You are on page 1of 9

A Unit Planner as an Emergent Phenomenon; C Dwyer

I am never at ease with myself before I start a new unit. I worry about how much I am projecting my view of a topic onto my students. I worry about how their interpretations will be linked to my interpretations. I want them to create their own meaning, but at the same time, I want to tell them a story. Human beings have been creating narratives to learn and teach for tens of thousands of year. The oral storytelling tradition was in essence a device for teaching future generations. The caves painting at Lascaux were stories and lessons from voices in the past. Greek mythology taught the Greeks about morals and wisdom. Now, we have oral and written story-tellers in our pockets. I was reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, and loved the chapter on stories and narratives used in companies and education institutes. It is a refreshing thing to read that doctors are being trained to think of their patients in terms of the stories of their lives rather than as nonliving entities that can be broken down to their parts and re-assembled. Being able to see and craft stories and to explain your world is an increasingly important skill in the 21st century, one which requires creative thinking and big picture synthesis. A Meta-view (Fractals and Emergence) Kath Murdoch said to us at a training conference in Tokyo, try to feel comfortable with fogginess. As my interest and educational metaphors are taken from Complexity Science and Ecology, I tend to gravitate to the natural organic shapes of the physical world. Among that incredibly large and diverse group, is Fractals. Fractals Fractals are a geometric term that were discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1960’s. He refers to them as the Geometry of Nature. The nature of fractals is simple and as Mandelbrot explains contains only a few key elements which have direct implications for education, teaching and classroom planning. They are an extremely powerful metaphor for inquiry and learning.

A Unit Planner as an Emergent Phenomenon; C Dwyer
A Fractal starts with a seed (a rule) and then is iterated into itself, where the output of one step becomes the input for the new step. In a learning environment, this seed would be the embodied history of all the members of the collective. Each child brings different ways of seeing and knowing, and those agents interact to make up new possibilities to know and see. Fractals are essentially patterns; complex and detailed. Making and seeing patterns are an essential skill for the world we live in today, and patterns are an essential component of inquiry learning. Within a given discipline (subject) there are a multitude of patterns at play that shape and give meaning to the discipline. There are also trans-disciplinary patterns that education is becoming more explicit at noticing and teaching in its curriculum and learning engagements. Fractals are also self-similar, which means depending on the level, or scale, you are looking at, they are the same. Fractals start with incredibly simple rules and grow into infinitely complex forms. The implications for education are many. Knowing and learning are evolving processes where one continues to explore and integrate new images, metaphors, and applications to what we previously understood. When we learn that the sum of two integers may not be a larger whole, we do not throw away our previous knowledge of addition as a larger sum of two numbers. Rather, we add this new form to the grander whole and allow the meta understanding to be more complex and detailed. Learning is Fractal, not linear.

A Unit Planner as an Emergent Phenomenon; C Dwyer
Emergence An important aspect of Fractals and inquiry learning is the concept of Emergence. In the case of Fractals, Emergence happens when the simple seeds (initial rule) are allowed to iterate, creating complex and beautiful wholes that could not be predicted from the original rule. This would be an example of Emergence. Differing agents (geometric seeds, children, ideas) operate together in an environment (a classroom) forming complex patterns and possibilities that could not have emerged on their own. The key here is that the agents in the system are driving the emergence forward. If the system is centralized, then emergence and new possibilities will be stifled; but, if it is decentralized then the conditions for Emergent behavior and understanding will be strengthened. Similar to our seed in Fractal geometry, if the original rule is too centralized, the emergence form will be controlled by that rule. On the other hand, if the rule is simple and open, a new form may emerge. There is a rule. There is a shape. It is not chaotic and random, but it is not structured and top-down either. This is how I see the classroom. If learning and knowing are Fractal and Emergent, then shouldn’t a classroom also be so? Shouldn’t the learning be centered on, and driven by, the students? Child centered learning is a great thing, but far too often that buzzword is used without a mindful understanding of why. Child centered learning is Emergent, it sets an environment where the possibilities are open and diverse, and the learning and knowing that evolve are, like our simple Fractal seed, unpredictable. A classroom is Fractal. Mindful Unit Playing I don’t like the word planning. It implies something that is determined in the end as given, and suggests that there are steps to follow to get their. True, we can be flexible with our plans, and plans can change, and any other host of metaphors. Still, I prefer to use the term playing, as it suggests more of a creative and Emergent flow; it implies that change will occur, and new ideas will arise. Play is imaginative, and their is no end or goal to to play. Playing is the goal of play, just as learning is goal of school. Creativity and imagination are build into play, and cannot exist without them.

A Unit Planner as an Emergent Phenomenon; C Dwyer
How does a teacher play a unit (or a lesson) that is Emergent and Fractal? Before I explain how I do it, it is important to know that by the very nature of Emergence and Fractals, it cannot be a prescriptive activity. As soon you prescribe the end, the learning will follow that path and new Emergent understanding cannot possibility come into being. The following steps are ones that I follow to allow me to set the possibility for Emergence. This way works for me, and allows me a sense of freedom and autonomy in the classroom. It does not box the learning into a prescribed space, yet at the same time it is focused and directed. Like our Fractal seed, it is simple enough to allow for complexity to emerge. It also allows for multiple ways of knowing and the end direction in unclear, yet rich with possibilities.

Choosing the shape of the Story
Before I begin any unit, I need a seed. Since I am obsessed with shapes, that seed is usually a metaphor related to shapes. More than that, it relates to a story. What is the overall feel and shape of the unit? What is grander narrative I am attempting to tell? It may go into unknown territory through student inquiry, but the shape of the narrative keeps us within the confines of our system. As with all Emergent

A Unit Planner as an Emergent Phenomenon; C Dwyer
phenomenon, the rules shape the eventual direction it takes. It sets it free, all keeps it constrained. A few examples: Culture During a unit on culture I choose the shape of nested circles, and how each layer is embodied within another, and how each layer makes a grander whole that is a product of the sum of its parts. The individual pieces cannot be understood without looking at the whole. Ancient Civilizations While studying ancient civilizations, I choose the image of a meandering river. This was meant to serve as a guide and reminder for finding our way. Often, the journey is more important than the destination, and like ancient peoples, we do not know what lies around the next curve, yet we continue to follow the curves and let our understanding grow and flourish as we find it. The end of a river is the sea, yet a river never stops moving and is never the same. As Heraclitus said, “You cannot step twice into the same river.” Forces and Motions For this I used the Kath Murdoch Inquiry Model. This is more of an educational resource than the other stories, but nonetheless has powerful narrative capacities. As little scientists studying the world of physics for the first time, we needed to be aware of what we knew, how we knew it, and how we applied it to the real world.

A Unit Planner as an Emergent Phenomenon; C Dwyer
There are many aspects of science, and scientists have many different roles to play. They do not just do experiments; but they come up with ideas, they research, they reflect and synthesize what they know in order to communicate to others, and then then do something with this new knowledge. It is a complex process that we must be mindful of as we move from tentacle to tentacle.

Learning Objectives and Skills
Once the seed has been planted, I can turn my attention to the parts of the unit that I must include; be it skill based learning, curricular commitments, or moral education. Each teacher is beholden to a different set of standards and benchmarks, different implicit and explicit aims and goals, and varying commitments to a wide range of skill sets and methodologies. Leaving aside the question of whether these are useful for education, let’s instead focus on the how we can use them to create an Emergent environment. The learning objectives should be broad and open to many possible interpretation. If there are multiple levels of expectations (standards, skills, and morals) then these should be chosen with care to compliment each other, either through an amplifying feedback loop, or a dampening feedback loop. For example, if the unit is focused on the standard of ‘understands the physical and human characteristics of place’ then by choosing a specific skill or attitude to focus us, we can change the lens through which we view that standard. If looking at through a Knowledgable lens, it would seem to be more about remembering the places and making lists of the characteristics. But, if we look at that standard from an Empathetic lens, we are now dealing with issues of social justice and inequality. It is hard to give advice about how to do this section. It is not prescriptive, and each teacher is dealing with a different curriculum and expectations. What is useful though, is looking at these concepts and benchmarks not as items to cross off a list, but rather as characters in the grander narrative of the unit. The central idea or question, the investigation points, the standards and benchmarks, the skills and attitudes, the moral education, the essential questions, the key vocabulary; all of these are agents that are going to come into contact

A Unit Planner as an Emergent Phenomenon; C Dwyer
with the class collective, and through their interactions, Emergence may occur.

Idea Brainstorming
At this point in my planning, I sit down with my standards, benchmarks, central ideas, guiding questions (etc.), and start to come up with possible activities that we could engage with. I make a very long list of ideas and place them all in the planner. At this point, quantity is more important than quality. The list usually takes into account various learning styles, differentiation needs and so forth. Another method that works for this step is group idea collaboration. Sitting down with a team of colleagues and coming up with a large list of ideas and engagements is a powerful tool in collective knowledge building. For a further layer of complexity (if you are interested in hearing ideas that you never imagined) try it with your students! Have them develop the list of learning engagements, and then leave it up to the you, the teacher, to put the pieces of the puzzle together. It is important to note something at this point; this list of ideas is nothing more than that, ideas. They are possibilities, but nothing is yet determined. You may gravitate to certain ideas from the onset of a unit, but by the time you get to the point where that idea would be enacted, the kids have taken the learning in a different direction, and that original great idea suddenly seems mundane or inappropriate. Having a long list of potential possibilities acts as a resource of thought, constantly on hand in case the inquiry goes in a certain direction. I would say on average (I am generalizing here) that about 10% of the original ideas make it to the final narrative.

Teaching as Orienting Occasions for Emergence
With all of this in place, we are ready to hand control over to the students and let them guide the inquiry. The teacher will obviously plan the first lesson as an introduction to the narrative (shape) of the unit, but from there out, it becomes less about the plan, and more about the play. As far as the day-to-day work goes, teaching becomes less about planning, delivering and explaining; rather is becomes about adapting,

A Unit Planner as an Emergent Phenomenon; C Dwyer
evolving and changing with the ebbs and flows of the groups understandings and interpretations. The role of the teacher, in this system, is essentially to orient attention and create occasions where Emergence might occur. Instead of walking into a classroom with an idea, walk into a classroom with five ideas and choose one based on the general mood, history, background, and current level of engagement and understanding that the group in front of you has. Or choose two, have some students working over here on this and others working over there on that. Or three. Or, do something completely different that you had never thought of before. Let the students feed the ideas and you adapt it to your overall narrative and its learning outcomes. There are many ways to inquire, and no one way is correct. As a general rule for myself, I never plan anything more than one day in advance. The story and the learning objectives are working in tandem with the students curiosity, questions and understandings; and together they are forming the shape of the unit. While being mindfully aware of how the collective is operating and understanding the content (as well as interpreting the content), some great ideas can arise that were not possible before, and many of the ideas on the initial list are usually replaced with ones that emerged out of student led learning. With the physical document of the planner, it is a powerful tool of self-reflection and gauging the narrative of the story that has passed so far. If it truly is to be a living document, it needs to be updated and interacted with daily. From the list of possibilities, I start to pull out the activities that I have actually completed and insert them into the planner. As the unit unfolds, so does the planner. They co-evolve together and they both help shape and focus of the unit. In essence, the planner itself is an Emergent phenomenon. The style of writing varies from teacher to teacher, some preferring short list-type instructions, while others are more of a past-tense narrative of what has transpired. Both should be celebrated. As the story unfolds, I write the planner in a past tense narrative, journal style. I erase original ideas if they pass by, or I insert them into the story if they were appropriate. The end result is a story of what we did, not what we had to do.

A Unit Planner as an Emergent Phenomenon; C Dwyer
An Example of Emergence and some final thoughts During a unit on natural disasters, our class conversation drifted to how people react to natural disasters in movies and television shows, and how that is very different from people who live in areas of, say, high seismic activity. One student made the comment that it was ‘like a movie poster showing an Earthquake as splitting the ground open’. I had planned to take the lesson in a different direction, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up. With the internet at my finger tips, I was able to quickly show them a variety of movie posters from the 50’s and 60’s for pulp disaster and alien films. We made a list of the characteristics of the posters, talked about the type of language and images the posters used, and even investigated how different fonts lead to different feelings. Then, we made a disaster movie poster, which required them to understand how the disaster inflicted people, and how the people were in turn psychologically affected by disasters. There is no way I could have ever planned something like that. By being mindfully aware of the complexities of the collective, great opportunities are possible. Free of structure, imagination is able to flourish, and creativity is able to thrive. The knowing, learning, and playing in the classroom are evolving forms as the collective grows in knowledge and interpretations of a given discipline/topic. In tandem, the central planning tool (the planner) is also emerging and helping to grow the learning to new and previously unimagined places. All of this calls for the teacher to be aware, not of the pedagogy of why an idea was planned, but of the pedagogy of the moment. As Einstein once said, “I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”