It isn’t hard to imagine how Emergent Curriculum and the Reggio Way might go hand-in-hand. Letting students determine what they learn helps them feel empowered to direct the course of their own learning. It often confuses me that there aren’t more schools out there that just bluntly ask students what they want to learn about. At the beginning of the year, my co-teacher asked the students about their educational “hopes and dreams,” then wrote down what they said. She put them in little clouds, which we hung in the classroom with their names on them. Their interests were all over the board, encompassing everything from “seasons” to “trucks and cars” to “how baskets are made.” Throughout this year, we have constructed projects, collected books, designed activities, planned field trips, and facilitated numerous group discussions based solely on the contents of those little clouds.
Working with students to negotiate a curriculum is a beautiful thing. While their investigations sometimes move in a linear path, they can also go off on far-fetched tangents that create new and unprecedented learning opportunities. What starts as an interest in trucks can lead to investigations into construction and carpentry. An interest in paint can lead to students to investigate shapes, color, and even personal identity. Free-flowing investigation is one of the cornerstones of organic learning.
Instead of “teaching” in the most traditional sense of the word, the role of the educator in an emergent learning environment centers around observing and facilitating the students. We receive inspiration from their unbridled curiosity. We bring gifts and provocations into the classroom in an effort to fan the flames of their interest or profoundly change their perspectives on things they thought they fully understood. In the perfect world, students and teachers working in an emergent way spiral deeper and deeper with each passing day, answering and asking new questions for months until a grand project culminates. In the end, maybe they take a field trip, or invite an expert guest speaker. Maybe other classes take an interest and join in their investigations. Maybe parents get involved, or even the larger community.
But the world isn’t perfect. Being able to create provocations and bring in gifts to provoke the learning of students is an invaluable skill. The ability to let learning drift and lilt in whatever direction students might choose is equally invaluable. But to me, there is a far more important skill when it comes to working in an Emergent Way: the art of letting go.
As much as we may hate to admit it, the truth is that sometimes children lose interest. Sometimes we bring in a box of truly inspired materials only to have the students give it a once over or completely ignore them. Sometimes the first student of the day eviscerates the provocation we painstakingly prepared, then moves on without giving it a second thought. Some children are blunt enough to say things along the lines of, “Well, I don’t really like that anymore.” There are occasions in which a project or an avenue of interest needs a little kick-start to help students consider it in a different light. But in my experience, a kick-start falls flat on its face just as often as it rekindles their fascination.
Children are so dynamic that the currency of their learning can change suddenly and drastically, often from day to day. What interests them one moment may not interest them in the next, or at least not in the same way. The line between keeping a project alive and wresting control of the learning journey is a very thin one.
In my opinion, the key to negotiating curricula with students is to never take their learning hostage. As adults, we want to believe that children are infinitely and universally curious. We want to believe that, given the correct circumstance and the perfect environment, they will learn about something until there is nothing more to learn. Somewhere deep in our subconscious, we push not just for them to investigate, but to comprehensively understand whatever they put their minds to. Many adults today expect children to focus and see things through to the end, as if learning were a 100-meter dash.
But learning isn’t a dash; it is a leisurely saunter through a forest with no trail markers. While it can lead to frustration in the classroom, children reserve the right to change their minds and express their preferences. It is hypocritical to let students determine their own interests and then revoke their right to choose to abandon them. Emergent curriculum is incredibly powerful precisely because it is not dogmatic; like the Reggio Way, it’s yield is the process, not the finished product. Moreover, there is immeasurable value in letting projects die. Children have a tendency to fill the void with something new, often something that sparks a new fire of curiosity. Letting new projects blossom organically from the ashes of the old is one of the best ways to keep ideas fresh and students happy. It can also be one of the greatest assets for preventing burnout in teachers.
When all is said and done, the duration of a project is not what determines its value. Especially in a natural setting, some of the most powerful investigations I have ever conducted with my students have lasted no more than a couple of days. When studying weather, animals, and plants, inspiration can be seasonal. For many students, it doesn’t make any sense to continue a project about bugs into the winter, because they will scarcely be seen for another six months.
Whether it lasts two hours or a whole year, the real worth of a project comes from the intense curiosity of the students and teachers. Positive emotions and a strong sense of agency are what making learning stick in the minds of young learners, not redundancy and repetition. When that curiosity starts to wane, it should never be viewed as a failure to keep something beautiful alive. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. By letting projects die, teachers can show their respect for their students’ understanding of their own educational needs. Children know what they want to learn, and they know far better than us when they are finished learning about it.
All we have to do is listen to them.