What is Emergent Curriculum?

People often ask what it means to have an "emergent" curriculum - does that mean you're just making up what to teach each term? Well, yes and no.

Consider the metaphor of knitting a wool sweater, using threads of many different colors. Each thread is a key skill, mindset, or piece of content that we want our students to understand in deep, enduring, personal ways by the end of their middle school years. We have quite a few threads available to us at any one time, and we want to make sure we use most or all of them over three years. But, the design we choose to make depends totally on what's happening in and around the community. 

For our second term this fall, beginning just as the election news arrived, we decided to weave something about empathy and different worldviews. Each term we take on two Quests, and each Quest has a core question. Seeing students distraught and fearful after the election, and some tending toward us-and-them views of reality, we created the question "How do I get to empathy?" We picked a provocative book to read on bullying, found the thoughtful Van Jones interviews with Trump supporters to watch, and created a series of writing challenges and discussions around this question. We chose threads that were already on our minds before the election - honing students' writing and discussion abilities; deeper reading; developing the critical social-emotional skill of being able to hold multiple worldviews at once - and wove them into the emergent topic of finding empathy after a divisive election. It's been an incredibly rich and often challenging discussion.

Our job as educators is to understand deeply which threads we want to use, and then to listen carefully. What is emerging from students and the world around us? What feels relevant, personal, and relational? How do we take these threads of core knowledge and skills and involve kids as much as possible in choosing the design we'll pursue together? It's often difficult to do this, and can mean a lot of additional work for faculty compared to delivering the same curriculum year after year. But the huge advantage is that it shifts kids from passive to active participants in their learning, and makes the school a more dynamic place, more intellectually stimulating and connected to the world around us. 

Christopher BalmeComment