An Example of Emergent Learning

The open connectivism courses that are run by Stephen Downes and George Siemens are rich with examples of emergent learning and whether or not intended, the design of these courses can promote emergent learning.

The CCK11 Elluminate session on Friday last (4 th Feb – recording here) was an example of this. Stephen found himself moderating the session on his own (George couldn’t make it), with 40 participants – the majority of whom were reluctant (and actually always are reluctant) to take the microphone – no doubt for a number of good reasons. So for the most part Stephen found himself on his own talking to 40 faceless people.

What is so interesting about these Friday round up sessions is that there is no planned agenda. Participants are asked to come to the session with topics/questions for discussion that have arisen from the week’s work, but we are not asked to post these questions in advance – so there’s no way the facilitators – in this case Stephen – can know what is coming at them or whether they will be able to answer the questions raised. This requires such a different approach to ‘teaching’ – a different mind set about what it’s all about and a different view of the meaning of learning.

Through this ‘openness’ a variety of different topics can be discussed.  There were a couple of points that struck me from Friday’s session.

First that we learn by pruning unused connections. This is really counter-intuitive for me.

And second and even more interesting was the fascinating discussion by Stephen about breaking apart the meaning of words from what they represent. He took the example of the word ‘Paris’ and showed that this means different things to different people. It could mean the city Paris, or Paris Hilton, or plaster of Paris etc. If it means city to me then my understanding of ‘city’ is based on all my prior experience which is different from anyone elses. That would also be the case for any of the other meanings of Paris. So around each possible meaning there is a network of meanings and around each of those a network and so on. This is enormously complex and unique to each person. So here is the crunch:

If this is the case then it must be impossible to transfer one person’s network (understanding) to another person.

This seems so obvious, but if it is then why does the transmission mode of teaching still exist?

I attended the session with no idea that I would come out of it with this very strong message about why a transmission model of teaching is unlikely to be successful. It could be that no one else recognised this as a possible message. It is unlikely that Stephen knew he was going to be talking about Paris before the session began.

So Friday’s session was for me an experience of emergent learning in action.

3 thoughts on “An Example of Emergent Learning

  1. Ken Anderson February 6, 2011 / 7:24 pm

    Hi Jenny. Interesting position you have taken. While reading it, I couldn’t help but wonder if it fact you (and the rest of us in that particular session) were in fact recipients of other people’s understandings of the word ‘Paris’? In other words, other meanings for that word were transmitted during that session.

    I also wonder what would be the case had I or someone else never heard of Paris before? How would my meaning of that word ’emerge’ without some reception of meaning about it from some source external to me, that is, a transmission of some meaning from someone or something external, in my direction, or, at least, in a direction from which I might receive it?


  2. jennymackness February 7, 2011 / 8:13 am

    Hi Ken – thanks for the comment, which has made me think again about transmission.

    I think the idea that I was interested in is whether what is transmitted is what is received. I didn’t mean to imply that there is no transmission – but the interaction with what is received with our own past experience, will necessarily mean that each of us interprets what has been received differently.

    In this sense a teacher cannot transmit an idea and expect it to be received in as intended.

    Have I answered your question?


  3. Ken Anderson February 7, 2011 / 12:57 pm

    Hi Jenny, yes, that makes the meaning clearer for me. It seems then that a major issue is in the communication process. What I think I am saying (writing) is not necessarily what you are hearing (reading). I guess from that observation has arisen such things as clarity of expression, testing to see if the message was received as intended etc.

    But I thought connectivism denied any transmission of an idea, rather, somehow we ‘connect’ and a new idea emerges. I’ve always wondered what exactly is meant by ‘connect’ in connectivism. I wonder if it is just substituting for the word communicate, in this usage? Drawings of nodes with lines between them – what do the lines represent? Does connect = communicate?

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