How might school leaders use this framework to design, launch, and work through varied iterations of their theories of change? How might teachers use this same framework to design, launch, and work through varied iterations of their curricular units and lessons? How might writers use this same framework to design, launch, and work through varied iterations of the pieces they are composing? How might makers use this same framework to design, launch, and work through varied iterations of the things they are creating?

Over the next few weeks, I plan to make my work with emergent curriculum design a bit more transparent in this space. My intention isn’t to suggest that I know how to do it and that everyone should just follow along. I have no desire to pitch you, friends. I’m eager to share my successes and more importantly, my struggles, because I truly believe that this shift is a game changer for all students and educators, and I know few others who are heading in this direction when I think about my work on the ground. I want to share what I’ve been up to in order to get a bit of validation for what seems right and some redirection where I may be heading off-course.

I’ll be honest, though: I really think I’m on to something, and it’s bigger than curriculum design. It’s cutting out all of the noise we’ve generated by making the wrong things far more complex than they needed to be. This is creating the head space, physical space, and time we need to do deeper and far more meaningful work around what matters most.

Think of all of the frameworks we employ in our efforts to:

  • Design curriculum units
  • Align curriculum units
  • Design lesson plans
  • Create mini-lessons
  • Improve instructional practices
  • Assess
  • Use data well
  • Teach the writing process
  • Strategically plan
  • Engage in action research
  • Document learning

I could go on. I’m sure you could, too. And you know where I’m going with this, anyway.

There are too many frameworks.

There are too many, and they rarely play nice with one another. What’s worse is that each framework requires us to learn a new and very complex language and then, ensure that we’re all speaking that language fluently each time we sit down to use it.

How much time and cognitive energy are we putting into understanding frameworks and the relationships between frameworks? How much time are we spending resolving the tensions between different people who use different frameworks in different ways inside of our systems?

What if one framework could be used for diverse purposes with diverse groups in diverse contexts and systems?

That’s where my work began. With that great big what if?

And this is important, because if I hadn’t considered that question, I would have dismissed emergent curriculum design entirely. It seems ethereal, when I need practical. It seems chaotic, when I need coherence. It seems experimental, when I need to control for quality.

It seems this way, but it isn’t.

The framework matters. This one is driven by design.

I’ll start unpacking it one bit at a time beginning next week, as I try to make my work with emergent curriculum clearer. I’m sure there will be opportunities to share how design and this translation of it in particular has influenced my other work in schools over the last few years.

In the mean time, think about how teachers and writers might use this same framework inside of a writing workshop or studio or makerspace in order learn and grow and produce complex and compelling work.

Think about how it’s different from the other frameworks we’ve been accumulating.

Wanna chat about this more? Come find me on Twitter or Facebook.





  1. Angela,
    Agreed here, with a Socratic (or perhaps “Deep Thought”) caveat: That the “one framework” always recognize that it is never “the” framework. That it be open to questioning itself, its efficacy, its very raison d’etre.

    I sense that’s part of your own aesthetic, so I’ll be eager to see your work here.

    You write, “It’s cutting out all of the noise we’ve generated by making the wrong things far more complex than they needed to be.” This reminds me of something I read on a blog post by Will Richardson, who was quoting Russell Ackoff talking about education and systems thinking: Education is a system where “we keep trying to do the wrong things righter, rather than doing the right things, even if at first they are wrong.” (paraphrasing here) Emergent systems require the exploration and failure that drives them in directions more appropriate to their ends…they just don’t know it until the explorers return and report, so to speak. (The computer simulation “life” was a simple, almost binary, visual exploration of this algorithm.)

    Like many on #dtk12chat, I’ve been exploring Design, design thinking, and working to develop what Nigel Cross called “designerly minded” Learners for years. You are definitely on to something, as you say. As an English teacher, my recognition of design as of the same “bloodline” as the writing process was what first drew me to it back in the mid 2000s. But it’s more than that, obviously. It’s a way of being, a way of approaching the world that attempts to put the human at the center and, of course, in learning environments, that’s exactly what we want. “I’ve been blogging and exploring this for the past year or so at and more recently, in work I was doing for an educational design consultancy,

    It’s great to have you on #dtk12chat and I hope this work expands your own learning and that of the learners with whom you work.

    Oh! and one more thing. Your use of the word “emergent”… Truly an interesting adjective here. Are you familiar with the branch of science that falls under a broad umbrella (perhaps popularized by Stephen Johnson in his book of the same name) “Emergence”? You really should read that book if you haven’t. I’ve read it a few times and I’m stunned every time.

    • Garreth,
      I am so grateful for the time you took to think about what I’m trying to do here and offer such a meaningful response. I absolutely agree, and you’re making me realize it’s important to clarify–it isn’t THE framework. It’s A framework, and my intention was to create a very simple visual that reflected how it appears to work in many contexts. I chose simple words and few moving parts with intention when I creating that image because it needs to breathe quite a bit and provide a whole lot of room for experimentation. That said, I know that others have their own translations of design, and it’s important to honor that reality and the fact that those who play with my ideas will iterate on them even more. I’ll say more about all of this in my next post, for certain. It’s important, you’re right.

      Design is a way of being. Beautifully put, and it gets at the core of what I’m sensing about its potential inside of systems and especially, inside of workshops, studios, and makerspaces (which is where my heart lives). My day to day is spent in the company of teachers who are wrestling with all of the frameworks we’ve always had while designing and accumulating more. We’re grappling with standards and testing and mandated programs and yet, we’re making strides.

      And this is a game changer.

      Emergent curriculum comes from these pioneering minds in early education.

      I’m inspired by their work, Reggio Emilia, and so much of what is coming out of the maker education movement right now. And here, you’ve pointed me in other rewarding directions. I am so glad to have connected with you, Garreth. Thank you for being so welcoming and for taking an interest in what I’m playing around with. I look forward to reading your blog later tonight, and I’m off to look up Johnson’s book. Grateful!

      • Thanks, Angela,

        I’ve spent too much time, really, over the past 5 years, conversing with designers and design thinkers on a LinkedIn group. It’s amazing to me 1) how incredibly intelligent (in the liberal/broad sense of that word) they are, 2) how much navel gazing they do in terms of the question, “what is Design Thinking?” So my response to you is not meant as a criticism, but more as an observation. I like the looser terminology you’ve used. Tim Brown, of IDEO and “Change by Design” is even simpler than his company’s model when he talks about DT: Inspiration, Iteration, Implementation. It’s really shorthand for the IDEO process, but still. So many methods and in the end, they all are attempts to offer a heuristic that best names an entirely way of existing and facing problems in an ever more complex world.

  2. I get it and took no offense. Truly! This is important to think about, and I appreciate your insight. As I said, it’s new to me, and I’m blogging it for a reason. I am hoping that those who are steps ahead will turn back a bit and help me along. Very grateful, Garreth. And I apologize for not catching this sooner. For some reason, WordPress is not notifying me of comments. Grrrr……

    • That’s a great strategy for moving yourself and the field forward. No worries on the WordPress front. I use WordPress, too, as do my students, but it is a somewhat wonky interface.

      Oh, and I dropped a word in my final sentence in the previous reply. It should read, “…an entirely HUMAN way of existing and facing problems.” I suppose I mean vs. algorithmic or mechanistic/computational way of facing problems. Maybe?

      • The teachers that I support could benefit from more human approaches to problem solving right about now, I can assure you of that. 🙂

        • I understand. For some reason, I’ve been able to sail in the same waters as my peers and not be sucked into the maelstroms of approaches to writing other than those that are Human. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I’ve always seen myself as someone who engages with the word in writerly ways, and my goal has always been to get my students to think in writerly ways (I’m riffing off Nigel Cross’s “designerly minded” phrase) rather than be perfect, “Advanced” writers. (I mean, what would that look like from a “Standards” perspective? I’m sure David Foster Wallace was an advanced writer, but then, Gertrude Stein was, too.) I believe any teacher who is capable of navigating the waters of their own discipline in the same way I’ve managed (admittedly this is in hindsight…as all biography is) would be a teacher who sees herself first as a thinker within the discipline she teaches. That is, a history teacher is a historian and has ambitions in those directions–thus, she thinks in historianly ways (believe me…I’m not this fond of adverbs…but it works).

          The possession of such a mindset frees us from the constricting (for us and our learners) belief that content transfer is the main purpose of schooling because it opens us to learning as an act of being/construction, not merely an act of consumption. Certainly, these two, being and consumption, need each other. If we do not have content in our mind and the understanding it brings, we cannot “be” in the disciplines (ie, without content of the order of operations, I cannot think correctly in mathematical ways; without a decent vocabulary, I cannot think/act in writerly ways (as well as others)). And being, aspiring to certain ends creates the relevance and thirst for content. I say this fully aware that the counter-argument out there is “content matters much less now because students can google it.” Don’t get me started there.

          Anyway, on with the learning! Thanks for the dialogue.

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