“A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change“, by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown has stellar reviews from numerous reviewers including high-profile academics such as Cathy Davidson of Duke (CUNY in the near future), Howard Gardner of Harvard, and Henry Jenkins of USC. Though the content might be considered provocative by educators, few of the themes are startlingly new or groundbreaking. Though there is great potential in this book—as a catalyst for conversation about change in an education culture for instance, or as a window into learning in a digital age. Granted, given it’s publication date many ideas were new in 2011, including the concept of collective learning which describes MOOCs to a tee (pg. 72). Noted, the book was published one year prior the New York Time’s declaration of 2012 as The Year of the MOOC.
Brown and Thomas are well-regarded academics and authors—John Seely Brown is co-chairman for the Deloitte Center for the Edge, a visiting scholar at USC, and former director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Douglas Thomas, is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and is considered an expert on the culture of computer gaming.
This is not a how-to book. There are few practical examples describing how education institutions can create a new culture of learning; yet the book is an excellent primer on how and why education and learn is changing. For this reason the book holds great potential as a catalyst for conversation within education institutions. If decision-makers and stakeholders read the book it could serve as a starting point for discussions about existing education methods and approaches. It could stimulate discussion on change and its impact on students, the institution, employees and faculty. The volume lends itself to such use, as the physical book is slim at 118 pages, with wide margins that encourage the writing of notes and ideas. No question, it’s concise. Apparently this was intentional. The authors hired an editor to strip the book down to its essential points and ideas.
What is a New Culture of Learning?
Authors Seely and Brown define throughout the book what a new culture of learning entails:
“So what frameworks do we need to make sense of learning in our world of constant change? The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is massive information network that provides almost unlimited access and resources to learn about anything. The second is bounded and structured environment that allows unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries” (p 19).
The authors describe and elaborate on the themes quite well by using real scenarios; in the instance of information abundance, they provide interesting stories that emphasize the new ways of learning where learners access and vet information within a massive network. Yet there is a disconnect. The stories describe highly motivated learners, learners that seek information and learn on their own terms not within a structured or formal environment (except for one story of a group of University students set up their own study group on Facebook). Intrinsic motivation is also a pattern observed in xMOOCs participants in 2014, where the majority of learners hold, at the very minimum, an undergraduate degree. These xMOOC students are self-motivated learners, and already know how-to-learn. If one of the ingredients to a new culture of learning is intrinsic motivation, how then can educators develop this intrinsic motivation within their students, and at the same time leverage the massive network (the Internet) for learning?
Learning as Inquiry
The authors do suggest a solution—students learn through inquiry, rather than by instruction. This approach, the authors state, will help learners find a passion for a topic, encouraging them to seek out tough problems and work harder to solve them.
“We propose reversing the order of things. What if, for example, questions were more important than answers? What if the key to learning were not the application of techniques but their intention? What if students were asking questions about things that really mattered to them? (pg 81).
The idea of problem based learning is similar to this approach of learning via inquiry. Start with a question. An example outlined in the book describes a physics teacher using an inquiry approach to teach a physics concept with a student that loves basketball. The teacher might write out a questions such as “What is the best way to shoot a basketball?” (p 82). Yet Brown and Seely don’t get to the details of how this approach translates to the classroom. What happens when all students aren’t interested in basketball or any sport for that matter? How does inquiry based learning look in context of existing curriculum?
Though the idea of learning through inquiry that Seely and Brown present is sound in principle, and there are examples of educators using the inquiry method with students, some at the K-12 level, though fewer at the post-secondary level. Many have suggested this inside out approach to education, which starts with a question not the answer. With inquiry based learning [also known as problem based learning] teachers are learning along with students, students are engaged, and are doing.
“It is crucial to recognize that inquiry-based teaching should not be viewed as a technique or instructional practice or method used to teach a subject. Rather, inquiry starts with teachers as engaged learners and researchers with the foundational belief that the topics they teach are rich, living and generous places for wonder and exploration…Inquiry is not merely ‘having students do projects’ but rather strives to nurture deep, discipline-based way of thinking and doing with students.” teachinginquiry.com
“A New Culture of Learning” is about learning in the 21st century, it’s about information abundance, and learning in the collective. It’s also a book about change, a changing culture that influences learning. Perhaps nothing new, nothing we haven’t read or heard before, but the message will be new to some, educators or professionals that haven’t considered how digital culture, the connected network we’ve created influences students, their learning. If you are looking for a conversation starter for educators you interact with, looking to implement and champion change in an education institution, this book is for you.
- Manifesto for a New Culture of Learning, Goldie Blymenstyk, The Chronicle
- A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change
- The Motivation to Learn Begins with a Problem, Problem Based Learning at University of Delaware
- Problem Based Learning, Speaking of Teaching, Stanford University Newsletter of Teaching