Designing a complex curriculum – Building the foundations for an emergent curriculum

In the last post in this series, I outlined some thoughts on the idea of an emergent pedagogy and in particular the work of Davis and Sumara (2006) in setting out the conditions for emergence, namely,

  • decentralised control and neighbour interactions: learning is developed in the interaction between the personal and social. Individual and collective interests should be mutually supportive rather than inherently competitive and it is the interaction between neighbours which allows for the development and emergence of new ideas and perspectives. However, to allow the development of rich neighbour interactions, it is essential that learning is not controlled from a single point; any learning-based group must be given a level of decentralised capability.
  • internal diversity and redundancy: systems need to be able to react in different ways to different situations to ensure a diversity of insights to aid innovative solutions to problems. However, for such diversity to be present there needs to be a level of duplication within the system, such as shared responsibility and interests. It is this duplication which allows for easy interaction within the system and for elements to compensate for inadequacies which reside there.
  • Freedom and coherence: within any system there must be potential for the exploration of possibilities resulting in the opportunity for personal agency and the diversity identified above. However, whilst this inclusion of freedom is central to the emergence of learning, complex systems are not chaotic and require a level of coherence to orientate the activity of the actors within the system. Coherence imposes a loose framework within which individuals are able to operate freely whilst creating frameworks for coherence.

To understand the basis for these elements, I want to develop a wider notion of an ‘emergent curriculum’ as a foundation for their application. The idea of an emergent curriculum has already been suggested by Osberg and Biesta (2008), who provide a potential philosophical foundation for such an approach. They begin from the idea that our knowledge emerges as we ‘participate in the world’ (p.313). If this is so, should this also be the way we consider learning within the classroom?

It is suggested that teaching has become increasingly viewed as an activity which needs to be structured around explicit goals and outcomes. Curriculum then becomes the framework by which predetermined goals are (or are not) met. An important aspect of this view of curriculum is that the meeting of specific outcomes is suggestive of a predetermined and restricted form of enculturation. From an emergent perspective, this can become highly problematic as,

‘if we hold the meaning as emergent, and we insist on a strict interpretation of emergence (i.e. what emerges is more than the sum of its parts and therefore not predictable from the ground it emerges from) then the idea that educators can (or should) control the meanings that emerged in the classroom become problematic. In other words, the notion of emergent meaning is incompatible with the aims of education, traditionally conceived. Emergent meaning-if it exists-is incompatible with the idea of education as planned enculturation.’ (Osberg and Biesta, 2008: 315)

This suggests that an emergent curriculum requires both the opportunity for meaning to merge through the act of pedagogy, but also that we support the emergence of uniqueness in each student. This, however, then suggests that the curriculum cannot be seen as a restrictive, ‘one size fits all’ structure which attempts to limit the emergence of meaning. Hence,

the first thing to notice about the curriculum as a ‘space of emergence’ is that it is not a space of common ground. Because human subjectivity emerges only when one acts with others who were different (Arendt, 1958; Biesta, 2006: 33-54), this means education only takes place where ‘otherness’ – being with others who are different from us – creates such a space. In this sense it is the plurality of the ‘space of emergence’ that educates, not the teacher (Biesta 2006: 13-32),’ (Osberg and Biesta, 2008: 324)

Hence, plurality is key. We need to move away from reducing the difference between the teacher and students as the ‘space of emergence’ suggests the need for difference. We need to ensure that students meet and encounter difference which then leads to a greater opportunity for the development of unique characters in understanding rather than a convergence. Many curriculum are designed to eradicate difference, but by encouraging and supporting difference, the frustration and difficulties which result lead to the spaces where real education occurs. This means that the curriculum approach which is fostered requires highly skilled teachers to help constantly challenge, and unsettle. As Osberg and Biesta (Osberg and Biesta, 2008: 326) state,

‘with the logic of emergence it becomes possible to understand educational responsibility as continuously complicating the scene, thereby making it possible for those being educated to continue to emerge as singular beings. Educational responsibility is about continuously reopening subjectivity, unsettling closures, and unpicking ‘destinations’.’

This gives the teacher a huge responsibility as it suggests a middle course between unguided, discovery learning and a model of knowledge transmission, whilst also understanding the ethical imperative of aiding individuals to finding greater understanding and uniqueness within a space of emergence. For an international masters course on innovation and reform it also provides an interesting basis for working to allow students to find meaning and understanding through an emergent process. With this as a philosophical foundation, in more practical terms, I see the conditions for emergence set out by Davis and Sumara (2006), outlined again at the start of this post as a useful framework for realising this ‘space of emergence’. In a future post, I will add to this consideration of the emergence of the subject, by exploring how it can be positively entwined with the emergence of concepts, understanding and knowledge.


Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago press.

Biesta, G. (2006) Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future. Boulder CO: Paradigm Pulishers.

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

Osberg, D. &Biesta, G. (2008) ‘the emergent curriculum: navigating complex course between unguided learning and planned enculturation.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3): 313-328.


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