Emergent Design Discourses


Embracing notions of iterative development and emergent possibility

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … evolving web of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … acting and designing (according one’s experience)
  • Learner is … designer(s)
  • Learning is … elaborating, innovating (iterative, emergent)
  • Teaching is … orienting attentions, engaging, occasioning




In education, Emergent Design Discourses are the teaching-focused complement of Emergent Complexity Discourses, which are more focused on the adaptive dynamics of learning systems than on the pragmatics of influencing learning. Uniting themes of Emergent Design Discourses include that learning is always iterative, never linear and that learning is always dependent on, but never determined by teaching. Notions that figure prominently across most Emergent Design Discourses include:
  • Agile Learning – an ill-defined notion that has recently risen to popularity across sensibilities as diverse as Instructional Design Models and Design Thinking, Agile Learning appears to be associated with any attitude toward educational planning that acknowledges the inevitability of contingencies and the consequent need to adapt.
  • Contingent Teaching (Responsive Planning) – a pedagogical attitude of attentiveness and flexibility, whereby the teacher adapts methods, topics, and/or strategies to fit with emerging learner needs and/or interests
  • Knowledge-Rich Curriculum (Knowledge-Rich LearningKnowledge-Led Curriculum) (2010s) – effectively, a commitment to structure Formal Learning (see In-/Non-Formal Learning) around concepts and/or skills that have been identified a powerful and valuable – that is, empowering and useful for the individual and integral to the sociocultural situation. Typically, the concept of Knowledge-Rich Curriculum is associated with attending to the distinguishing qualities of a discipline and to modes of teaching that support Deep Learning (see Deep vs. Surface Learning).
  • Layers of Necessity (J.F. Wedman & M. Tessmer, 1990s) – a pragmatic revision to typical Instructional Design Models, offering advice for adapting models and distributing focus when confronted with limited time and resources
  • Mediated Action (James Wertsch, 1990s) – a notion from Socio-Cultural Theory that encompasses knowers’ engagements with (i.e., incidental encounters with, deliberate uses of, etc.) all varieties of tools (both physical and conceptual) to support their actions (i.e., thinking, communications, coordinated activity, etc.). A complexified notion, Mediated Action is understood to have multiple simultaneous goals and to be associated with power and authority.
  • Mediated Learning (Reuven Feuerstein, 1990s) – in effect, a more conscious and deliberate version of Mediated Action (see above), in which a more-capable other supports a learner in the development of a competency, especially one that could not be previously accomplished independently.
  • Occasioning (Participatory Pedagogy) – a metaphor of teaching fitted to most Coherence Discourses. Derived from terms that originally meant “to fall together,” Occasioning is used to foreground the assertion that learning is dependent on, but not determined by, teaching. Teaching is understood to comprise efforts to establish the conditions necessary for learners to exceed their current selves.
  • Socially Mediated Learning – a phrase that’s been in use at least since the 1980s and that is subject to a wide range of interpretations, all of which hover around the principle that one’s learning is influenced by one’s context
  • Spiral Curriculum (Jerome Bruner, 1960s) – a precursor to Emergent Design Discourses, Spiral Curriculum was one of the first influential expressions of the notion of iterative design in education. A Spiral Curriculum involves revisiting of topics and themes (both across courses or across grades), each time in more sophisticated ways, to deepen understanding and to knit ideas across subject areas. (Contrast: Aligned Curriculum, under Attainment Metaphor.)


“Design” is among the most contested words in the current educational lexicon. On one hand, it is used to refer to rigid and mechanical approaches to curriculum and instruction; on the other, it is invoked to signal adaptive and emergent attitudes toward learning and teaching. The latter meaning is the one intended here, and the one that is most prominently represented in cutting-edge educational research. With reference to this meaning of “design,” the modifier “emergent” is redundant. However, it is used here to underscore the intended sense.


  • Agile Learning
  • Contingent Teaching (Responsive Planning)
  • Knowledge-Rich Curriculum (Knowledge-Rich Learning; Knowledge-Led Curriculum)
  • Layers of Necessity
  • Mediated Action
  • Mediated Learning
  • Occasioning (Participatory Pedagogy)
  • Socially Mediated Learning
  • Spiral Curriculum

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Emergent Design Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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