By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. Expertise on emergent curriculum is difficult to attain. It is like a utopian position that can never be realized. Learning about emergent curriculum is ongoing. I remind myself often that I will never get to the point in my professional career where I can say that I have reached the top and can stop. In 2007 I successfully defended my doctoral thesis on emergent curriculum. Utilizing a case study methodology, data was collected through interviews, a focus group, and classroom observations of four early childhood educators at various stages of their journeys. Through an analysis of the data collected, results indicated that emergent curriculum not only changed the daily practice of these teachers but had a profound impact on how they viewed themselves. They had a fuller view, as if from the top of a mountain. I used the mountain metaphor to frame my dissertation and called it “Reaching the top of the mountain: The impact of emergent curriculum on the practice and self-image of early childhood educators”.
I vividly remember the day I defended my dissertation. I remember when the external reviewer by way of a phone on speaker placed in the middle of the table questioned my use of the mountain metaphor suggesting that I had not fully explored it’s potential. I am still reflecting on this metaphor and I am still coming to terms with terms. What does emergent curriculum even mean? Emergent curriculum still fascinates and challenges me as a term and as a practice. The process of the research and the commitment to incorporate emergent currciulum in my own practice over the years has had an enduring impact. Releasing control and sharing power with others is something that I have struggled with in my teaching. I am accountable for outcomes but I want the learning experience to emerge. Emergent curriculum involves leading the learner to new levels of thinking, scaffolding across zones of proximal development. It is a leadership position. Teachers can frame the experience based on the learners interest related to desired outcomes. It is a process that never stops. Yet, I take pause to reflect and find it interesting to look back at how I conceptualized the stages of emergent curriculum in 2007 as inspired by Lillian Katz’s stages of teacher development.
My own story and the stories of the four teachers in my study, individually and as a group, depicted the empowering potential of emergent curriculum. It empowers the learners to teach and the teachers to learn. It is a balancing act. The more I do it the more confident I become but only in my context which does not involve working directly with children. I don’t consider myself an expert. I have been emerging with emergent curriculum. It is a process pedagogy that evolves. It requires continuous reflection and research. It involves a cycle of inquiry. Inquiry is fluid and recursive – it requires repeated application. With repeated application, and more research, I am learning to teach. I learn from others who are also trying to make sense of emergent curriclum in theory and practice. Susan Stacey’s work helps me to reflect on the process.
I am inquiring about emergent curriculum. I am in a cycle of inquiry. I am inquiring about inquiry! Emergent curriculum is inquiry. There are more questions than answers. It requires an inquiry stance. I continue to question and lately my inquiries are related to forest and nature school learning. I found an article recently that has been really helpful. I am forever indebted to Elizabeth Jones and John Nimmo for the emergence of emergent curriculum and I am grateful to Marlene Power of Forest School Canada for recently inviting me to spend two days at the Forest School Practitioners Course at Lake St. George.
I love Lake St. George. It is in my neighbourhood and very close to home. I love the history of this beautiful site and I am pleased that I was able, through my work with the York Region Nature Collaborative help bring the practitioners course to Lake St. George. As I learn more about forest and nature school and experience learning outdoors both as a teacher and a learner my thoughts become clearer about emergent curriculum and my understanding deepens. More than ever, I am convinced that emergent curriculum empowers. Forest and nature schools take place in a variety of spaces, including forests creeks, meadows, prairie grasses, mountains, shorelines, tundra, natural playgrounds, and outdoor classrooms. This expansive definition appears in Forest School Canada’s Manual which also lists the principles of forest and nature school. When we were in the forest Marlene and the facilitators gave us these principles and in pairs, asked us to teach the others in two minutes. By coincidence, my partner and I received the one listed last.
Forest and Nature School …
- is a long-term process of regular and repeated sessions in the same natural space.
- is rooted in building an on-going relationship to place and on principles of place based education.
- is rooted in and supports building engaged, healthy, vibrant, and diverse communities.
- aims to promote the holistic development of children and youth.
- views children and youth as competent and capable learners.
- supports children and youth, with a supportive and knowledgeable educator, to identify, co-manage and navigate risk. Opportunities to experience risk is seen as an integral part of learning and healthy development.
- requires qualified Forest and Nature School practitioners who are rooted in and committed to FNS pedagogical theory and practical skills.
- requires that educators play the role of facilitator rather than expert.
- uses loose, natural materials to support open-ended experiences.
- values the process is as valued as the outcome.
- requires that educators utilize emergent, experiential, inquiry-based, play-based, and place-based learning approaches.
What a difference a year makes! I spent five days in the forest last year learning about forest and nature school. At that time, I was tentative and quiet. I was outside of my comfort zone and overwhelmed. Since then I have spent many hours in the forest, with children, with families, with educators and by myself. I have read, discussed and participated in active learning with others. This time I spent two days learning in the forest. The practitioners had three more days to make the links between emergent curriculum and forest school principles. They will have many months following to reflect and research and apply to practice. For me the experience was very powerful. I am grateful to Marlene for asking me to speak about emergent curriculum to the group. She introduced me as both a champion of emergent curriculum and forest and nature school learning. Again, I am grateful to Marlene for helping me see myself this way in the forest and on that metaphorical mountain. I am not an expert. I am a champion. I speak from this stance with confidence. When members of the group asked me questions, I smiled because I have asked those same question myself over and over. How does forest and nature school learning relate to Reggio inspired practice? What is the difference between emergent curriculum and inquiry? The practitioners will find their answers and so many more questions as they begin or continue their journey in their own contexts. Emergent curriculum is a pedagogy of infinite empowering possibilities. By embracing the transformational possibilities inherent in a curriculum that emerges, educators can emerge from the valley and assume a place on the peak of a mountain but only to return to the valley of cognitive dissonance with the next challenge and the next question. It is an amazing journey of forested peaks and valleys. I wish them well.