Emergence


One concept which I (surprisingly) haven’t discussed much here on Schools as Ecosystems is emergence. Something unforeseen created as the synthesis of constituent parts. A “higher-order complexity arising out of chaos in which novel, coherent structures coalesce through interactions among the diverse entities of a system” (Peggy Holman).

In perceiving a school as a complex adaptive system, we can view emergence in the manner that a school culture is formed, as one example. While school leaders play a critical role in the establishment of that culture, there is also a quality of fortuity to it, dependent on the teachers, students, parents and their many dynamic interactions.
Put a bunch of very complicated and diverse people together in a school, and something unforeseen will certainly emerge.
The question is how effectively we can manage and structure this seeming chaos to promote growth, positive adaptations, and the emergence of strong relationships and healthy interactions.

There’s many facets to this, of course, but there are three main things that stand out in my mind: the importance of leadership in establishing shared values and vision, the academic and non-academic content taught both in the classroom and in the hallways, and the physical environment created by infrastructure, furnishings, and decor.

Without those pillars in place, what may arise from a school can be insidious, a toxic culture that settles on each new group of students and teachers that arrive at its doorstep and pervades its hallways, nearly impossible to dispel.

Some may argue that the very concept of emergence entails that what inevitably emerges from any given environment is uncontrollable, patterns that are self-sustaining and without any directly attributable cause. I would agree that once something new emerges, it may be well nigh impossible to stuff it back into its Pandora’s box. But just as what kind of ecosystem ultimately emerges from a human created garden may be unforeseen, the intentional design and actions taken in laying the foundation for that garden and cultivating it have a tremendous influence on the quality and content of what emerges.

So while we may never know what exactly will emerge from any given community, we must take responsibility for creating the conditions that will most promote learning, health and well-being.

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