Emergent Curriculum: Taking Interests to the Next Realm – Cultivate rather than Follow

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. I have written about interests in an earlier blog post. I find interest-based teaching and learning to be so interesting! My interest propels me to think deeply and explore resources and ideas about interests. While some may think that interest-based education is a new concept, it is firmly rooted in the past, as great influencers of early learning have advocated for learning based on interests.

The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences. Maria Montessori

John Dewey, in his pedagogical creed felt that education must begin with interests but suggested that teachers must continually interpret meaning. In my last post I spoke of my student’s reflections on their teaching as only touching the surface and wrote about the need to be “critically reflective”. This is what, I believe, John Dewey is calling for in relation to interests. Determining which interests will be cultivated in the classroom requires deep thinking.

In sum, I believe that the individual who is to be educated is a social individual and that society is an organic union of individuals. If we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass. Education, therefore, must begin with a psychological insight into the child’s capacities, interests, and habits. It must be controlled at every point by reference to these same considerations. These powers, interests, and habits must be continually interpreted–we must know what they mean. They must be translated into terms of their social equivalents–into terms of what they are capable of in the way of social service. John Dewey

How do we interpret children’s interests so that there is meaningful learning as an outcome? If children like to play with cars and express an interest in cars, do we then plan activities based on the topic? Or can we begin the process of interpreting interests by providing experiences rich in the potential to elicit interest? Last week I had the pleasure of being in a forest with children and their families during the York Region Nature Collaborative’s second annual Family Adventure Walk at the magnificent and magical Kortright Centre. There were a number of forest school influenced stations set up throughout the forest and this year the pond was added where a volunteer facilitator waited for the children as they arrived ready to explore.

The Pond at Kortright

Cultivating Interests at the Pond

The pond inquiry during the Family Adventure Walk in the Forest brought back memories of my time spent with the amazing exhibit Cultivate the Scientist in Every Child: The Philosophy of Frances and David Hawkins, an educational exhibit created by Hawkins Centers of Learning, before the Canadian edition was retired in October 2014. The big idea of eolithism involves engaging existing resources and interests as a starting point for learning experiences. This is emergent curriculum!

The Pond Study

The term emergent curriculum has been used to refer to an approach that emerges from interests. Emergent curriculum is the umbrella term that incorporates project-based learning and inquiry. Emergent curriculum does not have to involve project work, but it does by definition evolve from children’s interests. The curriculum is called emergent because it evolves, diverging along new paths as choices and connections are made, and it is always open to new possibilities that may not have been thought of during the initial planning process. Emergent curriculum has to begin somewhere and rather than making quick decisions based on children’s expressed interests or a judgement call on what their interests might be, we can cultivate interests by creating shared experiences. The teacher’s role is fundamental to the process. In the seminal book Emergent Curriculum Jones and Nimmo (1994) caution educators not to wrongly assume that everything in an emergent curriculum simply emerges from the children. Curriculum is the teacher’s responsibility not the children’s. I visit programs and talk to educators in my work. I see curriculum labelled as emergent when it is not and I hear educators speak of emergent curriculum, expressing it very simply as “following interests”. Yes, it is true that children will probably learn better if they are interested but learning should not only be interesting – it should be meaningful.  As I ponder my interest about interests and consider how best to support those I work with to go beyond interests to see emergent curriculum as much more than just about following interests, I look for support. From Australia, an e-newsletter, called Interest Based Learning: Using Interests not just Following Them is a wonderful resource to support emergent curriculum. The article speaks to expanding interests and being selective. Why not select interests based on interests that you share with children?

I, Thou, It

I, Thou, It is another big idea from the exhibit, Cultivate the Scientist in Every Child. For me, it provides inspiration for my interest in interests. If we can think of emergent curriculum as emerging from the exploration of the world and all it has to offer for discovery we can create shared interests with children. As the teacher explores and plays alongside the child, a shared interests will emerge. The “It” or shared interest creates a shared passion for learning and interest-based teaching and learning becomes both meaningful and joyful.

7 thoughts on “Emergent Curriculum: Taking Interests to the Next Realm – Cultivate rather than Follow

  1. Hi Diane
    Jones and Nimmo, was that really 1994, where has the time gone? I was one of Betty jones’ groupies back in the day. Every year while attending the NAEYC conference I ensured that I was in whatever session that Betty jones was in! Their book on emergent curriculum was my first acquisition. Isn’t it interesting that we continue to reflect on what connotes meaningful, responsive and emergent curriculum. As educators co-create curriculum with children and families we need to be mindful of our collective interests and understandings.
    A few posts ago Diane you wrote about observing what children are doing during their play “focus on the verb/actions not the noun/thing”. Chris Athey in the UK was researching and writing about schema play around the same time jones and nimmo were introducing us to emergent curriculum. YES, it’s not just children’s interests that can propel curriculum. Go deeper, as educators we are integral to eliciting and supporting the children as they learn to learn through play and inquiry.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate the discussion on the sources of “emergent” curriculum, as many think that the role of the teacher is to sit and wait for interests to emerge. Sometimes a topic of inquiry come from the children; whereas the teacher too has a role in proposing investigations that honor inquiry and the pedagogical values of the centre. The way that the investigation is taken is pivotal in capturing children’s voices, meaning making and the web of personal relationships. The source of the interest then can become less important than the collaborative co-constructions amongst children and teacher that the process engenders.

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  3. Pingback: Below the Surface there is so Much More: The Early Learning Programming Cycle | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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  6. Hi. Just wanted to let you know that the link to the Australian newsletter no longer works. I was curious to read it. Let me know if there is an updated link. Thanks!!


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