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.
If so, it wouldn't be the first time. However, at the risk of compounding the error of "overthinking it," I'm going to try to parse through Godfrey's definition of "emergent learning." Because he's right about one thing: I don't get it yet.
Godfrey claims that I'm misunderstanding the conversation:
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.
Part of the problem is that he and I are clearly participating in different conversations. He 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.
More importantly, I think Godfrey misreads Steven Johnson's position when he claims that Johnson talks about "increasing collective smartness of dumber parts, as in smart hives of dumb bees or smart brains of dumb neurons" (though I understand where Mr. Parkin may have gotten that interpretation from reading my own post). Emergence really isn't about smarts; it's about behaviors. And because the emergent behaviors that are most interesting and worthwhile to study are usually adaptive behaviors, we mistake them for "smarts." This was really my point when I said that emergent learning is an oxymoron; to the extent that we equate emergent adaptive behaviors with smarts, we are making a category mistake.
So, given Parkin's understanding of emergence in the sense of the scientific phenomenon, it's understandable that he has missed Jay Cross' hints that he, too, means to invoke the research that Johnson writes about (though possibly in a very different way than Kathleen does). In CLO Magazine, Jay writes:
Businesses are complex adaptive systems. In a complex system, independent pieces join together to form something entirely different and unexpected.
The best metaphor for a complex adaptive system is a living thing. Take a complex system apart, and you no longer have a complex system. As Verna Allee writes, "Cut a cow in half and you don't have two cows. You have a mess."
In their book, "It's Alive," management theorists Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer make a compelling case that business entities are living, complex systems. Many nodes-brains-come together to form something new-the corporate body. As my friend David Grebow says, it even has a Corporate IQ and, according to author David Batestone, a Corporate Soul.
Emergence is the key characteristic of complex systems. It is the process by which simple entities self-organize to form something more complex. Emergence is also what happened to that "utopian dream" of e-learning on the way to the future. Simple, old e-learning has combined with bottom-up self-organizing systems, network effects and today's environment to morph into emergent learning.
The phrases "complex adaptive systems" and "self-organize" are dead givaways; Jay is clearly invoking the same "emergence" that Johnson means and not simply the broader dictionary definition.
So it seems we have at least three different definitions of "emergent learning;" Jay's, Godfrey's, and Kathleen's. I've already made clear what I think about Kathleen's definition: it's an oxymoron. I'm not sure that I'm fully wrapping my head around Jay's definition yet. Reading the passage above carefully, it seems he's not necessarily talking about learning that is itself emergent. Instead, he seems to refer to the organization itself as exhibiting emergent behavior. Read this way, "emergent learning" might mean, roughly, "learning in the context of emergence" or "the learning strategies that make sense when dealing with complex adaptive systems." I'm not sure if I'm reading Jay correctly on this; perhaps he will be kind enough to post a clarification in his own blog.
At any rate, back to Godfrey. He writes:
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
In some ways, this is not so different from the stab I made above at interpreting Jay's version of "emergent learning." One of the interesting things about emergence (in the Johnsonian sense) is that it really screws up some traditional accounts of causality. You can't really do a top-down analysis and hope to understand why some things happen. Forget about looking for that pacemaker cell directing the others; if you want to understand how slime mold cells work together, then you have to look at the behavior of each individual cell and how the whole turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts. This, in turn, seems to fit well with the theme of "unexpectedness," which is a major point that Godfrey emphasizes, i.e., things are chaotic and moving fast; therefore, our learning strategies must enable us to recognize change and adapt to it quickly.
Naturally, you don't need the concept of complex adaptive systems (in the rigorously defined sense) to accept the point of view that we need to have rapid response capabilities built into our learning strategies. But without that concept, I'm not sure that there's much left beyond an obvious assertion about the state of the world we live in. Sure, change is a constant. So what are we going to do about it? By itself, Godfrey's definition of "emergent learning" seems to say nothing beyond "we need to deal with this." Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn't seem to be a new kind of learning. It says we need a new kind of learning, without saying what that kind of learning is.
It's possible that adding the more rigorous notion of emergence into the mix will get us somewhere different. At the very least, it suggests more specific places to look for answers (theoretically speaking). But I'm not sure yet. Jay himself seems to acknowledge that we don't have a clear idea of what "emergent learning" is at the moment:
Emergent learning implies adaptation to the environment, timeliness, flexibility and space for co-creation. It is the future. We haven't figured it out yet. Or, from the perspective of complexity science, it hasn't figured itself out yet.
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.