Notes on Emergent Learning

As part of updating the wiki on agile learning, I’ve been reading up on Emergent Learning. As long ago as 2004, Michael Feldstein was arguing that “Emergent Learning” is an oxymoron. In brief, his argument was that the term was being used very loosely to describe any circumstance where learning emerges as a by-product of collective activity. Certainly that looseness still exists in some accounts. However, I’m interested in digging into a couple of examples where the term may be applicable in the strict sense to which Feldstein is committed. It turns out that this leads to some counter-intuitive conclusions.

Here is the nub of Feldstein’s argument:

[S]ome philosophers of mind suggest that consciousness is an emergent property of brains. Each individual neuron is simply a mechanical switch responding to triggers in its immediate environment. But when you string a bunch of these switches together in the right way, you suddenly have an aware being. The neurons aren’t individually conscious; it’s the brain as a collective entity that posesses the emergent property of consciousness.

When people talk about “emergent learning” these days, this is not generally what they mean. What they generally mean is some form of rapid consensus-building in which a group of people can share observations and make coordinated decisions without any one person filling the role of executive command and control. This is, no doubt, an important phenomenon to understand and try to cultivate. However, it is not emergence. A democratic decision-making process is not sufficient for an action to be called “emergent.” Almost by definition, if you have the kind of self- and group-awareness that is usually entailed when we use the word “learning”, you can’t have emergence. You can say that a colony of ants “learns” what the best foraging strategy is, but it is the colony as a whole that “learns,” not the individuals. If the individual ants were able to learn the best foraging strategy, communicate it throughout the hive, and consciously arrive at a consensus, then their adaptive foraging would not be an emergent behavior. So “emergent learning” as the term is currently being used is actually an oxymoron.

Remember this: none of the ants has learnt, or knows, the strategy, but collectively they can put it into action. If you look at the case studies in this recent Special Issue of the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning on “Emergent Learning, Connections, Design for Learning,” it’s clear that the learning and knowledge of individuals remains the primary focus. “Emergent” in this context seems to be another way of describing the knowledge and skills — some of them tacit — that individuals accrue from taking part in self-organised and/or very fluid learning experiences.

By contrast, look at this from A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. It doesn’t use the term “emergent learning” but nevertheless describes the kind of collective (not individual) mastery that Feldstein insists is the mark of true emergence. So here emergent learning would not be an oxymoron?

In World of Warcraft, one of the most successful multiplayer games ever, groups of players battle fictional monsters (not one another) in extremely complex group actions called raids. A group [or guild] of 25 players, for example, will need six to eight hours, on average, to complete most raids. Raids require intense coordination, concentration, and participation from each and every member of the team.

To advance, players experiment within the game and draw from external information sources to construct a very sophisticated learning environment. They create standards and tools for measurement that rely on advanced mathematics, build statistical models and intricate programs for data processing, and conduct after-action reviews and teamwide performance evaluations. And they do it for fun in a social context. …

Guilds like the Garden Gnome Liberation Army (gla), a collection of more than 100 players who twice-weekly engage in complex raids, sit at the intersection of the two elements that make up the new culture of learning. They are intensive and complex learning collectives that are deeply invested in constructing, utilizing, and managing large-scale knowledge economies (the information network). In order to succeed, every single member of the guild must take an active, constant, and enthusiastic role in learning information about the game, his or her character class, and the battles, fights, and challenges they will face. At the same time, the space of the world itself is fluid, changing, and dynamic. It presents players with boundaries within which they search for success through trial and error, finding idiosyncratic solutions to complicated problems. Solutions are not discovered so much as they are organically grown (as in a petri dish).

Gamers bring these two elements together through play.…

gla members… would spend months advancing through a particular raid with only incremental success each week. Eventually, the guild would have a breakthrough and suddenly be able to succeed at something that it had been failing to accomplish until then. At that point, a major shift had occurred, and in everyone’s mind, the goal had become achievable. And shortly thereafter, usually, the raid would succeed, seemingly without effort.

So what changed? Not the gear the players possessed or their own skill levels and talents. Instead, there was a collective shift in imagination. As the fight unfolded one last time, the players—though dispersed all over the globe—had managed to completely synchronize their endeavors. Yet no one could articulate why they could do so on that day and not before. The knowledge acquired to defeat the boss and complete the challenge was principally tacit. [my emphasis]

So there you have it, I think. A group of people who have met a collective challenge without any of them really knowing how they did it. Exactly what we need to tackle climate change, to take one example of many challenges so complex that no one mind can hold all facets at once. Absolutely useless in a school, of course: no one would pass the exam, and parents and government would be clamouring for new leadership.

How do we reconcile this paradox, when our ideas about competence are so rooted in individual articulation and ‘mastery’? I started struggling with this about a year ago when I asked When should we eat our brains? It won’t be a surprise that I haven’t worked out an answer yet. Can you help me with any pointers?

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with something from Sugata Mitra, who, following his celebrated “Hole in the Wall” experiments, clearly gets the idea of emergence in the Feldstein’s strict sense. His work just possibly points a way to how we can have truly emergent learning and the kind of measurable individual results that administrators fetishise. The following extract is taken from this transcript of the closing minutes of this video lecture, after Mitra has presented many examples of children in groups answering questions in what he calls Self-Organised Learning Environments:

So what does it all mean? What’s the theory then? Why is it happening this way? Well I have a suspicion, and I’m just going to leave it as a thought with you. Self-organising systems. A self-organising system is one where the structure of the system appears without intervention from the outside. A number of educationalists have said this in many different ways. Hayek used to call it “spontaneous order“. People have called it “learning comes from the inside”.

But I think it is the terminology of physics that will explain it. That the system structure, when you allow a system to self-organise, the structure appears without explicit intervention from the outside. The other thing which happens in self-organising systems is emergence. The appearance of a property that’s previously not observed as a functional characteristic of the system. Which is why we find a lot of things very surprising. We say “How could this have happened?” Because emergent systems are always astonishing. An example of a physical emergent system for example is a dust devil. You’re sitting around, and there’s a breeze and all of that and suddenly like a magic, like a miracle, a little dust devil arrives, and it moves around as though it knows where it’s going.

So that’s an emergent phenomenon. I have a suspicion that what we have stumbled onto in all of these experiments is a self-organising system in that physical sense. That education, if it is a self-organising system, then learning is its emergent phenomenon, therefore you cannot make it happen. You can set the stage and allow it to come, when it will. It will take I think at least five years of experiments more to actually be able to prove it, but I am going to try, because I think it’s worth trying this. Once we suspect that there is a strong physical basis for how this kind of learning is happening. And that to me is the future of learning.

2 thoughts on “Notes on Emergent Learning

  1. Sorry you missed my work on this;
    HEre is an outline of Emergent Learning;
    This is how we developed it on#mosialong Aggregate then Curate;
    Whilst Emergent Learning might be an oxymoron as learning is emergent, education systems do NOT design for emergence but for hierarchy. So any learning design needs to be allowing emergence to be a necessary condition within it, but this is mostly ignored. So designing for emergent learning is not an oxymoron it is a key task in making the future

  2. Thanks, Fred, I read your blog post on Emergent Learning and included it in my draft notes for this post. Too often in the past my posts here have tended to sprawl off in all directions, becoming a kind of dump of everything that seems connected in my mind. I thought, just for a change, I’d try and stick to one point. As I didn’t feel your post spoke directly to the individual/collective point I’m exploring above (though I’m sure it does implicitly), I didn’t reference it this time. I am however really interested in what you have to say about designing for emergence. If I write about that, I’ll definitely engage with what you have to say about this. Thanks for the MosiAlong links!

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