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

You describe educators in the new culture of learning as mentors, rather than teachers. Can you explain the difference between the two?

The key difference for us is that in the new culture of learning mentors are very likely to be peers who may have picked up something a little ahead of the curve or who may have more experience in something than their peers. Mentorship is a much more flexible concept and one which is tied less tightly to authority. Since so much of what we see as the key to future learning is passion-based, we think it makes more sense to understand the process of learning as something that can be guided by a mentor, as opposed to being taught by a teacher. No one can teach you to follow your passions, but they can help guide you once you discover what motivates you.

You write about learning collectives. Often, when I try to describe this concept, I run up against the deeply embedded tradition of individualism, which has made all forms of collective sound, well, “socialist.” Have you found effective ways of responding to American’s ideological revulsion against collective identities and experiences?

Collectives, as we use the term, have nothing to do with the politics or economics of socialism. Instead what we are trying to capture is the formation of new institutional structures that are radically different from more traditional notions of community. Collectives are literally collections of people who form around a central platform. What is interesting is that collectives tend to promote individual agency and may actually be more consistent with individualism than they are with even community based theories of social interaction. Collectives, as we use the term, are actually institutions that enable and enhance individual agency. And because the costs of entry and exit are usually negligible, they tend to have much less persistence than more traditional institutions have had in the past and hence they don’t outlive their usefulness as the world changes around them.

One of the key contrasts we need to draw is between notions of communities and collectives. Communities are institutions that are designed to facilitate a sense of belonging. Collectives are institutions that facilitate individual agency. Anyone who joins a collective looking for a sense of belonging is going to wind up disappointed, because that is not how they function. Collective are more social platforms than social entities. Communities may form within a collective, but they need not form in order for the collective to function. The key point is that because collectives are agency driven, they form the perfect environment for the cultivation of imagination. In other words, the collective amplifies what I can do by tapping its collective experience.

In that sense “collective identity” is something of an oxymoron. Collectives are spaces in which individual identity is critically important. It makes no sense to talk about the “Facebook community” or the “Google community” because people are using those platforms in such incredibly different ways. Yet at the same time, Facebook and Google have become such common and shared practices that they are almost regarded as part of the fabric of online life. No one goes to Google for a sense of belonging, yet there is no denying it has had a powerful, even transformative, social effect. Our book is an argument for these collectives as environments where the cultivation of imagination is possible like it never has been before. But we are also very careful to say it is not just a matter of exposure. Cultivation is a purposeful act, not something that just happens as a result of exposure or access, but what we are discussing may also be a new sense of cultivation, one where the collective itself is committed to making the individual better.

You draw on the concept of “concerted cultivation” or what others called the “hidden curriculum” to explain why what happens outside of schools has a powerful influence on young people’s performance in the classroom. To what degree does it make sense to extend this well established educational principle to think about the informal learning which takes place online? Isn’t part of the point the alignment of the values in a middle class home and the classroom? Would this principle work only if schools were ready to embrace the values of the online world? Yet, elsewhere, you suggest some core conflicts between the two.

This goes back to the core thesis of the book. What we were able to identify were two radically different learning environments, one which was overly structured (such as the contemporary classroom) where boundaries are put in place to actually discourage play, experimentation and real inquiry based learning. The other environment is completely unbounded and unlimited, best represented by the information explosion on the Internet. Absent some sort of structure or boundaries, learning is not any more likely to happen in an unrestricted space than it is in a tightly controlled one. What we see happening in the most successful learning environments is a fusion of these two ideals. Like a petri dish, the best learning environments have boundaries which control and limit them, but within those boundaries permit almost unrestricted growth, experimentation and play. Neither innovation nor learning can happen in a vacuum and we have seen time and again that it is the constraints that students face that provide the opportunity for really innovative learning to happen.

The core conflict is a matter of mentality. Our schools believe that teaching more, faster, with better technology is preparing our students for the 21st century. Their answer to dealing with change is to keep doing the same thing faster. To our way of thinking, this is like trying to fix a leaky bucket by pouring more water in it. We do think there needs to be more of an alignment on both sides. We hear over and over again how our schools are broken. That metaphor only works if you treat them as machines. When you think of schools as learning environments, it no longer makes sense to say the environment is “broken.” What we hope this book does is, like the work on concerted cultivation, help people see that the line between schools and the world or the world place and daily life is illusory. Learning is happening everywhere, all the time.

This brings us back to imagination and the last line of the book: Where imaginations play, learning happens.

As you note, people not only learn in “different ways” but they also learn “different things” when confronting the same information. Yet, doesn’t this insight run against the current culture of schooling with its emphasis on standardized testing? How can we as a culture work past this contradiction between our understanding of learning and our policies for measuring classroom success?

What no one seems to pick up on is that innovation by its very nature runs counter to the idea of standardization. Something is innovative because it is outside of the standard. If we are serious about learning and embracing change in the 21st century, we need to also start thinking about evaluating learning in more sophisticated ways. Standardized testing is easy. It is also efficient. Again, these are the standards that we use to judge machinery. But we should be surprised when our students who go through the machine end up emerging looking like cogs.

Another key distinction we are trying to make is to understand the difference between creativity and imagination, two terms that are often used interchangeably. Creativity is a much later stage and something that can not be taught. It is the product of a fertile imagination. Imagination, on the other hand, is something that can be cultivated in response to a learning environment. Much of what we found in our research was that there is no creativity without imagination and that imagination, the true life of the mind, is something that is not given much (if any) space in classrooms or workplaces. Part of why we think collectives are such powerful environments for learning is that they stimulate imagination by encouraging activities like play, experimentation, and inquiry.

You describe inquiry as a core principle of the new culture of learning. In true inquiry, we follow our interests where-ever they lead us. Is true inquiry possible within the current structure of disciplines which shape our schooling practices?

Is it possible within the current structure? Probably not. What this book is pointing to is the need for a complete overhaul in our educational philosophy. Our schools are training people for the jobs of the 20th (and sometimes 19th !) century. Inquiry is not a new idea. Is was a core principle of Plato’s academy and it was the cornerstone of John Dewey’s education philosophy. Until now, however, it has not really been possible on a large scale. We now possess a technological infrastructure which makes it possible to engage in inquiry and to truly follow our interests. But at the same time, we believe there need for some constraints or boundaries on how far and in what direction those interests go. In large part, the role of the teacher needs to shift from transferring information to shaping, constructing, and overseeing learning environments. We take the idea of cultivation very seriously. You don’t teach imagination; you create an environment in which it can take root, grow and flourish.

How do we understand the value of diversity in this new culture of learning? Do learning networks work better if they include homogenous mixes of people pursuing the same goals or heterogeneous groups pursuing different interests? To what degrees are our current schooling practices a product of a historically segregated culture?

This is a great question that we don’t get to go into much in the book. The thing that makes learning different in the 21st century from any other time in the past is the diversity of information, knowledge, experience, and interaction that is available to us in the digital age. This new culture of learning only works if it can be fed by an enormous influx of constantly updated information. It is driven by change, so it is a way of looking at the world that is maladjusted to homogeny. In the theory of inquiry we spell out, we talk repeatedly about the questions being more important than the answers and the idea that solutions to one problem are gateways to dealing with increasingly more sophisticated problems and deeper questions. People in learning environments are inherently curious. Diversity is not only a value; we would say it is the key ingredient in formulating a new culture of learning in the 21st century.

What do you see as the value of remixing as a means of learning? Many teachers confuse remix culture with plagiarism, which they have been taught to prevent at all costs. How can you help educators resolve these competing understanding of what it means to build on the work of others?

The crux of the issue is one of content versus context. Plagiarism is the intentional misrepresentation of someone else’s ideas as your own; it is about content. Remix is an effort to fundamentally transform meaning by shifting or altering the context. The idea of making meaning through context is a relatively new one, because it is only recently that we have had the technological tools available to us to reshape contexts and then disseminate that information on a large scale.

What we have had, however, are things like parody, social satire, and commentary, all of which rely on very similar mechanisms to make arguments about meaning. Once you start thinking of remix as reshaping context rather than content creation, it becomes much easier to understand both its power and it utility. Of course as an added benefit, the easier it is for the average user to manipulate context, the more transparent the tradition of mainstream media doing the same thing becomes. There are countless examples of editing, tight focus, perspective and so on which have radically remade the meaning of events and have reshaped national and international perspectives.

You talk about learning, making, and playing as the core mindsets that support education. Despite a decade now of work on games for learning, many will be surprised to see “playing” on this list, in part because our schools are shaped by a puritan work ethic which distrusts play as frivolous. What would need to change for formal education to fully grasp and embrace the value of play?

There are two critical things to realize. First, play is not trivial, frivolous or non-serious, in fact, quite the opposite. Play can be the place where we do our most serious learning. And second, it is something we do all the time. When we explore, we play. When we experiment, we play. When we tinker or fiddle, we play. Science is play. Art is play. Life, to a great extent, is play. Every great invention of the past hundred years has had an element of play in its creation. So we are using the word in a very deep and serious way. A big influence on our work was Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens, which goes so far as to make the argument that culture grew out of play, not the other way around. So, from Huizinga’s perspective play is the most basic and most human part of us.

When education became more “mechanized” it began to lose that sense of play. After all, who wants “play” in their machinery? Play is not precise or efficient; it is messy. But play also exemplifies what we think of as the ideal learning environment. Play is defined by a set of rules which form a bounded environment. But within those rules players have as much freedom as they like to create, innovate and experiment. Just think of all the amazing athletic feats that have emerged from a game like soccer, simply from the rule “you may not touch the ball with your hands.” It is that boundary that sets off an incredible set of innovations and ideas and in doing so, forms an extremely rich learning environment.

Those same principles can be applied to any environment that values learning and we believe that if we follow those ideas, we will see a revolution in education that will create a new generation of explorers, innovators, and people who understand both the ways to and value of embracing change.

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. kjm57 says:

    Henry, Thanks for Part 2 of the interview!! This cleared up many questions I had after Part 1 regarding Thomas and Brown’s ideas.

    A thought: *play* is great for learning until the players stop playing. In a collective or a classroom the players have certain boundaries and all goes well as long as the learners play along. But what about when one or more decide not to follow the boundaries? Just as in the soccer game if the several players decided to use their hands whenever they wanted the game would stop OR the *authority* aka ref, would attempt to expel them. Then it is no longer a soccer game.

    In the classroom we all fall back on authority way too often since if the play environment isn’t just right (whatever “just right” is) some of the “players” (learners) often decide to break the rules as part of their experimentation. Buy-in is absolutely necessary in this world. When it happens the learning is powerful but when it doesn’t, all stakeholders including teachers and students and school and public. That fact is not lost on clever students who for whatever reasons, decide they don’t want to play when they are supposed to.

    Hence my previous post about the absolute need for the intangible, unmeasurable, and unpaid teacher/learner (or mentor/learner if you wish) personal, trusting, and respectful relationship.

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