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. A uniting theme of Emergent Design Discourses is that learning is always dependent on, but never determined by teaching. Notions that figure prominently across most Emergent Design Discourses include:
  • 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 – 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.
  • 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


“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.


  • Contingent Teaching (Responsive Planning)
  • Mediated Action
  • Mediated Learning

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Emergent Design Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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