Community Gabfest: Emergent curriculum

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On September 21, 2023 AlphaPlus hosted our tenth Community Gabfest.

The theme was Emergent Curriculum

We used a Jamboard to guide our conversation: Wayfinders Gabfest 10 Jamboard.

We started with these questions:

  • What does emergent curriculum mean to you?
  • How is it practiced in adult literacy programs?
  • How does an emergent curriculum approach engage and empower teachers?
  • How does an emergent curriculum approach engage and empower learners?
  • How does technology support emergent curriculum?

You can see the responses to the first question on frame 3 of the Jamboard.

We decided to start with the question posed by a participant: Can we also talk about how we understand the word ‘curriculum’?

What is curriculum?

  • I have a love hate relationship with the word curriculum because it’s really hard to know what it means. For most of us, we of default to the tangible like the materials—the actual things, the stuff. I’m trying to train myself to think about curriculum, more as a practice than the materials that they’re part of it. Maybe that’s why it’s hard, it’s more of a concept than a tangible thing. And I still don’t like it like I still can’t sit with it well. It’s the practice of teaching and facilitating learning. It’s paying attention to all dimensions, both the tangible the relational, what’s happening between learners between the teachers and the learners and the teachers and the teachers, the learning environment. It’s paying attention to everything that has to do with the practice of teaching and the experience and the practice of learning.
  • One of the instructors in a teaching program once said that the curriculum is everything. It’s the color of paint in the room. It’s the way the desks are arranged. Everything is curriculum. I must say it mystified me at the time and sometimes that idea that the design of the room is part of the curriculum mystifies me. I think what she meant was that all of those things signal to students something about what’s about to happen in that room. If the desks are in a circle, people think one thing and if the desks are in rows, they’ll think another thing. Everything is working together to create the approach. The thing with literacy learners is sometimes they’re not that experienced with all of that or if we work with people who come from different places different arrangements, might signal different things to them as well.
  • I think I’ve got a narrower view of it. I was thinking more in terms of content and topics and it includes how things are done taking field trips. I think more of the content and topics.
  • We work within the OALCF (Ontario Adult Literacy Curriculum Framework) and that’s a curriculum guideline. It’s not a curriculum. It’s a framework for how to shape your curriculum, but not what’s in the curriculum. It’s not prescriptive about an approach but the design of the guide will lead you in certain directions.

Where does pedagogy end and curriculum begin?

  • Some of what people have been describing is what I would think of as a pedagogical approach to education as opposed to a curricular approach and I wondered how the two fit together.
  • As much as the OALCF is flexible, the fact that it contains tests and is relatively prescribed with levels and level markers, it goes beyond simply an outline of a framework. It’s actually more than that, it has more teeth than that.
  • The curriculum framework is the curriculum, but then that’s where the pedagogy comes in is how we implement that or reach that or work with the learners to achieve what’s required in our own way using art the art and science of our practice.
  • I don’t think there’s ever an easy answer or an easy separation between pedagogy and curriculum. They must be actually blended together. Curriculum is the content which includes the material and the topics that you’re looking at. Pedagogy to me comes more from a philosophical, ideological way of thinking and believing and valuing about how learning should happen, how teaching should happen. But you can’t have one without the other. And then the word framework gets tossed in there. In many ways, frameworks can reduce everything to some structural thing, or they can open it up to be an expression of guiding principles with suggested content as well.
  • We say it’s the process that we use to reach the goal that we’re trying to reach.
  • Curriculum feels more like an ideal to strive to, and pedagogy is the nuts and bolts on the ground, what teaching and learning looks like in practice.
  • I think when we talk about emerging curriculum, it’s okay for us to have kind of differing ideas of what that means. The bottom line is we’re looking at how we practice facilitating learning, and all the stuff and the ways of thinking that are involved in doing that. I like the word practice more than most, because it makes sense to me, practice and stuff.

What does emergent curriculum mean to you?

  • I thought it was a curriculum for emerging low-level learners—a curriculum for emergent readers.
  • I love the word emergent. It sounds like the newest and greatest and things that are attention getting and we should study this more and use it and see how it works.
  • Developing the curriculum materials and teaching approach while actually teaching and that the curriculum has always been created based on learners’ engagement.
  • It’s like planning an event while the event is happening. It’s not so much paying attention to, “Oh, are you on your goal? Or have you reached your goal?” but it’s looking at what’s coming up for the learners, or how learners relate what’s happening in their life now or in the past, or what they’re learning now.
  • It’s more of an informal approach to participatory learning—going with the flow, where the conversation leads.
  • It is driven by learning goals but also who is in the “room”.
  • I imagine it as a curriculum created based on what comes up from learners.
  • Emergent curriculum is more ‘alive’ meaning it is created while the learning is occurring based mostly on learners’ engagement.
  • It’s what shows up in the classroom while you’re actually teaching, what’s emerging for you to think of the topics that are being brought up and the ways that you can introduce activities based on the ways that people are really engaging. It’s paying attention to how you’re seeing learners actually make meaning when they’re in the class with you. What I’m saying is that you are never fully planned as a teacher. The other way to look at it, you’ve always got to be adapting and trying to stay what just one step ahead. Not a whole lot. Just one is another kind of a way to think about emerging is just a good way to teach, I guess. Hope that makes sense.

We settled on the idea that emergent curriculum is based on the principle that people learn most effectively when they are actively engaged in experiences that are meaningful and relatable to their own lives—when the curriculum accounts for their interests, strengths, needs, and lived realities.

And then a participant asked, “Does emergent curriculum require experiential learning?”

  • I was wondering is how aware is the learner of the fact that the curriculum is emerging? Are they given choices? Like are they like that, to me would be experiential. If you’re not simply in the in the back of your head as a teacher reacting in secret? Is it transparent that what the learner was presenting that day is shaping what’s going to happen that day and that becomes more experiential, where they know they can influence what they’re going to be taught that day and how the day is going to go. That’s what I was wondering about, or is it simply on reading the room, I’m going to make a decision that I’m going to move on as a teacher.
  • I’ve always thought of experiential learning is more applied learning, learning where you teach them how the skills that you’re using, apply to various tasks that they have to do in real life.
  • I see it as learning by doing so. We’re always creating opportunities for learners to practice the things that we’re teaching in terms of basic digital literacy skills.
  • I think experiential learning is like the experience of going into the field when you’re on your practicum. I’m training to be a teacher and I’m doing my practicum where I’m doing the job compared to where I’m sitting in the classroom and listening to an instructor and I’m learning.
  • I think under the adult learning principles, experiential learning is critical to keeping learners engaged. I always say learners vote with their feet, if they don’t find what they’re doing relevant to what their lives are. We can teach the fundamental skills, but we have to show them how that applies. I think that if learners don’t see the relevance, experientially, it’s hard for them to stay motivated.

Does the teacher involved in emergent curriculum on a day-to-day basis think of it as an exercise of action research?

  • I can speak to that. I’m working on my second master’s right now, and I did a research methods class so now I think about everything as a research. I apply it in terms of always asking, “What’s happening here? Who am I not reaching?” and, “How can I adjust what I’m doing to be able to reach more people?” That voting with your feet thing really resonates because if it’s not relevant, and it’s not meaningful, you’re free to walk away. I like that way of thinking of it.
  • I can also speak to having done a participatory action research project. We partnered with the women’s shelter across the street. It was all about putting cameras in the hands of the participants and getting them to think critically about what it means to be a part of this community—thinking about the community in a larger scale, taking photos of it, but also thinking about themselves from that perspective. It was very experiential because they were learning new, practical skills in terms of the photography, but it was also emergent in that they were developing the research. I was a researcher, but they were also researchers. All the participants in a participatory action research project are also researchers It opened people’s minds to think about things in different ways and think about the world as a researcher.
  • After I teach I usually journal about what I could have done better. I watch how the students are responding and taking everything in. A journal is one way I can reflect upon what I could have done better. The students are responding and journaling honors that and keeps me accountable. I believe that my role is to give the students the tools that they need. The teaching doesn’t really begin until they are away from me when it’s time for them to use what they’ve learned. Journaling really helps to me be aware of what’s happening.

How does an emergent curriculum approach engage and empower teachers?

  • I find it absolutely invigorating. I would just lie down and give up if I had to teach the same thing in the same way over and over and over and over again. I just couldn’t do it. I feel like it’s that old saying of seeing yourself as a learner as well. Not the same kind of learner as the learners but I have to learn in order to be an effective teacher. I don’t know about the empowerment—teachers already come in with paychecks and status—but it certainly invigorates me to know that my effectiveness as an instructor highly depends on what I learn from the people who are in the class with me.
  • I see it as the teaching and learning is all bilateral. Let me learn from the learners and then we become better teachers. I took a course once they said everything that we that we say should appear somewhere in writing and everything that we write should be read aloud for the different learning styles but that people’s eyes wander and if they’re going to wander, they can wander to that poster on the wall where there’s something that they contributed and it’s very empowering for the learners they feel heard.
  • I can say that my greatest dread is for anyone to leave my group session thinking, “Well, that was a waste of time.” I think that’s my motivation to do is to explicitly address what their what their goals are and what they want to know. You always have lots of material ready to go so we can use that but as questions come up, they lead to discussions and learning and then we learn what to do with a new group, you can try those same things. I always put myself in that place of if I were at a workshop and the host just assumed that I didn’t know anything, I wouldn’t have a very good time. I would want them to first find out what I know. Before they tell me.
  • We haven’t talked about how working within an emergent curriculum approach helps you build rapport with learners and that when if you have good rapport with learners, and if they basically trust that you have their interests at heart and are always working towards furthering their interests, when things go awry, they’ll go with you. They’ll forgive you for the things that don’t work because you are in a co-creating space. I think it is something you have to work towards with each group. I think there’s work to be done around building the group, making your approach transparent so that they know what’s happening, and building trust. I think it’s there’s some relational pieces in there as well.

And we decided to stop there. This conversation gave us a lot to thing about and raised some questions for the next Gabfest.

  • How do we engage learners?
  • How do we know when they are engaged?
  • How does learner engagement inform our practice?

Thank you Gabfesters for your enthusiasm, knowledge, and camaraderie.