23 January 02012

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?

Continue reading "Notes on Emergent Learning"