Nature Emerges…naturally. Does learning?

This post is my response to Karenne Sylvester’s second Dogme Blog Challenge: It’s Emergent?. The first challenge was about Co-construction of Learning, and you can read my response to it here.

Nature emerges... naturally. Does learning?


I’ve been struggling with writing this post for some days now. I know very little about Dogme, and there’s been so much discussion on the topic in the past few weeks! (If you haven’t seen it, a good – maybe intimidating – and informative start would be Jeremy Harmer’s latest post with the 190 comments – as I write this – that it ensued). So what could I possibly add to it?

The only thing I can offer are my musings. How I relate to all that I read about it, how I can relate my experience as a teacher – and a learner – to it. And as I do that I wonder… does my learning about dogme become emergent? What is emergent learning after all? Well, I think I know what learning is (let us hope, for the sake of my students ;-)), so I will focus on emergent. Many definitions for it can be found, and so I did (after a quick search on the web and dictionaries). But the ones that caught my attention were coming into view or notice” , coming into existence, esp. with political independence” – political independence…hmmm… interesting… – , arising casually or unexpectedlyand finally, the pièce de résistance: “Evolution”. When I put those definitions together with learning, what do I get?


Learning that was not planned for by the teacher; that begins in the student, because he wants to learn about something. The wanting is key here. Wanting brings motivation into the picture. And there is no denying at the role motivation plays in effective learning. Can I say that the political independence on the second definition refers to the student’s independence from the teacher? I believe I can. In this case, emergent learning arises from the student independently of the teacher’s agenda. What is the role of the teacher in this whole independence scenario? The one of a facilitator. The teacher then is the one who identifies/sees this emerging (possibility of) learning and uses it, guides the student into accomplishing that learning. Now, I really like this, because it resonates what I believe to be the role of a good teacher these days: a facilitator, one who knows the way to learning better, more ways to get there (to adjust to each student’s peculiarities). Definitely not one who possesses all knowledge and will “feed it” to the student. So, and please correct me if I’m wrong, emergent learning is taking into consideration the student’s needs and interests and transform them into teaching opportunities, so that learning becomes more meaningful – therefore more motivating and effective – for the learner. Using the learner’s own input to help them evolve in the use of the language being taught (and here is the evolution part!). Does that sound about right? I’m going to go along and say it does.


Having solved that riddle, another one pops up: does learning emerge naturally? I believe it does. If the desire for learning something is there and the student finds the appropriate tools for it, learning will come naturally. These tools may exist already but it  may also be crafted by the teacher and/or the student. Now, is dogme = emergent learning? From where I stand (several steps behind so many people I’ve read recently) it proposes a much more student emergent learning, where the teacher is driven by the student’s interests, not bound by pre-determined, one-size-fits-all syllabus. My question here is: how really feasible is this? I can see it easily enough in 1:1 lessons, in smaller homogeneous groups of people with same interests and objectives, for students who are motivated. But when you think about large classes, with student with a wide array of interests, ages, professions, etc… , teenage students who have no idea of why they are in your classroom (other than being put there by their parents)…Well, I’m not so sure.



 “If learners are supplied with optimal conditions for language use, and are motivated to take advantage of these opportunities, their inherent learning capacities will be activated, and language – rather than being acquired – will emerge.”




This is the quote Karenne posted as the core of this second challenge. When I teach, this is what I aim to do (as most of the teachers I know do too): provide optimal conditions for learning to take place, motivate students to do it, activate their inherent learning capabilities. Yes, I believe all humans have an inherent capacity to learn, but not all have that capacity for the specific learning of languages. The capacity is there for communicating, but verbal language (which is the one we refer to) is not the only means of communicating effectively, and I have come across some students who worked hard, tried different approaches, different languages and still couldn’t assimilate language enough to be effective communicators (they usually do poorly on their mother tongue as well). On the other hand I’ve had students who seem to smoothly sail through the learning of a new language. I remember one particular student who came to me in a rather fluent group. After talking to him in the end of the first class I found out it was the first time he was studying English (in a formal setting). that everything he knew he had picked up by playing RPG games online, listening to music and reading about games and his favorite bands online (hail to the internet!). Self-made. A perfect example of emergent learning? Probably. We have to admit learners like this are out there, but they’re hardly your average student – more like the exceptions, really.




Using the students’ input, interests and activating those inherent capabilities certainly make for more interactive, motivating and effective learning. Knowing which button to press for those inherent capabilities to become activated is the one million dollar question… But we try and experiment and discover one button at a time. And each button is a victory. I live for those small (?!?) victories.

Easy??? I don't think so.


Other posts on the Dogme Blog Challenge #2 you might enjoy reading:

Mike Harrison’s – Sometimes a Prop is Really the Best Thing

Sabrina’s – Fear of the Unknown!

Willy C. Cardoso – Dogme Challenge #2 – Emergence

8 comments on “Nature Emerges…naturally. Does learning?

  1. sabridv says:

    Dear Cecilia. I have to admit that we see eye to eye on this one too. We have more or less got to the same conclusion. I have written something similar in my own answer to the challenge
    I think that students have to be very motivated and willing to learn to take such an active role in our classes. And it is even more difficult with teenagers. With this age group it would be more difficult to overcome their resistence to a “dogme style” class. Of course, this wouldn’t be the case with all the groups of teenagers but, when they are set against something it is extremely difficult to make them change their mind. Apart from that, some of them may be very shy and they may not like to take such an active role in class. They may feel too exposed (precisely what they are trying to avoid). What do you think? How can we solve this problem? Looking forward to your reflections.

    • Hi Sabrina,

      Sorry it took me ages to reply to your comment. Yes, we see eye to eye. The issue of some teenagers being reluctant to “dogme style” classes is a reality for me, and maybe that is because they come from such traditional teaching environments – at least here. Some learners jump at the opportunity of “different” classes, at having a say at what they’re going to learn, at taking a more active role. Other are very skeptical and fearful of it. but if we believe in it and see the benefits such classes can bring to their learning process we have to try and make it work. And to avoid their shying away and retreating to their shells we should take baby steps. Using it in short activities at first, not really putting all students on the spotlight at once, being subtle about it. Maybe a warmer here, an error correction there, a listening another time… What I believe is essential to getting them to accept it and see the benefits of this approach themsleves is to get some feedback, reflect a bit about the activity at the end of the class, deal with whatever difficulties or negative feelings they had towards it. I don’t know… just thinking out loud here 😉

      I had an interesting experience last week when doing the Interactive Whiteboard Wandrous Challenge proposed by Jason. I did it in 4 groups of about the same level. It worked really well on 3 of them, and not so well on the fourth. And the students were very clear as to not enjoying such activities, despite their understanding of objectives and what they were getting from it. They said they like a more “structured” class – meaning coursebook based. It’s not a bad thing – at least they are reflecting upon their learning process and deciding how they want to learn. I haven’t completely given up though 😉

      I just had an experience

  2. […] 2 Fear of the unknown! by Sabrina De Vita, Nature emerges naturally … does learning? by Cecilia […]

  3. […] Cecilia Coelho […]

  4. […] Cecília Coelho – Nature emerges…naturally. Does Language? […]

  5. […] reading two recent complimentary posts by Henrick on Doing some thinking and Cecilia’s Box of Chocolates about the organic nature of language and learning. What tipped the balance and has inspired me to […]

  6. I really like that you focused on the dictionary definition of emergence as something coming into view or notice and I think that for me is the core – that with arising casually or unexpectedly.

    That’s the trick isn’t it, turning that which has been absorbed passively into active and productive language.

    You have asked how feasible it is and I think that is one of the greatest challenges, setting up the scenarios for our students to have these casual moments of using the language they’ve been exposed to and yet, also finding out what the gaps in their knowledge is.

    I wonder about the large classes debate because I think it goes with the idea that all students should all be on the “same page” or doing the same thing at the same time, an idea that I think isn’t actually necessary. Large groups can be broken down into smaller ones and they can be doing their own ‘thang’ during that time….

    I loved your story of a student picking up his language by playing games online and music – sometimes we forget how much this rich media is giving to our students and we should encourage this practice as much as possible.


    • Hi Karenne,

      I guess you can say I have a thing for dictionary definitions… I like to know the origin. I actually read a lot of definitions for scaffolding and affordances too before writing for the third challenge, considered using it on the post but then thought it would be too repetitive. Maybe I do this because i just want to make sure I really understand what things mean (blame it on the NNest insecurity syndrome ;-)).

      I agree with you (in theory) that students don’t necessarily have to be on the same page, doing the same thing at the same time, but I find that extremely hard to apply in my situation and time may be the problem. See, I only have my students twice a week, for 1h15m at a time (I consider 1h really, because not everyone gets there on time, sometimes they’re resteless and take some time to settle down and focus, etc) and have an extensive syllabus to cover each semester – many times a coursebook. So time becomes an issue for me – having a class where students do their own thing demands more time, and especially a more flexible syllabus. We have to stick to it (even to the cronological order it’s determined) because students have to be able to change groups/teachers throughout the semester (which sometimes they have to do because of schedule clashes with other activities, personal reasons, etc). Breaking larger groups in smaller groups may work, but depending on how large we are talking about, because the more groups a teacher has in a classroom the more challenging it is to monitor and scaffold all of them at the same time.

      As for the student who picked up language online, I love those. And a point I make very early in the semester with my students (especially with teens) is that they have to find their own reasons for studying English, their own uses for it (not just going with their parents’ “English is important for my future”). And that they have to find things to get further practice outside the classroom, but things they actually enjoy doing, so this extra work doens’t feel like a burden but more like fun. If they try I’m sure each of them can find something 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s