group, I attempted to teach and facilitate by advocating for my own expectations as part of an ongoing negotiation that included each member of the class on (somewhat) equal footing. I was upfront about the contradiction of attempting to provide student freedom within the constraints of our school system where I was/am still tasked with rating and evaluating their learning numerically for the purposes of university admission and other future prospects.

Aesthetics Discussion

Given this reality, it was nevertheless my intention to provide the necessary space for an authentic synthesis of individual subjectivities to be discovered and expressed by the group, free of interventions on my part that unfairly leveraged my power as teacher.

However, just because I had intended to create a vacuum of authority in the classroom didn’t mean that it was immediately or ‘productively’ filled by students eager to seize control over their own learning. Through the course of the class’ initial discussions and unit plans, I found myself interjecting to highlight different aspects of the processes at work (variously successful and with room improvement) as the group attempted to reach consensus:

  • pointing out people’s unconscious tendency to seek my approval before progressing with a topic or question;
  • inquiring about ways different aspects of metaphysical thought might be applied to the class’ efforts to discover its individual and collective ideas;
  • and identifying moments during which I very well could provide the next step in synthesis, but wherein it would be more instructive for the group to reach its own conclusion.

Image courtesy of EmeraldInsight.com

These interjections might be considered efforts to facilitate the generation of dialogue and empathy around tacit and explicit meanings being uncovered throughout the unit. In attempting to sense the meanings and concepts emerging through the class’ discussions, my expertise as the teacher had indeed shifted from dissemination of the course content to a facilitation of the course process.

Building on the initial success of the Discussable Object, I viewed the course’s next unit – that of Epistemology – as an opportunity to synthesize our recently concluded learning into new paths of discovery, both for myself and the class. In looking past the first level of such spiral learning, each of us had to press beyond the understandings reached through the Metaphysics unit and seek out the questions and contradictions at the heart of epistemology, namely: What do we know? And How do we know it? 

Epistemology Unit Planning

Epistemology Unit Planning

Here, the class was aided by Julie in capturing a discussion that looked back at what had come out of our previous unit, as well as ahead at what the class intended to make of its next topic. There were elements of the Metaphysics study that many deemed essential to repeat, and ways in which the group could seek out new challenges.

For teacher and students alike, one of these opportunities involved the nature of my participation in the process. Previously, I had contributed to class discussions and learning by gently nudging the group forward with questions or interventions that sought to connect or create context between different aspects of metaphysics and the group dynamic. But in initially discussing Epistemology with the class, we began to see the possibility of meaning and understanding arising more genuinely through student creation, free of teacher input.

Without question this next level of autonomous learning would not have been possible without the more involved teaching that preceded it. Again during Epistemology I was forced to (re)consider my position in the room to best support the expressed intentions for the unit during class discussions, smaller-group inquiries, and individual development, working toward a series of peer-facilitated conversations where I attempted to resign myself position of observer, only.

In these discussions, there were many different moments when I would have liked to pipe up, offer my own thoughts or connections to the class’ collected momentum. At others, when the discussion stalled, I found myself reflexively wanting to help, and question, prod, or provoke some new angle on the conversation. But in each case, having let the moment of possible intervention pass, something spontaneous and meaningful arose from one member of the class or another.

No longer were eyes and faces awaiting my permission or validation before proceeding; knowledge was being constructed between participants essentially without my guidance. But this characterization is misleading, as my ‘guidance’ had merely shifted its focus over the course of several weeks to accommodate and help bring about a more organic collective consciousness. Far from diminishing our part in the learning process, there is a niche to be explored and defined outlining the teacher’s role in an emergent classroom.

True to the epistemology from which such a pedagogy might take its inspiration, we cannot yet know where this might take us.

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