This piece by Richard Seel (found by way of the Wrede article referenced in the previous post) is yet another version of emergent learning that seems to live roughly in the same neighborhood as Kathleen Gilroy's and Godfrey Parkin's (though I'm not suggesting that he precisely agrees with either of them). Seel suggests a small-group brainstorming method that he calls "emergent inquiry." It has the following process elements:
- Everyone speaks with many others.
- Relevant and 'irrelevant' inputs
- Many short 'rounds
- Safe, egalitarian environment
- Clear question, tight time-keeping
- Relevant topic, desire for answer
- Wait for the question...
Some of these aren't explicit in their meaning, but you can get the gist. Now, this looks like a fine way to do brainstorming. But it seems to reduce the concept of "emergence" to good ideas that come out of a well-functioning group discussion. Yeah, sure, some ideas come from the product of conversation; they don't belong to any one person in the group. And yeah, sure, it seems like magic when that happens. But it's not a new phenomenon that's just been discovered or newly explained by some paradigm-shifting theory, and I'm not sure what's gained by calling it "emergence."
My understanding of emergence is phenomena like the one described in Jay Cross' eLearn article:
You're witnessing bottom-up decision-making in the swift turn of a school of fish but we're not used to seeing it in business. MIT Professor Tom Malone equipped an audience with hand-held paddles whose position could be read by a computer. On the screen up front, he projected a flight simulator. A hundred people jointly took the controls of the plane and, against all expectation, flew the plane without a pilot and without a crash.
This is surely emergence and it is surely not emergent learning. In fact, there doesn't appear to be any learning going on here at all. Nobody is claiming that the individuals who entered the demonstration not knowing how to fly a plane left the demonstration ready to jump into the cockpit. Nor would the speed at which the group arrived at their collective piloting judgments indicate that they were consciously teaching and learning from each other; that would have taken much more time. In fact, we have no reason to believe that there was a single skilled pilot in the room or, if one was in the room, that he or she directly influenced the judgments of the non-pilots. What is emergent here is knowledge, and the reason that it is emergent is not because the people in the group learned from each other (they didn't) and not because they came to an explicit consensus through discussion (though it may be fair to say that they pooled--not transferred, but pooled--tacit knowledge in the moment) but because the group as a whole was able to exercise judgment that was better than that of most or all of its individual members. You could say that piloting skill "emerged" from the group because the group members did not individually posess the skill either before or after the exercise.
I'm probably beating a dead horse here, but I just feel like we won't benefit from the insights of new scientific discoveries if we're not careful to characterize them correctly. Seel's method is probably dandy; I just don't think that what it cultivates can be fairly called "emergence."