Living In Layers – Part 10 – Emergence and Ownership

As we develop the courage to relate to others and to our intellectual worlds, we begin developing a sense of trust in allowing ourselves and our social activities to emerge. Giving up some of our perceived need to control our situations, we can open up to new possibilities and possible worlds. The notion of “emergence” comes from chaos and complexity theories with early roots in cybernetics and systems theory. In this context, patterns emerge from seemingly chaotic events. As these theories made their way from mathematics and science to the social sciences, the mathematical basis was more or less replaced with a descriptive basis for examining social and psychological phenomena. In my own investigations of classroom discourse, thematic conceptual patterns often emerge from events in classrooms. If allowed, such conceptual patterns take on a dynamic of their own and lead to more complex conceptual learning.1 In other instances, ideas emerge from children’s interactions with one another and with materials in classrooms. Although many such ideas come and go with hardly a notice from teachers, they can be encouraged. In one such case, a grade 3 girl who was examining earthworms, said, “oh, look, he’s wagging his tail!”2 It was an emergent comment in passing, but the opportunity was there to stimulate further elaboration. Although earthworms do not have tails (although they sure look like they do), further questions can prompt a variety of activities. We ask: “what do you think it means to wag his tail?”, “what does it mean when a dog or cat wags its tail?”, “what makes a tail a tail?”, or “how are tails used in different animals?” Another possibility to stimulate further activity can involve an extension into writing and art by asking children about how they can make an illustrated children’s story about “pet earthworms.”

When curricula, instruction, or any other activity in business or public service are strictly controlled, the possibility of emergent phenomena occurring and reaching fruition is unlikely. As schools move toward standardized curricula, where one can randomly pick a date in the school year and know exactly what is being taught in every school across the state or country. In such an approach, there is no room for elaboration upon emergent themes or for investigations of emergent questions. In businesses, such as WalMart thinking outside of the box is not looked upon favorably. If an employee questions a particularly policy, they are told that they should not be thinking that way. The brainwashing of employees occurs on a continual basis with the repetition of positive statements about the business and how employees need to act and think. Governments utilize the same tactics to brainwash its citizens and limit the possibility of emergence, where “control” may be lost. When legislators and others are told that they are unpatriotic or treasonous for making particular critical statements, emergence is prevented. During the McCarthy Era, when Vice President Cheney’s wife blacklisted a number of university professors for criticizing government actions, and now when the President of the United States and others criticize people for not clapping or whatever, the desire to control squashes emergence.

If we value creativity, we must allow for and value emergence, since creativity is the emergence of new perspectives, new connections, and new insights. In a world that is becoming increasingly complex, following a standardized curriculum will serve only to create a populace with limited abilities to contend with the complexities, with increases in poverty, and with a population that is more easily controlled. On the other hand, if we view education as a process of supporting emergence, we can begin to prepare students for life in a world of increasingly complex issues and concerns. In schools, children’s imaginations and curiosity lead to the emergence of fruitful new learning, discourse, and products. In the workplace and political arenas, we can allow for the same sort of opportunities to learn and produce.

In order to promote, support, and take advantage of emergence, we need to develop holarchic contexts where ownership is distributed. Children, who view their classrooms as their own, are not likely to take actions that destroy the social or physical fabric. Employees in businesses are more likely to be creative, productive, and dedicated to their work, when they feel valued and have a sense of ownership over the company’s mission and operation. A move to a more holarchic view of democracy or other political systems will not hide information from the participants, will not attempt to manipulate the beliefs of others, or will not be based upon notions of power and control. A sense of ownership in a democracy shares the power and control among participants.


1 Bloom, J. W. (2001). Discourse, cognition, and chaotic systems: An examination of students’ argument about density. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 10(4), 447-492.

2 Bloom, J. W. (1990). Contexts of meaning: Young children’s understanding of biological phe¬nom¬ena. International Journal of Science Education, 12(5), 549-561.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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