It has been a season of questions. We wonder, what’s happening? what should we do? what’s going to happen? how can we know? 

These questions busy us during the day and sometimes wake us up at night because try as we might, most of us are not fortune-tellers. Still, we are obsessed with the future; we are running scenarios and designing plans and back-up plans. We are reaching out for new perspectives and ideas so that we can adjust our thinking, so that we can be smart about what we don’t understand. One thing seems clear: the debate over the pros and cons of the digital realm has quieted. For now, we are mostly grateful for the web of pixelated connectivity we have built. Without it – what would happen? what would we do? 

A mentor once advised me, when I was anxious to make plans and do things, to put my thinking to two tests: the head and the heart. To place what my intellect tells me into direct relationship with what my heart tells me, and see where things land. This was useful wisdom, because I had started to consistently privilege thinking over feeling, and it caused a kind of blindness that I of course couldn’t see.

During this moment of questioning, I have been trying to sit with not being able to know what is really happening, or what will happen, or what we should do. And I have been reading just one book: adrienne maree brown‘s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. One of my professors referenced a quotation from the book during class last month – a quotation that included the directive that we try to be like water – and since then, the little white book published by the anarchist AK Press has been by my side.

It’s not my typical read, but I can’t put it down. According to brown, who credits Kindred and Parable of the Sower author Octavia Butler as an inspiration for her ideas about emergent strategy, “We [humans] are brilliant at survival, but brutal at it.” As a kind of antidote, she looks to naturally occurring phenomena such as ants, ferns, starlings and dandelions for evidence of collaborative emergence all around us.

Emergent strategy privileges collaboration and the way that small acts undertaken by the many can generate worlds of life-sustaining interconnection. One of my favorite lines from brown’s work is, “What you pay attention to grows.” Regardless of circumstance or context, this is true. Without human attention, wild things profit and proliferate. This is both a marvel and a concern, depending on the specifics.

Within education, in my experience the best things happen as a result of careful planning and loving attention to naturally growing things – children, communities, ideas. When we work together to plant and tend to school classrooms and cultures, we have the greatest chance of predicting what will happen.

What if, in the face of so many questions we can’t currently answer about when we will get back to normal and whether getting back to normal should even be a goal, we use brown’s generative statement as a guide? How can we pay attention to the things we want to grow? For me, this question is increasingly essential. I want society and school to open, and safety to return. I want economies of thought and purchase to resume. And I want new things to emerge, to grow out of this abruptly tilled soil. It is more than possible, with so many hands, hearts, and minds.



Jessica is a doctoral candidate, education consultant, writer and editor. She is the founder of bookclique, a collaborative of English teachers and students working to promote book culture, and a co-founder of Well-Schooled, the site for educator storytelling, dedicated to sharing first-person educator stories. All Rights Reserved - What I Learned Today in School.


  • Jeanne McNett says:

    Thank you for this interesting reflection. It makes me especially happy to see the concept of emergent strategy (management theory, Weick, Mintzberg) being useful to social commentary and, hopefully, social movements. It can be understood as a learning model as well, I think, with the focus on letting go of control, loosening planning, trusting the process and monitoring developments.

    • @msflaxman says:

      Thank you, Jeanne! I have a lot more to learn about emergent strategy & I’m excited to!