Friday, July 23, 2004

In Defense of Emergent Learning

In the E-literate blog, Michael Feldstein has recently had a couple of jabs at the burgeoning interest in emergent learning, as enthusiastically promoted by Jay Cross and others. I suspect that he’s overthinking it and just doesn't get it.

He says “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. “ He goes on “Nevertheless, if we want to figure out how the concept of emergence can (and can’t) be applied to the domains of group decision-making, then we need to get it through our individually thick heads that peer-to-peer education in a networked environment is not the same thing as emergence.”

He’s using “emergent” in the Steven Johnson sense of the increasing collective smartness of dumber parts, as in smart hives of dumb bees or smart brains of dumb neurons. And by that rather narrow use of the term, he’s right – emergent learning is something of an oxymoron. But “emergent learning” is not used in that sense, at least I have never heard it used that way. Those talking about emergent learning are not talking exclusively about how groups of people get smarter by being connected with each other, though it’s part of the discussion. And they are certainly not talking about rapid consensus-building.

More typically, they are using emergent in the sense that most dictionaries would define it – coming into being or coming into notice. What they are looking at is how emerging technologies (and unexpected applications of them) are changing learning strategies, learning organization, learning implementation, and generally changing the way we go about learning as individuals and as organizations. Learning, and the way it is promulgated, is evolving visibly as it becomes a persistent survival skill. And we need to understand what is happening so that we can recognize it, influence those developments, or leverage any emergent opportunities. (That is, opportunities that are coming into being or becoming recognizable). One of the challenges of emergent learning (and I guess of business generally these days) is to recognize what among all of the chaos coming at us is significant and to exploit it before it is a speck in the rear view mirror.

One of the interests of emergent learning does have to do with connectedness, leveraging the power of collective knowledge and experience in ways that were not possible before, discovering how technology-enhanced collaboration can help to improve performance, and trying to make sense of the way technologies are impacting informal learning.

But I don’t think anyone is looking to emergent learning as a way to create some kind of hive-like smartness in worker bees. The opposite is true – collaborative technologies allow individuals and cross-discipline teams to become more valuable and more prominent, as the employing hive and its collective knowledge become less structured, less hierarchical, and more porous.


jay said...

Godfrey, thanks so much for chiming in. Having read Michael's critiques, I know that he and I are on a different page on this one. The learners-are-the-ants vision had not even occurred to me, so I'll have to look back at what he has written with that in mind.

Steven Johnson's Emergence is a great book, but it's merely a popularization of the work coming out of Santa Fe Institute. Michael writes, "[Godfrey] attributes the “emergent learning” meme to Jay Cross, while I was primarily responding to Kathleen Gilroy. And I know Kathleen was talking about “emergence” in the same sense as Steven Johnson because she explicitly references his book." Well, I quote Steve Johnson, too. Does that legitimize my position? (Don't answer that.)

Michael's latest post concludes: "As I mentioned to Jay in an email, I’m a recovering philosophy major. I don’t do well with fuzzy definitions. So yeah, Godfrey is right. I don’t get it yet."

From my perspective, if you're trying to build the future, fuzzy definitions are part of the package. They add zest.

This is a rare opportunity to tell my one and only philosophy major joke. "I wouldn't have majored in philosophy if I'd known none of the big philosophy companies were hiring."

I'd like to bring our discussion out in the open. Would you guys be up for taking things over to Learning Circuits blog? May I quote the posts from E-literate, here, and Michael's and my email to start the thread? Alternatively, I could create a discussion space at Emergent Learning Forum.


Godfrey Parkin said...

Sure, I'd be happy for you to take this over to the Learning Circuits blog. Maybe it'll stir up a little controversy!

Michael Feldstein said...

I'm game for a conversation anywhere that's convenient.

Regarding Jay's reference to using Johnson to "legitimize" a position, I'm not sure where it comes from. I'm just trying to figure out what everyone's position is. Either you are drawing on the theory of emergence or you are not. There is no judgment of quality attached to using that definition or not; however, there is a difference of meaning.

At any rate, I'm happy to continue this conversation in whatever forum is appropriate.