LILA ~ Learning Innovations Laboratory at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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“Experiencing emergence, emerging experience” – Donald MacLean

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Donald engaged us in an activity in which we experienced an emerging pattern – mingling and picking a person then drawing closer proximity to them. Over time, the system settles into a pattern!


He encouraged us to consider that rules are the boundaries of the system, they are the edge of the container. If you use the rules, you’re in the system. The challenge is to help articulate the deep structure that is diving patterns. A key challenge is how to surface answers to questions such as: what are the rule? What are the patterns they create? What boundaries do they define?


Every emergent system, whether it be musical improv or dance, has a discipline. The discipline is critically important, it defines the process of how we craft our plan for interaction, the reality of the activity, how we experiment, and then how we make sense of that experimentation. We felt this in our opening activity! Along the way each person receives feedback. Negative feedback is information that drives a system back to a predetermined state. Positive feedback drives a system forward, away from predetermined states. In many ways this is how we manage the emergence.


His early worked looked at how these systems work. His turn recently has been to understand what these systems mean for the participants?


As we engage in emergence, we experience three important connected states:


  • Emerging intention: the continual renegotiated process of sense of purposes which evolve.
  • Social identity: along the way we negotiate who we are, through conversation and dialogue
  • Embodied expression: the fully human way each person conveys and communicates throughout the process.


He stressed that complexity is not reducible, if you reduce the biography, the identity of people, you risk overlooking the very important qualities that allow us to understand, explain, and influence system.

Harvard Graduate School of Education