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.

Classroom Technologies

Tomorrow, at a professional development workshop at my school, I’ll be asked to share my experiences using technology in the classroom. In an effort to both recall and organize, I’ve compiled a list of applications. Those under the heading “Essential” should be added to your tool-kit immediately, though I expect I’m preaching to the choir (or worse still, I’m the choir preaching to the preacher)…

Essential:

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  • Organizes notes, references, photos, videos, and anything else that can be digitized.
  • Amazingly easy to use, and simple to share information
  • Students love the “cute elephant”
  • I use it often for MYP criterion B: Investigating
  • Students create separate ‘Notebooks’ for each project I assign
  • Upon submission of the project, they share the Evernote “Notebook,” which shows me the entire process of investigation.
  • Also highly recommended for adults!
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  • Essential Apps: Drive, Sites, Docs, Presentation.
  • Google Docs allows for real-time writing and editing collaboration between students and /or teachers.
  • Google Presentation allows for real-time presentation creation between students and / or teachers.
  • Sites is much more comprehensive with mind-boggling potential for both students and teachers (More on this later).
  • Drive is the place where your google docs and presentations can be stored and easily shared.
  • I feel I have only scratched the surface of what Google offers students, educators, administrators, districts, planets, galaxies, …

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  • Incredible collaboration tool. See this: http://elsaibhistory.wikispaces.com/
  • All of the topics along the right menu bar were created by students working together, and editing each others work. This History Wiki functions as a student created interactive text. The students ASK to create new pages… Need I pitch this further?

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  • In terms of blogging as an educational tool, I’ve drank the kool-aid, I’m blitzed, and I want more!!
  • In my opinion, one of the most underused, under-appreciated tools out there.
  • If you have doubts, create one of your own, record your reflections, and see if you don’t evolve as a writer and graphic designer. See if you learn to locate relevant information more rapidly. See if you are able to convey this information to an audience in a more creative way than before you started the blog. Then, ask yourself:  “what does it mean to be literate in the 21st century?” Then, ask yourself: “has blogging improved my literacy?”

Not Exactly Essential, but Fun…

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  • I’m a big fan of any technology that allows useful information to come to you, instead of you searching for it… 
  • My students still associate Twitter with comments like: “Doritos for lunch, mmmm”
  • They are surprised when I show them my own Twitter feed, the famous authors, politicians, journalists, artists, academics, think tanks, climate watch groups, design and technology gurus, all-star teachers, etc.. that share their latest ideas with me via Tweets. RSS feeds are even more spectacular in this regard, … I’ll come back to RSS in a later post.

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  • I’m new to this one. But as I am looking to “flatten my own classroom” ( get rid of the walls that separate my students from the world that awaits them after graduation) it seems face to face real-time global collaborations via Skype in the Classroom would be ideal?

Hope this was useful for some of you… If you have any “Essential” technologies, do the right thing and unveil those gems right here and now!!  … told you I drank the kool-aid  😀