Emergent curriculum is a philosophy of education that focuses on students’ interests, strengths, and needs. Teachers plan lessons based on their informed observations of their students and knowledge of child development theory and practice.
This philosophy has roots in the writings of many respected scholars such as Vygotsky, Piaget, and Dewey. The premise is that learning will be maximized when students are motivated by intrinsic interests.
Unfortunately, conventional teaching objectives and practices are often defined by the teacher who needs to match externally imposed curriculum standards. These standards come from administrators and school boards.
Although well-intentioned, these individuals are far removed from the classroom and are completely void of direct contact with the students themselves.
As stated by Dewey in Experience and Education (1938),
“…The traditional scheme is, in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside. It imposes adult standards, subject-matter, and methods upon those who are only growing slowly toward maturity” (p. 5-6).
Emergent Curriculum Definition and Meaning
An emergent curriculum is a pedagogical approach that adapts to the unique needs and interests of the students, rather than adhering to a strict, pre-determined syllabus.
It is based on the principle that children learn most effectively when they are actively engaged in experiences that are meaningful and relatable to their own lives.
In this method, the educator closely observes the students and creates a curriculum that evolves from their observations and responses to the students’ inquiries and fascinations.
This approach prioritizes student-centered learning and fosters creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking skills. It allows for a more organic and dynamic learning experience, rather than a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach.
Emergent Curriculum Examples
- Mr. Mike takes notes when his preschoolers are on the playground so he can see what kind of imaginative play they display that he can transform into a learning activity.
- Haily takes photos of her students during playtime to put in their portfolios, along with notes on what they were doing. This helps her remember their interests and lets the parents know more about what their children do at school.
- Every Friday, the teacher of a third-grade class guides the students through a review of what they did that week. She gives each student that can think of one thing they learned a small reward.
- Emily brought a cricket in a glass jar to school one day. Her classmates were fascinated. The teacher then let the kids draw pictures of the cricket so they would notice the finer details of its body structure.
- At the end of each week, Mrs. Arman examines her notes and photos to determine if each child is spending free play time in a variety of learning centers or only just one.
- Teachers at this new school purchased very few decorations and materials for learning centers because they want the content to be driven by the students.
- Little Timmy is obsessed with cheetahs because they run so fast. So, his teacher found a book about cheetahs and showed him how to use a stopwatch. Soon, all the students were timing how fast they can run using the stopwatch.
- Jasmine is very attuned to her students’ emotional intelligence (EQ). She makes a note of which students have more conflicts and then gives them direct support and guidance.
- Teacher James shows photos of assorted objects, landscapes, and people, and then encourages students to say whatever comes to mind. It’s a kind of stream-of-consciousness activity so he can understand them better.
- Several students in this kindergarten class took boat rides together over the holiday. So, the teacher provided assorted materials for them to construct their own boats and write stories.
1. Nature Walk and Nests
Emergent curriculum allows students to direct instruction. Although not always purposively, students sometimes determine what they learn by spontaneously displaying an interest in a subject or phenomenon they encounter. The observant teacher will capitalize on this opportunity and follow through with an activity that helps the child explore that interest further.
For example, while taking students on a nature walk in a nearby wooded park, the students might discover a fallen bird’s nest. Of course, they are going to be tremendously excited about this treasure.
That could lead to the students collecting twigs and leaves, and returning to the classroom to construct their own bird’s nests incorporating other classroom materials such as twine.
The next day the teacher might read a book about birds, or let them explore a book that contains colorful photos of bird varieties. Students could start a bird-watching observation log or design posters that describe the parts of bird, what they eat, lifespan, and where they live.
The idea is to extend the students’ initial interest into other learning domains.
2. Parent Participation
Emergent curriculum places a special emphasis on parental involvement. Teachers want to understand the whole child, and understanding their family environment is essential to this goal. By involving parents in school activities, teachers can learn a lot about each student, which may lead to some lesson ideas that build around that information.
There are several ways to increase parent participation:
- Culture Festivals: if the school has a culture fair, be sure to invite parents of different racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds to bring food native to their backgrounds. They can also supply music or dress in traditional clothing for the event.
- Training: in addition to teacher training, schools can offer special training workshops or seminars for parents. A simple survey of parent interests can help guide topic selection.
- Guest Speakers: a lot of schools like to bring in different professionals to talk about their careers. Of course, parents can be considered for this event as well.
- Parent Feedback: everyone likes to have their opinion respected.
3. Student-Centered Learning: Provocations
Emergent curriculum is student-centered. Lessons and activities are guided by the interests of the students themselves. For example, teachers at a primary school in Australia implement an emergent activity using “provocations” that allow students to explore their own interests.
First, teachers write learning tasks on cards, called Provocations. Those cards are placed on a bulletin board that students then peruse and select one that interests them the most.
Students then work alone or individually to complete the task at specially designed learning centers. When finished, students document their experience in a Learning Journey book.
This book gives the teacher an opportunity to discuss the experience with each student individually. Key concepts can be highlighted, and the student can reflect on their experience as well.
This form of emergent learning helps students develop a sense of autonomy and responsibility for learning.
4. The Essential Role of Documentation
Perhaps in no other educational philosophy is documentation more important than with the emergent approach. It plays a vital role for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, careful observation of children while immersed in learning or play allows for their innate interests to surface. Documenting those revelations ensures that teachers will remember those vital insights.
This application of documenting action as it happens can take the form of video recording, tape recording, or paper and pencil note-taking.
Documentation at the end of the learning experience is also emphasized. It is important that students have an opportunity to reflect on their experience. They can build confidence by seeing their progress or consider alternative actions if given a similar project in the future.
Teachers can construct student portfolios and journals by printing photos of students or including their classwork in a binder. In the internet age, these items can be converted to a digital format and placed on the internet to enable student or parent access.
Here’s one teacher’s efforts at creating digital portfolios for her lucky students.
5. A Goldfish and Environmental Awareness
One day, Mrs. Putnam brought a goldfish to her preschool class. The children were instantly enthused. They began to describe its color, its large fins, and its movements. She carried the goldfish around the room so that each child could get a closer look.
She placed the goldfish on a table and over the next few days took notes on their comments, took photos of them gazing with joy and interest, and placed a tape recorder next to the bowl.
She then created a documentation panel for the wall. It included a photo of the fishbowl as it became dirty, and placed the question about how to get the poop out of the water.
Eventually, they changed the water, but Mrs. Putnam forgot to let the water sit overnight so the chlorine would evaporate. Soon afterward, the goldfish died.
This sparked many questions about water pollution, the Earth, farmland and life and death. Mrs. Putnam created a second documentary panel.
“In this case the children’s interest in the life and death of a gold-fish enabled the teacher to arouse their concern for the well-being of the environment and to help the children think and act in ecologically sound ways” (Lewin-Benham, 2006, p. 7).
1. Student Engagement
A central tenet of the emergent curriculum philosophy is that it is student-directed.
Although the students don’t always specify their objectives (i.e. by describing their goal behaviors), teachers carefully observe their students and discover their interests in an exploratory manner.
Teachers then build lessons and activities around those interests. This means that students are intrinsically interested in the subject. When that happens, student engagement is maximized and deeper learning is accomplished.
Emergent instructional approaches are more flexible and adaptive than traditional approaches.
Because the teacher cannot predict which student interests will be revealed from day to day, it means the curriculum is constantly changing.
This gives teachers an opportunity to develop lessons more spontaneously. Many teachers enjoy this flexibility and the opportunity to develop curriculum that is constantly evolving.
Emergent curriculum tends to be far more creative and innovative than traditional instruction.
After all, the students often generate the ideas to learn about, and kids can be some of the most creative forces in nature.
This means that teachers need to be very skilled at responding to that creativity. When successful, this results in lessons and activities that are highly innovative and unique. This is a creative aspect of curriculum development that many students truly enjoy.
1. Not Tied to Curriculum Standards
States and district school boards have set curriculum standards for a reason.
They have studied the educational needs of students throughout the k-12 system and understand what children need to know.
Because emergent curriculum is in a constant state of flux, and because testing methods are unconventional, there is no way to confidently gauge if students are making academic progress.
2. Lacks Structure
Not all teachers like the lack of structure. They can struggle with not having a clear set of outcomes to strive for.
They prefer more clearly defined goals and the confidence that comes from using tried and true methods.
Similarly, some parents find the lack of structure at the kindergarten level uncomfortable. They prefer to know that their children are going to graduate fully prepared for primary school and the structure that is often part of each and every school day.
3. Teacher Challenges
Creating new lessons and activities, and preparing the necessary materials is incredibly time-consuming.
In addition, because a teacher is basing those plans on the spontaneous display of student interests, teachers must engage in a constant state of development.
Lesson materials from more conventional approaches can be used year after year with only slight adjustments. This is far less likely to happen in a school that adheres to the emergent philosophy. Some teachers find these demands overwhelming.
Emergent curriculum is student-centered. It relies on the students to guide instructional objectives and activities. Teachers make careful observations of students by taking notes, photos, and even recordings of their comments.
That data is then used to guide the development of learning activities.
Because learning will be maximized when student engagement is high, the emergent philosophy can be very effective. The curriculum is often quite creative, just as are the minds of the students.
There are also drawbacks. Because the curriculum is spontaneous, it does not conform to state standards. Because the curriculum is always changing, teachers must devote incredible amounts of time developing lessons and activities.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Toronto: Collier-MacMillan Canada Ltd.
Flynn, E. E. (2018). Ideas in dialogue: Leveraging the power of child-led storytelling in the multicultural preschool classroom. Language in Society, 47(4), 601-633.
Jones, E. (2012). The emergence of emergent curriculum. Young Children, 67(2), 66-68.
Jones, L. (2007). The student-centered classroom. Cambridge University Press.
Lewin-Benham, A. (2006). One teacher, 20 preschoolers, and a goldfish: Environmental awareness, emergent curriculum, and documentation. Beyond the Journal, Young Children on the Web, March, 1–7. Retrieved from https://ocw.umb.edu/early-education-development/echd-440-640-eec-language-and-literacy-course/learning-module-1/module-10/LewinBTJ%20Goldfish.pdf
Paley, V. (1998). On listening to what the children say. Harvard Educational Review, 56(2), 122-133.