If you Google the definition of “emergent,” Oxford will tell you it means:
in the process of coming into being or becoming prominent.
The etymology explains it’s from the Latin verb “emergere,” meaning “to arise.”
According to this definition, all education involves emergence. New understanding comes into being, even as a new self becomes prominent. Learning generates growth, and at Emergent Education we are all about growth. But our name goes deeper than that first definition. It has roots in emergent theory, emergent learning, and the place of emergents in our ecosystem.
In biology, emergent properties are properties which arise in the whole that do not exist in any of its individual parts. For example, the cells in your body can form a brain with the ability to learn, but no one cell has that cognitive ability. Likewise, the neurons in your brain can store a new fact, but no one neuron saves the understanding. Instead, the creation of a brain or the storing of a fact depend on the interaction of many parts.
This is the principle behind communities and the driving force of protests. The interaction of many parts gives us a power none of us would have alone.
Sometimes, as in communities or protests, those many parts are a crowd of individuals. Other times, though, they are a mix of individuals and other components—experiences, tools, knowledge.
We orient our sessions towards capturing this emergent potential. We know that, through the interaction of tutor and student, questions and knowledge, experience and reflection, we realize levels of growth no individual could realize alone.
In education, emergent learning is learning that comes through the interaction of these different components. Rather than a lecture from a teacher, this learning arises from the student and the circumstance. It is flexible and reactive, responding to the situation that day.
Instead of coming to class with a set lesson or syllabus, we come to class with knowledge and open hearts. We believe in the importance of working together, so make the student an empowered agent in their own education. We listen, letting each student guide their own learning. We adapt the session to reflect the student’s needs, emotions, and understanding in that moment. We generate student learning and mastery by personalizing every class.
In emergent learning, connection is essential. The tutor connects with the student, building a genuine relationship beyond any school subject. Together, they connect the material to the wider world, accessing the student’s prior knowledge. The student, in turn, connects with the material and their own potential for growth. Each of these connections becomes a nexus for deeper understanding and further connection. The individual components come together to create growth none of them could achieve alone.
Emergent learning then reaches past any class into an approach to life itself. Even as we study biology or English or algebra, we also learn how to learn. Our tutors take the time to make that process explicit, incorporating student goals and reflections into every subject. Through understanding the process of learning, students become able to cultivate emergent learning independently. They learn not only in the classroom, but also in the world. Experience becomes their best teacher, and life presents endless opportunities for growth.
Emergents: The Tallest Trees in a Forest
As a noun, an emergent is a tree that reaches higher than all the surrounding trees. Ecologists call the highest layer of the forest, the layer above the general canopy, the emergent layer. Here, the tops of the tallest trees bask in the sun, gathering light and releasing water in a cycle that’s essential for the larger ecosystem.
In any forest, only a few trees can reach this top-most layer. Sequoia forests like those in Oregon, known for their massive trees, contain on average 1.5 emergent trees in any given hectare. That means, of all the trees covering a space the size of the track and field at your school, only one or two would be emergent.
What makes these trees grow so tall?
A lot of it is resilience. Emergent sequoias are over 1000 years old. They have survived droughts and forest fires. But early growth is also a strong indicator of emergence. Young trees with access to nutrient-rich soil are more likely to grow into emergents in the future.
What do trees have to do with learning?
We want our students to become the emergents in the ecosystems of their schools. We give them that nutrient-rich soil, the environment they need to thrive. Beyond supporting early growth, we give our students the tools to carry resilience throughout their lives. By becoming lifelong learners, they will be able to overcome challenges and continue to grow throughout life.
Emergent trees also give back to the ecosystems in unique and essential ways. They maximize growth in any forest, not only for themselves, but also for the trees around them. By releasing water through transpiration and creating canopy gaps for the sun, they help the forest thrive. Biologists call this emergent facilitation—the ability of emergents to facilitate growth for other species nearby.
In the same way, outstanding students can give back to their schools and communities. Beyond school, they can continue to spread their learning and love of learning with the larger world. By empowering our students to reach new heights, we give them the tools to make change in their communities and the world.
For us, “emergent” is more than just a name. It is a philosophy. It is a way of life. Its roots run deep in our teaching and deeper in how we think about the world. We want to capture the emergent properties in learning to empower our students to reach above the rest. Together, we can thrive.