An Emergent Curriculum


Dogme seems to be in the blogs again lately, which is always a good thing :) .  One of dogme’s primary focuses is emergent language from which naturally stems the idea of an emergent curriculum. What is this and how does it differ from a general curriculum model?

Well, one of the biggest differences is that an emergent curriculum is in an ongoing process of modification whereas most other curriculums are pre-planned or static with varying degrees of flexibility.

If you don’t plan it, how does it work? Well here is how I do mine.

An emergent curriculum starts and ends with the students and the classroom. Think of it like an ongoing needs analysis.

I usually separate it into interests and then 3 kinds of needs.


The most motivating lessons will be ones students feel personally connected to. If most students have pets, create a lesson around pets. This can simply be an open discussion about people’s pets with the language built as the lesson progresses or it could be a fully planned out lesson with other aims included.

This easily combines with the needs below. Maybe most students are considering universities at this point in their lives and they are constantly having problems with the infinitive of purpose. So you can get a discussion going on the reasons for choosing one university over another or choosing one field of study over another. Or maybe they could use some computing language so you can combine it with computing by having them research university websites in English and then report back on them.

Three kinds of needs:

1) Needs that arise from the classroom

Teachers are with their students several hours a week for a period of at least a month or two on average. In public schools, teachers have students for an entire year. This allows teachers to become aware of problems simply by participating in the class. For me, this is the most common way in which I plan my lessons.

In the class it becomes very clear what the students can and can’t do. One day you walk into your elementary class and ask about a new item a student has bought. You find that the student in question along with the rest of the class is struggling to talk about and ask questions in the past. Well, now you know you should focus on this in this lesson and future ones. This goes for anything. Maybe they show a lack of vocabulary knowledge about education when you have a discussion about the state of education in the country or you find from students’ emails that they can’t use transitions well. It’s quite easy to spot student weaknesses and this is the primary material that you can use to organize your curriculum around.

In a regular syllabus you might do past tense tomorrow because it’s next on the schedule when, in fact, your students aren’t ready for it or maybe even already know it. With an emergent syllabus you’d do past tense because your students haven’t seen it and need it to get across something they are trying to talk about or because you see they are still struggling with it.   As another example, maybe your teenage class wants to talk about problems important to them and you noticed they have weak writing skills.  In an emergent syllabus, you could do the classic lesson on writing to an agony aunt.  It allows them to discuss their problems and gets some much needed writing practice in.

2) “Universal” or Generic needs:

These are the things most students will need in their lifetime. In this category I generally include things like Internet and computing skills in English, holding a conversation, color vocabulary, social justice issues, talking about oneself, being able to understand instructions, etc. While a student may not need these skills at the moment, we can assume that most of our students will need to know or be able do all these things in English at some point. Therefore these skills can be slotted in whenever a teacher isn’t quite sure where to go next.

3) Needs that arise from the students:

You may have business students that need to learn how to give presentations in English or students that need to be able to translate documents for their job or students that need English primarily for touristic purposes. Maybe it’s a class with specific needs like an exam class. All these needs are defined by the students and allow you to tailor the curriculum accordingly.

Of course we can’t appease all students’ needs at the same time. For this reason it’s a good idea to combine specific needs with general needs or student interests. For example, one student wants to learn how to give presentations, but no one else really needs this. Well, you can do lessons on giving presentations but ask students to do it as a “how to” on some aspect of using computers or the Internet. This way the one student gets their presentation practice and the others get the generally valuable language of computing practice. The same could be done with interests. Maybe all students present on a social issue important to them, or their job, or a historical event they find important.

Summing Up:

If you follow the guidelines above, creating a syllabus as the course goes along becomes quite easy. Even better, the students are happier because the course is being tailored to them. Students can make a very clear connection between what they are studying and why whereas with pre-planned curriculums no one really knows why they’re doing what they’re doing. Emergent curriculums also speed up or slow down when needed. It skips what the students already know or do well and focuses on weaknesses while building on strengths.

No more cramming through material because it’s there while some students are lost and the rest are bored.  An emergent syllabus isn’t about the number of pages or topics covered, it’s about the students.

All of this requires a lot of awareness of students and a lot of reflection on the part of the teacher. However, I think this actually becomes much easier than trying to force a pre-planned syllabus on students that they don’t necessarily need and may not be interested in.

What do you think about the value of an emergent curriculum over a pre-planned one? Do you think it’s appropriate to expect new teachers to be able to do this?  If you follow an emergent curriculum, do you create yours in a similar way? What’s the same? What’s different?

Related Links:

Authentic Teaching – Dogme Challenge 2 – Emergence

Emergent Curriculum with Children

Academic Article on Emergent Curricula

Emergent Curriculum Relieves Planning Stress


  • By Willy C. Cardoso, October 20, 2010 @ 6:26 pm

    It’s an interesting framework Nick!

    The idea might seem quite scary for the novice teacher (when s/he has a voice in curriculum development), since there’s a lack of research in the area it might seem unattainable, i.e. lack of evidence that an emergent curriculum can work well drives away the more pragmatic teacher, who relies on what was accomplished in the past to make present decisions. This is sort of a wrong route to emergence, which is concerned mainly about the present phenomena, in practical terms one can’t really plan more than the following lesson, that is, every lesson brings about unpredictable events that should be considered on the following one, and so on.
    It is very possible for new teachers to work on something like this once the focus of their pre-service is on increasing their awareness of everything that goes on in the lesson, some small details, learners’ reaction and attitude towards every step taken, and of course an enhanced acknowledgement of the importance of flexibility, distributed leadership and responsibility, the power of self-organization, etc. Initial teacher training cannot be simply a survival kit with ‘teaching gadgets’.

    Thanks for the links, I’ll sure take a good look at them .

  • By turklis1, October 20, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

    Hey Willy. I think the scariness really goes back to the CELTA only being a month-long. Typical 4 year degrees do focus on lot on curriculum development and most teachers have to do it in their first year (although there is often “the book” as a guide :) ).

    While emergence deals with the present, I don’t think the curriculum always has to. As a teacher, you are constantly connecting emergent phenomena to what happened in the past as well as what you expect to encounter in the future. I also wouldn’t recommend a rigid adherence to the emergent part of the curriculum. If your students need work on talking about habits in the past, then plan on lesson on it. No reason not to do it simply because it didn’t emerge in that particular class.

    However, lesson plans are never more than a loose guide of expected goals. This is where I think both 4-year programs and short CELTA courses really fail at explaining. Too many teachers are obsessed with “following the plan” who get all tied in knots when they get off the plan. And I’ve seen more than a few DoSes do the same to me in observations – “Well, you wrote 5 minutes here for practice, but it took 8.” Very silly. I like to think of plans as general outlines to be reworked on the spot as needed.

    I agree with you on the failings of pre-service training to prepare teachers for this kind of thing. However, it can be done. I just finished up with a group of trainee teachers that already started showing signs of this ability within the limited 6 hours of teaching practice. With more time, it’s definitely possible. We just need to get away from this bare minimum of gadgets as you said.

    Thanks for the comment :)

  • By David Warr, October 21, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    Hi Nick
    I’m brimming with personal anecdotes that suggest to me a pre-ordained syllabus is required first and foremost to satisfy a DOS. I have changed over time mind you, especially from when I was at school. The geography teacher once taught us how to understand the shipping forecast. “Is it in the “A” level syllabus?” I demanded. “No!? Then why are we doing it?” Years on though, I enjoy hearing “Sole, Fastnet, 3, occasionally 4, visibility good”. I just wish I had a yacht!

  • By Mike Harrison, October 21, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    Boy oh boy, do I wish the Powers That Be (I work in a publicly funded adult/further education college) could see the simplicity and common sense in this!

    Part of the requirements of working in FE (further education) is to plan what you’re doing in a scheme of work, linking it with curriculum codes to the Adult ESOL Core Curriculum (a door-stop of a book if ever there was one) and typically I do this for the term (so Autumn term, then Spring then Summer). For ease (in case of absence of teachers due to illness or whatever) this is based on government produced materials (though how much you include them is up to you) and coursebooks. I don’t like the fact, but it does make it a whole lot easier if Peter phones in sick and someone else is teaching my group on a particular day. And I always say to other teachers teaching my group that if they have a better way of covering the particular point, then go for it! I’m planning to include a session a week which will just be for skills practice and dealing with any particular issues that crop up, either for individuals or the whole group.

    Cheers for the inspiration, Nick. =)

  • By turklis1, October 21, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    Hi David, yeah, for sure the DoS or administration is the primary reason. When I eliminated course books at my branch, the biggest complaint I got from the academic director was “how would we maintain consistency and make sure the teachers are on track.”

    1) No two classes should ever really be the same.
    2) Hire good teachers and trust them. The fact that you think you have to force them to do their job and constantly check up on them is in itself one of the biggest problems at most schools.

    Man, wish I learned yachting at school (no I don’t) :)

  • By turklis1, October 21, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    Hey Mike, is it simple though, isn’t it? Interesting how people make it out to be too difficult sometimes.

    As far as core curriculums go, I think having a list of things students should be able to do by the end of a course or semester is good to have to help guide teachers if they’re lost. However, I don’t think that curriculum should be obligatory or that it should be detailed out to the point of what needs to be done when. Often the assumption is, “well, the students get it or they don’t” rather than, “let’s help them where they are at and with what they actually want to learn”

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