We all have the uncomfortable feeling that the education we received is serving us less and less well. The reassuring notion that the concentrated dose of education in our younger years would serve us well for the rest of lives appears increasingly suspect. And this doesn’t even address our concerns for our children and grand-children. How will they ever learn enough to keep up with the accelerating pace of change?
What if there was a different model? What if there is an approach to learning that we could pursue throughout our lives? What if there is an approach that wouldn’t be a burden, something to be dreaded, but instead would excite and engage us in ways that we would eagerly anticipate?
Well, I've just read a book that makes this seem like a realistic imperative, rather than an impossible dream. My colleague and friend, John Seely Brown, has just come out with “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change”, co-authored with Doug Thomas, a professor at the University of Southern California. It is an inspiring call to action to re-imagine the kind of learning that will define the twenty-first century.
The key messages
It would be far too ambitious to try to summarize this book in the space of a blog posting (even my long blog postings). So let me attempt to tease the reader with a few key messages from the book that I would summarize as follows:
- We are in need of a fundamental reassessment of our learning models
- New learning models will embrace and institutionalize tension
- Imagination and play are the fuel that will sustain learning
Need for reassessment of learning models
Doug and JSB make the case that the acceleration and expansion of change requires us to adopt learning models. These new models will equip us not just to cope with this change, but to embrace and benefit from it.
We have all heard the proverb about teaching a man to fish, rather than simply giving him fish. Doug and JSB point out that this is no longer sufficient:
. . . it is hardly cutting edge. It assumes there will always be an endless supply of fish to catch and that the techniques for catching them will last a lifetime. . . . our contention is that the pool of unchanging resources is shrinking, and that the pond is providing us with fewer and fewer things that we can identify as fish anymore.
We used to go to school, comfortable in the belief that we would learn a fixed set of skills that would serve us throughout our lives. That belief is no longer valid, if it ever was. We now face the challenge – and opportunity – of life-long learning that will expand our focus well beyond specific skills and instill the dispositions and practices that will help us to continuously and rapidly evolve our skills.
Fortunately, as Doug and JSB point out, “the very things that are speeding up the rate of change in the world are also giving us . . . new tools [for learning]. “ We are harnessing the Internet, the virtual environments and platforms that ride upon it and the vast array of resources that it makes available to us to develop new approaches to learning.
So, what are the new learning models? This is the bulk of the book and, rather than try to do justice to the texture and nuance of the thinking, I'll focus on something that intrigued me as I read through the book. Tension runs throughout various dimensions of these learning models. As a Hagelian, I embrace tension, for the friction it generates can lead to very creative new outcomes.
Education and Learning. Let’s start with education vs. learning. Doug and JSB early on assert that they are not jettisoning the educational approaches that dominate our schools today:
. . . we do not argue that classrooms are obsolete or that teaching no longer matters. Our goal is quite the opposite. We believe that this new culture of learning can augment learning in nearly every facet of education and every stage of life.
OK, fair enough. But as one begins to understand the full scope of what they describe as a new learning model, it stands in stark contrast to “the sage on a stage” transfer of explicit knowledge that dominates our educational systems today. There is at least a tension here, between two fundamentally different approaches to learning, that I wish the authors had explored in more detail. Exactly where and how do these two fundamentally different approaches to acquiring knowledge come together?
Freedom and structure. As we are introduced to the new culture of learning embraced by Doug and JSB, we begin to see another tension surface – between freedom and structure. Here, they are talking about something quite different from the structure of a rigid curriculum with assigned readings and standardized tests to measure progress.
Learning needs boundaries and limits. These help to focus participants and challenge them to find creative new approaches. “Encountering boundaries spurs the imagination to become more active in figuring out novel solutions within the constraints of the situation or context.” The authors here are referring, for example, to the kinds of constraints that gamers face as they encounter new challenges in World of Warcraft and not the bureaucratic constraints that educational institutions all too frequently impose upon both teachers and students.
Tacit and explicit knowledge. The tension between tacit and explicit knowledge also frames the authors’ views on the increasing importance of new learning models. Tacit knowledge is “the component of knowing that is assumed, unsaid, and understood as a product of experience and interaction.” As Doug and JSB observe, “. . . educational institutions and practices focused almost exclusively on explicit knowledge, leaving the tacit dimension to build gradually on its own, over time.” But, they observe that tacit knowledge cannot be taught – it can only be learned, but only if the environment is designed to do that. In a stable world, focusing on explicit knowledge perhaps made more sense, but in a more rapidly changing world, tacit knowledge becomes increasingly central to our ability to thrive.
Questions and answers. One of the contrasts in the book that I loved the most involved the tension between questions and answers. Education is all about answers, learning is much more about the questions. Doug and JSB point out that
. . . our educational system is built upon a structure that poses questions in order to find answers. . . . We propose reversing the order of things. What if, for example, the questions were more important than the answers. . . . With that shift in thinking, learning is transformed from a discrete, limited process – ask a question, find an answer – to a continuous one. Every answer serves as a starting point, not an end point. It invites us to ask more and better questions.
Personal and collective. The authors also play with the tension between personal and collective. “Collectives,” a concept that is central to the book, are
. . . a collection of people, skills, and talent that produces a result greater than the sum of its parts. For our purposes, collectives are not solely defined by shared intention, action, or purpose (though these elements may exist and often do). Rather, they are defined by an active engagement with the process of learning. . . . In the new culture of learning, collectives, as we define them, become the medium in which participation takes shape.
By this definition, collectives can take many different forms, including online gatherings of amateur astronomers, gamers participating in World of Warcraft and hackers who learn from each other the best techniques to gain access to the most secure computer systems in the world. Doug and JSB point out that the range of collectives is virtually limitless. Also, because of a mixture of physical and virtual components, they are generally available to everyone, wherever they are located and at whatever stage of life they happen to be.
Collectives provide the context for learning and the learning process involves a complex interplay between the personal and the collective. Doug and JSB describe Mimi Ito’s work that emphasizes the importance of developing a sense of personal agency in the learning process. They also stress the importance of passion, something that comes from deep within each of us. Finally, they also discuss dispositions that individuals possess and that shape the learning process in significant ways.
Integrating imagination and play
At the end of the day, Doug and JSB strongly emphasize the need to put imagination and play front and center in the learning process. In fact, the last sentence in the book asserts: “. . . where imaginations play, learning happens.” Shortly before this last assertion, Doug and JSB lay their cards on the table, “. . . we believe that connecting play and imagination may be the single most important step in unleashing the new culture of learning.”
Now, clearly, imagination and play are not part of the core curriculum of most educational institutions. So,where can it be found? Doug and JSB are bound to send most traditional educators reaching for the bottle of tranquilizers when they assert that
In our view, MMOs [ Massively Multiplayer Online games] are almost perfect illustrations of a new learning environment. On one hand, games like World of Warcraft produce massive information economies, composed of thousands of message forums, wikis, databases, player guilds, and communities. In that sense they are paragons of an almost unlimited information network. On the other hand, they constitute a bounded environment within which players have near-absolute agency, enjoying virtually unlimited experimentation and exploration . . . Most important, the engine that drives learning in World of Warcraft is a blend of questioning, imagination, and – best of all – play.
Why are imagination and play so central to the learning process? Imagination is about seeing possibilities and generating the questions that frame the learning process. Play is about the engagement and experimentation that drives the learning process. Both of these become even more powerful when they move beyond the individual and drive collectives that can learn from each other.
This is a provocative and deep book. It is deceptively short but densely packed with many of the key concepts needed to shape our journey towards a culture of learning that will help us to turn the turmoil and change of the 21st century into a rich array of opportunities. We need this change. The good news is that we cannot avoid it. Some of us may resist it, but more and more of us will begin to see that it holds the key to thriving and not only demand it, but practice it. The rest will have little choice but to follow.