Emily Dickinson and Emergent Learning

Black-white_photograph_of_Emily_Dickinson_(Restored)Source of image – Wikipedia

I would never have suspected that two separate activities this week could come together so closely. At the beginning of the week I was at the ALT-C conference with Roy Williams, running a workshop on Emergent Learning. I have already blogged about this a few times. Attending the conference has meant that emergent learning, which we have been researching for a few years now, has, this week, been right at the front of my mind.

This week also saw the beginning of the ModPo MOOC (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry). I wrote a post about its start. I also dipped into the three Emily Dickinson poems we were asked to read and discuss and during the week have been watching and rewatching the videos in which the poems have been discussed.

I am amazed at how much these poems seem to relate to emergent learning. Al Filreis in one of the videos mentions that he uses the poem ‘The Brain within its Groove’ when he talks to businessmen. I think all three poems could be used to encourage educators to think about open learning as they encourage a shift from a didactic approach, to thinking in terms of infinite open possibilities.

I dwell in Possibility – by Emily Dickinson
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

The words ‘I dwell in Possibility’ and the idea that the sky is the limit, an everlasting roof, in relation to learning, were ringing through my head throughout the ALT-C conference.

‘To tell the Truth but tell it slant’ also relates very closely to be work we have been doing in trying to describe the factors that influence learning and may need to be considered for emergent learning to occur. We have found this very difficult. One person’s interpretation is different to another’s. Each learner’s experience is unique. I have above, briefly selected two ideas from ‘I dwell in Possibility’ to write about – but is this selection an example of slanted truth?  As Al Filreis has said, ‘Any power structure is encoded in the language we use’.

In the ModPo video it was suggested that we have an ethical responsibility for the way we use language, which also relates to the difficulties we have been having in our emergent learning research. Al Filreis describes words as ‘elastic’, but this is so counter-intuitive for many teachers and learners who want everything cut and dried and neatly packaged. With Emily Dickinson’s poems we have to work at making our own meanings more meaningful.

Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant – by Emily Dickinson
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

And finally ‘The Brain’ within its Groove. Emily Dickinson’s poem perfectly describes the move from the prescriptive zone (learning in the safety of a groove) to sweet emergence and beyond (being out on the multi-pathed plateau of an open learning environment). I have explained this further in a past blog post.  What is wonderful about this poem is the idea that once you have opened the floodgates (of learning), there is little chance of turning back. This must be what every educator, at heart, wants to achieve.

To quote Al Filreis:

This (MOOC) is open learning in the open about the meaning of openness and being open – opening the floodgates

The Brain, within its Groove by Emily Dickinson
The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly–and true–
But let a Splinter swerve–
‘Twere easier for You–
To put a Current back–
When Floods have slit the Hills–
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves–
And trodden out the Mills–

In the same  previous post  I tried to explain why I am so interested in emergent learning – why, as an educator and learner, I have spent hours, weeks and months researching this. Al Filreis has captured it in the following sentences, far better than I have been able to:

With 30,000 participants you have to give up the dream of control, give up the dream of teaching people stuff that they will package and walk away with and be able to point to like a vending machine – with 30,000 people we are so far beyond a pedagogy of I know you don’t, I have you want, I give you take, I speak you listen.

In other words we must trust that learning will be emergent.

3 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson and Emergent Learning

  1. roy williams September 15, 2013 / 7:13 pm

    You put it so well Jenny, thanks.

    I had a similar reaction to the first session of Modpo – its a masterful lesson on creating space for emergence – emergent learning, thinking, emotions, connections … add to taste.

    Design by doing, not by design – if you see what I mean – its something we all need to be mindful of.

    I find it difficult to write as clearly and succinctly as you do, so I reverted to a conversation with Allan and Al in the Modpo forums instead. See here:


  2. jennymackness September 16, 2013 / 3:00 pm

    Thanks Roy – I have enjoyed following your discussion forum thread. I am still trying to catch up on the ModPo course and I could have spent a lot longer on Emily Dickinson – so I think I will probably lurk in the forums this time and participate from my blog. Reminiscences of CCK08!!

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