A Brief History of Emergent Learning

The kernel of the idea of Emergent Learning came to Marilyn Darling in the late 1970s when she noticed a perplexing difference — between how remarkably well we all learn as individuals and how difficult it seemed to be to do that very same thing when we are working in groups and organizations.

It led to a question she held and explored for several years: What would it take for us to learn together as well as we are able to learn individually? Marilyn became a charter member of the Society for Organizational learning and explored ideas in adult learning theory, systems thinking and complex adaptive systems theory for ways to describe what she was observing in practice.

In the mid-1990s, she invited Charles Parry to join her inquiry and together they conducted an in-depth study of the US Army’s After Action Review, frequently visiting the place where it was created, the National Training Center at Ft Irwin, CA. This study ultimately led to their 2005 Harvard Business Review article, “Learning in the Thick of It.” Meanwhile, Marilyn had created a process that allowed gatherings of people from different places to ask a shared “What will it take…?” question and learn from their collective experience in an Emergent Learning Table.

Marilyn’s and Charles’ early client base included several F500 companies. In 2011, Marilyn joined into partnership with Heidi Sparkes Guber and Jillaine Smith to create Fourth Quadrant Partners (4QP) to focus on bringing this work to the social sector. Two years later, thanks largely to the vision of Heidi Sparkes Guber, they launched a year-long training program in Emergent Learning. From that training, a community of practitioners began to form and word spread. Meanwhile, 4QP undertook a funded research study to gain a deeper understanding of the “emergent” aspect of Emergent Learning: “A Whole Greater than Its Parts: Exploring the role of Emergence in Complex Social Change.” From that work, they began to crystallize a series of principles that underlie Emergent Learning.

Less than ten years after launching training, through word of mouth from the more than 300 practitioners who have been trained, Emergent Learning has become known and used widely in foundation, nonprofit and evaluation circles across North America and has begun to spread in Europe, Africa and Asia. What Emergent Learning is today is the product of a diverse group of practitioners coming together under the Emergent Learning Community Project to “rub stories together” and discover what it takes to challenge traditional mental models and experiment with new approaches to working together to address the complex challenges we face today in racial justice, the environment, health equity and many other societal issues.

The community has been made possible and propelled forward by a group of visionary funders, including The Omidyar Network, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The California Endowment and California HealthCare Foundation, along with the volunteer efforts and in-kind contributions from Ross Strategic and many individual community members.