Emergence and Education
Emergent systems are, according to Karl Popper, like clouds as opposed to clocks. Their meaning is made in the complex combination of things and can not be fully understood or examined individually. NY Times Columnist David Brooks explained it this way:
"So an emergent system is something you only can study as a whole . . . So what are the things that contribute to poverty? Well some of it is just sheer lack of money, but some of it is certain habits, some of it is racism, there’s a whole bunch of fake things that factor in. And so one of the problems that we have as a culture is we take clouds and we pretend they’re clocks. We take problems that are emergent and we pretend we can solve them through deductive reasoning, but just picking them apart. And we always want to find the one thing that will lead to that, so we always want to find “X” leads to “Z”. The problem with an emergent system, you don’t have those kinds of straight causal relationships."
This idea of emergent systems (also found in this early podcast by RadioLab) seems to me to be a great challenge to competency-based education (CBE) and traditional perspectives of instructional design in general. If education is an emergent system, how can we truly study it and improve it? Are all subjects emergent? Popper talks about physical determinism and the freedom of man which reminds me of how our approach to teaching and learning will always include our understanding of the nature of mankind, truth, and knowledge.
In reading the chapter on the content layer in An Architectural Approach To Instructional Design I came across Bloom and Gagne’s taxonomies which have become the foundation of the instructional design field. Bloom followed his own mentor, Ralph Tyler, in proposing 3 domains of performance: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Often what we use today relates to the cognitive domain (remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating). According to Gibbons, the standard reasoning for instructional design strategy selection has become:
My key takeaways from these readings and thoughts on emergence relate to the importance of articulating the kinds of knowledge and content we are designing for. If it is variable, then we need to describe how our system might address a variety of content structures, skills, and tasks. We should not pretend to provide the benefits of a liberal arts education (i.e. critical thinking skills, constructive argumentation in a group, writing) if what we are designing can’t go there due to the ephemeral nature of some of these kinds of knowledge. That being said, we can describe how our design or system empowers human teachers to facilitate group processes and environments that allow these less concrete (but equally essential) and emergent abilities to be experienced and internalized for engaged and motivated learners.
I am a graduate student in Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University. I enjoy writing, hiking, and spending time with my family.