Complex behaviors can emerge from the interactions among the simple actions of many agents. For example, a colony of ants finds food and brings it back to the nest. Each ant wanders around until it finds food and then returns to the nest leaving chemical trail that other ants will follow. When the food supply is exhausted, an ant arriving at the former source will then go back to random wandering until a new food source is found and a new chemical pathway is established. The aggregate behavior of the colony is to find food and bring it back to the nest in what appears to be a systematic and organized way. But there is no overall planning or execution of the process. It just emerges from the much simpler behaviors of the individual ants.

A flock of geese is observed to be flying in a V pattern. One might think that the bird in front is a leader. Rather, the pattern emerges because of the actions of the individual geese. When the flock takes off and aggregates, each bird falls in place behind and to the right or left of another nearby bird. The bird in front is not a leader. Rather, it is the one who happened to be in a position where there was no other bird to fall in place behind.

Resnick, Mitchel (1994) Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
About StarLogo and emergent phenomena. Currently available versions are StarLogo TNG and StarLogo Nova. NetLogo is based on StarLogo. The website includes a large library of models. These programming environments are Microworlds for exploring emergent phenomena and the the Powerful Idea of emergence.

Emergent Curriculum

Emergence has a special status among Powerful Ideas because it guides how we organize teaching and learning in schools and other educational environments. An emergent curriculum is the environment, people, materials, and inputs that support learning in a particular domain. Such a learning environment is a Microworld, or collection of Microworlds designed to support engagement with Powerful Ideas.

The term “curriculum” generally refers to a prescriptive set of student learning outcomes and the procedures for attaining those results. With an emergent curriculum, the specific outcomes cannot be predetermined, but they are not arbitrary. For example, an emergent curriculum built around a Turtle Geometry Microworld would likely generate patterns of line drawings. It would almost certainly not result in poems or musical compositions.

Here are two examples of emergent curriculum from an elementary school classroom of the 1970s that was part of the Open Classroom Program: Main Street and Troll Village. Another, more recent example is Po-Po Village.

A paper by Mitchel Resnick and Natalie Rusk, The Use of Biological Metaphors in Thinking About Learning: Some Initial Thoughts About “Emergent Learning” discusses the topic in the context of the Computer Clubhouse Project. You can read it here.

Click here to read more about emergent curriculum.