A New Culture of Learning: An Interview with John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas (Part One)

It is my privilege and pleasure from time to time to showcase through this blog new books by important thinkers who are exploring the relations between digital media and learning, concerns which have become more and more central through the years to my own interests in participatory culture. Today, I want to call attention to a significant new book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, written by two of my new colleagues at the University of Southern California — Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown.

Asked to write a blurb for this book, here’s what I had to say:

A New Culture of Learning may be for the Digital Media and Learning movement what Thomas Paine’s Common Sense provided for the American Revolution — a straight forward, direct explanation of what we are fighting for and what we are fighting against. John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas lay out a step by step argument for why learning is changing in the 21st century and what schools need to do to accommodate these new practices. Using vivid narratives of people, institutions, and practices at the heart of the changes and drawing from a growing body of literature outlining new pedagogical paradigms, they place the terms of the argument in language which should be accessible to lay readers, offering a book you can give to the educator in your life who wants to become an agent of change. My hope is that our schools will soon embrace the book’s emphasis on knowing, making, and playing.

This book really is a gift, one which arrived too late for the Christmas season, but just in time for the start of the new semester. I know that I will be drawing on its insights to shape my own New Media Literacies grad seminar this term and to inform the new afterschool program we are launching at the RFK Schools here in Los Angeles. I admire it for both its clarity of vision and clarity of prose, not a common combination. In the interview which follows, I play devil’s advocate, challenging some of the core premises of the book, with the goal of addressing critics and skeptics who may not yet be ready to sign on for the substantive reforms in pedagogical practices and institutions they are advocating.

Doug, you shared a story of how your students gradually took over control of your class. On one level, this sounds like teachers’ worst nightmares of where all of this may be leading, but it sounds like you discovered this process has its own rewards. Can you share some of what you learned about student-directed learning? How might you speak to the concerns of educators who are worried about their jobs and about satisfying various standards currently shaping the educational process?

This was a fascinating experience for me and it speaks directly to the distinction we are making throughout the book between teaching and learning. Even after having thought long and hard about what it means to be an educator and being open to ideas such as student-directed learning, I still found that I was carrying a whole lot of baggage about what it meant to be a responsible educator. Primarily, what that meant was transmitting valuable information and testing how well that information was received, absorbed, and processed. What I had not really thought about was the ways in which that limits and cuts off opportunities for exploration, play, and following one’s passions.

The fear is easy to understand. What we are essentially doing when we move to student-directed learning is undermining our own relatively stable (though I would argue obsolete) notions of expertise and replacing them something new and different.

That doesn’t mean there is no role for teachers and educators. Quite the opposite. One of the key arguments we are making is that the role of educators needs to shift away from being expert in a particular area of knowledge, to becoming expert in the ability to create and shape new learning environments. In a way, that is a much more challenging, but also much more rewarding, role. You get to see students learn, discover, explore, play, and develop, which is the primary reason I think that most of us got into the job of teaching.

“Lifelong learning” has become a cliché. What is it about the world of networked computing you describe which transforms this abstract concept into a reality? Are the kinds of learning experiences you discuss here scalable and sustainable?

We take it as a truism that kids learn about the world through play. In fact we encourage that kind of exploration. It is how children explore and gain information about the world around them. Since the time of Piaget we have known that at that age, play and learning are indistinguishable. The premise of A New Culture of Learning is grounded in the idea that we are now living in a world of constant change and flux, which means that more often than not, we are faced with the same problem that vexes children. How do I make sense of this strange, changing, amazing world? By returning to play as a modality of learning, we can see how a world in constant flux is no longer a challenge or hurdle to overcome; it becomes a limitless resource to engage, stimulate, and cultivate the imagination. Our argument brings to the fore the old aphorism “imagination is more important than knowledge.” In a networked world, information is always available and getting easier and easier to access. Imagination, what you actually do with that information, is the new challenge.

Essentially what this means is that as the world grows more complicated, more complex, and more fluid, opportunities for innovation, imagination, and play increase. Information and knowledge begin to function like currency: the more of it you have, the more opportunities you will have to do things. To us, asking if this kind of learning is scalable or sustainable is like asking if wealth is scalable and sustainable. But instead of finances, we are talking about knowledge. Education seems to us to be one of the few places we should not be afraid of having too many resources or too much opportunity.

You argue that many of the failures of current teaching practice start from “the belief that most of what we know will remain relatively unchanged for a long enough period of time to be worth the effort of transferring it.” Granted the world is changing rapidly, how do we identify the narrowing range of content which probably does fall into this category and which provides a common baseline for other kinds of learning?

The problem is not with facts remaining constant. There are some things we know that we have known for a very long time and are not likely to change. The force that seems to be pushing the knowledge curve forward at an exponential rate is two fold. First, it is the generation of new content and knowledge that is the result of simply participating in any knowledge economy. This leads to a second related dimension: while content may remain stable at some abstract level, the context in which it has meaning (and therefore its meaning) is open to near constant change. The kind of work you have been examining from the point of view of convergence culture is a prime example: users are not so much creating content as they are constantly reshaping context. The very idea of remix is about the productions of new meanings by reframing or shifting the context in which something means. The 21st century has really marked the time in our history where the tools to manipulate context have become as commonplace as the ones for content creation and we now have a low cost or free network of distribution that can allow for worldwide dissemination of new contexts in amazingly brief periods of time.

If you look at something as simple as Google News, the simple act of viewing a news story provides data which is fed back into the system to determine the value and placement of that story for future users. Millions of micro-transactions, each of which are trivial as “content” powerfully and constantly reshape the context in which news and current events have meaning.

You challenge here what James Paul Gee has called the “content fetish,” stressing that how we learn is more important than what we learn. How far are you willing to push this? Doesn’t it matter whether children are learning the periodic table or the forms of alchemy practiced in the Harry Potter books? Or that they know Obama is Christian rather than Muslim?

Ah, this question throws us into one of the key traps of 20th century thinking about learning. Learning is not a binary construction which pits how against what. In fact, throughout the book, we stress that knowledge, now more than ever, is becoming a where rather than a what or how.

Where something means or its context raises questions about institutions and agency, about reliability and credibility and it always invites us to interrogate the relationship between meaning and context.

In our framework, we stress that every piece of knowledge has both an explicit and a tacit dimension. The explicit is only one kind of content, which tells you what something means. The tacit has its own layer of meaning. It tells why something is important to you, how it relates to your life and social practices. It is the dimension where the context and content interact. Our teaching institutions have paid almost no attention to the tacit and we believe that it is the tacit dimension that allows us to navigate meaning in a changing world.

Knowledge may maintain consistency in the explicit, while undergoing radical changes in the tacit and we believe that understanding how knowledge is both created and how it flows in the tacit is the key to understanding and transforming learning in the 21st century.

Douglas Thomas is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. His research focuses on the intersections of technology and culture. It has been funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, and the Annenberg Center for Communication. Doug is also the author of the book Hacker Culture and a coauthor or coeditor of several other books, including Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies and Cybercrime: Law Enforcement, Security and Surveillance in the Information Age. He is the founding editor of Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media, an international, interdisciplinary journal focused on games research.

John Seely Brown is a visiting scholar and an adviser to the provost at the University of Southern California and an independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. He is an author or a coauthor of several books, including The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion; The Only Sustainable Edge; and The Social Life of Information, which has been translated into nine languages. He has also authored or coauthored more than 100 papers in scientific journals.

Prior to his current position, John was the chief scientist of Xerox and, for nearly two decades, the director of the company’s Palo Alto Research Center. He was also a cofounder of the Institute for Research on Learning. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education.


  1. Hi Henry,

    We may have met some time ago through my husband Tod Machover. I’m contacting you to see if you would be interested in participating in a panel at the 2012 convention of the National Communication Association on the topic of social media and fan communities. Could we find a time to chat over the phone so I can tell you more about it? Please email me at junekino@media.mit.edu.

    Thank you very much.

    June Kinoshita

  2. It’s an intriguing study, to examine the new paradigm of learning. The way we learn and the medium available to us (the good and the bad) is so different now than it was ten years ago. I finished high school without the internet, and completed my first degree with it. I found most lecturers at university were contemporary in their approach, and gave us guidance in embracing the new educational environment. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the underfunded public school system facilitates such a nexus between old world learning and the new digital learning paradigm.

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  4. Henry, here are some things I wonder about as I read your interview with Thomas and Brown.

    Successful current teaching practices include aspects of relationship that are not mentioned in their descriptions of knowledge acquisition. I think I understand their statement that knowledge has both explicit and tacit dimensions but the remix or shifting of context that they speak of is always in a social context nowadays. The age of digital literacy is founded on the notion of the primacy of *social context* and all its parameters (i.e. Facebook, Google, profiles etc.).

    So with *context* now a fundamental dimension of knowledge, teachers who practice relationship building in their classrooms graduate learners with … what, greater ability to learn factual content? This seems to be a circular argument because our modern educational culture evaluates one’s knowledge by measuring the ability to relay facts independent of context – or at least in a very narrow context of testing and dissertation/thesis writing and possibly speeches with handouts and slides (other contexts are devalued or not acceptable). Personal relationship with classroom learners is not a value and not measured in teachers and learners.

    The *social relationship* part of knowledge and its acquisition *is* a value on Facebook (etc.) but *isn’t* a paid-for value in traditional learning and credentialing.

    I am in complete agreement with Thomas and Brown’s analysis but wander through this maze often when confronted by an educational leaders that follow the body politic notions of *traditional* learning.

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