A New Culture of Learning

Review: ‘A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating Imagination for a World of Constant Change.’ 2011.

By: Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown.

An economist of dubious repute changed how people viewed History by drawing attention to an overlooked disjunction. He argued that political revolutions happen when the institutions that make a society function– government, laws, military, education, and the church– can no longer keep up with the

changes happening in technology. For example, in the early 1800’s, the institution of serfdom in Russia tied peasants to the land of their lords, which prevented the serfs from moving to the cities to help Russia industrialize. Thus an old, rusty institution was putting the brakes on industrial advancement. A similar thesis runs through ‘A New Culture of Learning,’ by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown:

” As we have argued earlier, traditional approaches to learning are no longer capable of coping with a constantly changing world. They have yet to find a balance between the structure that educational institutions provide and the freedom afforded by the new media’s almost unlimited resources, without losing a sense of purpose and direction. ”  The challenge, then, ” is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new.”

Thomas and Brown advocate the “collective” as a possible solution. Defined as a “collection of people, skills, and talent that produces a result greater than the sum of its parts… defined by an active engagement with the process of learning.” There are parallels here with the “collaborative” approach to learning, but Thomas and Brown are pushing for something more radical. Collaborative exercises are often aimed at a “learning objective” defined by the teacher. For Thomas and Brown, this “objective” functions as a straight-jacket on creativity: “Any effort to define or direct collectives would destroy the very thing that is unique and innovative about them.” In contrast to the traditional approach to teaching, as “providing” or “transmitting” knowledge in a linear direction from professor to pupil, we now live in a world where information flows in multiple directions, creating goals and meaning and communities as it flows. Knowledge today spreads like crabgrass, without roots, anarchic, united by interests, facilitated by technology, and collaboratively constructed.

Thomas and Brown use the blogosphere to illustrate the link between the collective and education. In blogging, “authorship is transformed in a way that recognizes the participation of others as fundamental to the process. A blogger is not writing to an audience, he is facilitating the construction of an interpretive community.” In other words, the blog form is not composed with a single audience in mind, on a specific date in time, like a traditional newspaper editorial. The blog is more like the French salons of the 18th century, where educated people would meet to discuss philosophy, science, poetry, politics, and other ‘enlightened’ interests of the day. Today, the blog itself is the salon, a space where people can discuss ideas that matter to them. The purpose is not so much to inform, but rather to share, and inspire further discussions. This is what I think Thomas and Brown are suggesting by “interpretive community.”

The collective requires not only a new way of “playing,” to use a jazz metaphor Thomas and Brown are keen to employ, but also a new way of “listening.” In education, this means teachers must fundamentally re-think what defines an “objective,” and how to assess collaborative work. It means a shift towards connecting the personal (blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, etc..) with the collective. Thus students are not so much learning from each other, as learning with each other, sharing experiences, knowledge, and co-constructing identities. Students become part of a community that is meaningful to them, and are therefore excited to invest time and creativity in its evolution. Facebook and Gaming are two communities that kids enjoy being a part of. I think Thomas and Brown are suggesting that teachers would be wise to cultivate the  lessons of the social media, recognize the opportunities for both personal and social education, and define what is meant by “classroom” according to a similar logic. The artificial walls between “personal” and “public” need to be re-thought (after all, if a student has no personal connection to what they are doing, what sort of “public” contribution can be expected?)

Thomas and Brown also offer a compelling new epistemology for educators. In place of knowledge being understood as a “what,” a fixed concept to be recorded in an encyclopedia, knowledge is reframed as a “where’: “In a world where context is always shifting and being rearranged, the stability of the “what” dimension of knowledge also comes into question…In the new information economy, expertise is less about having a stockpile of information or facts at one’s disposal and increasingly about knowing how to find and evaluate information on a given topic. Again, this is a where question, both in terms of where the information is found and in terms of where it is being deployed to communicate something.”

So, the pressing question for me, is how can I apply these ideas in my classroom? Unfortunately, Thomas and Brown give short shrift to the pragmatic side of education. The closest they come to an actual lesson that satisfies the requirements of their theory, is a chapter devoted to the pedagogical potential of ‘World of Warcraft.’ Gaming, they argue, promotes the fusion of ‘bounded environment’ and ‘experimentation’ that defines the New Culture of Learning. I am currently implementing gaming into my own curriculum, as I agree with Thomas and Brown that it provides a space where a new type of learning takes place, one based on inquiry, cooperation, and improvisation, all in a spirit of play. However, we still live in a world of assessments, where the ability to compose an analytic essay can make or break a student’s future. The “bounded environment” is more complex than Thomas and Brown suggest, enclosed by an old and resilient tapestry of national and international standards, and Universities that still assess candidates through a two hundred year-old monocle.

A New Culture of Learning is an important work. It offers both a warning and a solution. It warns us as educators to adapt to the dizzying changes going on around us, and tells us how to convert these changes into opportunities, for both students and teachers. The alternative, one shudders to imagine, will be the obsolescence of an educational institution tethered to a previous century. The serfs of Russia had their day in 1917, and if we as teachers continue to relate to our students as lord to serf, restraining their imagination within four walls, we too might find ourselves the victim of another revolution, less violent, but equally decisive.

2 thoughts on “A New Culture of Learning”

  1. “So, the pressing question for me, is how can I apply these ideas in my classroom?”
    This is my fundamental reaction to the book. I certainly agree with much of what T&B say in the book about how learning happens, but I found it entirely too vague about what the new role of teachers (mentors) should be. Is there any use to having subject classes? How should mentors be assigned to students? How should assessment work? While repeating many times that constraints are essential, I found no practical examples of what they consider appropriate constraints. Interesting ideas, but not much help in terms of “where do I go from here.”

    1. Hi Kirt,

      Seems we see things eye to eye. You might therefore be interested in a book I recently read titled ‘Making Thinking Visible.’ It’s a product of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It offers excellent examples of how to identify, illustrate, and encourage different types of thinking that occur in our classrooms. Any books or ideas you recommend? It’s summer time, I actually have time to read! Thanks for visiting my blog and hope to chat again down the road.. James

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