Emergent curriculum at the Natural Learning School
By Kandra Kolehmainen
When I went to school as a young girl, educational options were very limited. In fact, in the small Iowa town where I lived there was only one option – traditional. My school was like most: teacher led, children in desks, textbooks, and a state approved curriculum. Many communities did offer a variety of traditional schools, but the truth is, for most of us alternative schooling did not exist. But now many education options are available, each with its own set of ideals, precepts, and vocabulary. Philosophies such as Montessori, Reggio, Waldorf, and Classical education have become accepted and very well known. But much of their terminology is not. At the Natural Learning School we embrace the Reggio philosophy as well as the ideals that govern it.
The Reggio philosophy is punctuated with terms such as learner led, project based, webbing, facilitator, and emergent curriculum. One of the most central and least understood precepts of the Reggio philosophy is emergent curriculum.
Curriculum is defined as “the courses offered by an educational institution.” Courses and lessons are designed to teach students specific information in a specific order and usually on a specific day. Curriculum is designed to teach an entire class the same information in adherence with state requirements but with no regard for an individual student’s actual skill level.
An emergent curriculum is a curriculum that is not planned in advance but rather emerges from what is happening in and around the classroom. Ideas come from many places such as classroom resources, research (books, experiences, and computer), teacher interests, family or friends of students, local or world events, classroom discussions, school events, student conversations, and the interests of the students themselves. As interests form and new ideas are discovered, the curriculum changes to fit students’ interests as well as necessary academic skills.
In fact, emergent curriculum is tailored to fit each individual student. Interests that develop out of the classroom experience and turn into projects may involve all students, a small group, or an individual child. Students follow their individual interests and participate in projects at a pace that works with their skill level, not with outside arbitrary standards that may or may not fit the child.
Emergent curriculum is a living thing that constantly changes as new discoveries are made.
Although it is free flowing, it is in no way a free for all. Reggio teachers and the classroom environment must be incredibly organized in order to respect the child’s need to explore according to his own timeline. Teachers must be very flexible and willing to let learning happen when the child is ready and in the way that works best for the child. Projects that develop out of the classroom are webbed (a spider web-like flow diagram) to show all of the possible directions in which the project may go, along with skills to be learned at each step. The Reggio teacher must reevaluate daily where the project is taking the students and what adjustments need to be made for available resources and future activities.
For example, at the elementary school a discussion over the course of a month went from storms, to lightning, to electricity, to energy, and then to atoms. A planned experiment regarding the effect of temperature on atoms turned into an exercise in the importance of eliminating variables. The atom discussion was put on hold while the experiential learning of the day took center stage. Follow up discussions cemented the children’s learning. The teachers then made resource and planning adjustments to support the change of direction. It was emergent curriculum in action, and all students gained amazing understanding from being allowed to follow their natural course of learning.
Even though the students’ interests are of utmost importance in a Reggio school, not all interests are followed. Projects and individual interests that are explored in the classroom must have both value and depth in order to stimulate children’s critical thinking skills. Children learn by making connections; by applying existing knowledge to new situations. In depth studies are full of opportunities to develop new connections. Those interests that do not have critical thinking value and depth are not forgotten. Instead, children are encouraged to research these interests at home and report back to the class (a lack of homework at the Natural Learning School gives the child time to research at home). In reporting back, interests may be piqued, new ideas may form, and a new project may emerge. Teachers will plan for it, and students will learn through it. Through emergent curriculum children learn in an exciting and interesting way that stimulates a life-long love of learning.