John Seely Brown – A New Culture of Learning

John Seely Brown (hereinafter referred to by his initials, JSB) gave the closing keynote at this year’s NMC Summer Conference. He gave a powerhouse of a talk that left us with a big picture view of what those of us in academia (or indeed in any industry) are facing in these uncertain and constantly changing times. How can we face the associated challenges, and survive and thrive in the face of them? JSB goes by the title Chief of Confusion (, and it seems a strange moniker until you consider that we are all probably a little confused in trying to think about these things. JSB’s skill is in asking the right questions and thus getting people to think in a particular way. He’s very much a big picture, 40,000-foot guy. (Apologies for the metaphor abuse!) JSB’s currently serving as a resident scholar at USC and has obviously impressed the NMC folks enough that they asked him to close out the conference.

(If you attended the conference and were present at the John Seely Brown talk, I invite you to skim through the summary below or just skip straight to my reflections if you wish. I also invite anyone reading this to lend your thoughts in the comments. Thank you!)

The Talk

JSB starts out with context – we’re in the midst of a big shift from a state of predictable equilibrium to one of constant flux, more so than ever before. We must not be clinging to 20th Century infrastructure. We’re seeing exponential advances with no stability in sight; Moore’s law (where computer chips double in capacity every 2 years) is becoming obsolete. Traditionally, when we’ve faced change and new adoption cycles we’ve seen the long S curve with an adoption period, then long periods of stability. It looks something like this with my own crude attempt at artwork:
Not so much any more. Now we’re looking at roughly a 2 year cycle of change, with a rapid set of punctuated moves and no real stability:
scurves.pngCivilization has never seen a game like we’re in now.”

In the workplace and in much of life, the half life of any particular skill is shrinking (maybe 5 years now). We’re moving from “stocks” of knowledge to “flows” of knowledge being the valuable commodity to possess. Another way to look at stocks vs. flows is as protecting knowledge assets and resisting change vs. participating in knowledge flows and creating new knowledge. JSB also refers to the latter as scalable tacit learning (in a position of embracing change). JSB uses the analogy of today’s mobile devices, calling them curiousity amplifiers rather than communication devices. I get this analogy. Calling them communication devices pegs them into the old “stocks” way of learning while thinking of them as curiosity amplifiers fits them much more neatly into the “flows” way.

Our 21st century challenge is to prepare our students and ourselves for this constant change. There is another way to rethink how we learn. The old view is the “Cartesian” view of learning – I think therefore I am. Knowledge is thought of as substance, pedagogy as transfer. In the social view of learning, we participate therefore we are. Understanding is socially constructed. Nothing beats study groups for this deep socially constructed understanding. There is no better way to predict learner success than to gauge ability to form study groups. And these study groups can work virtually as well as physically.

There are still plenty of examples of entrenched learning institutions not “getting” this concept and unfortunately penalizing students. JSB provides an example that took place at Ryerson University. A student was an administrator of a very popular Facebook group called “dungeons/mastering chemistry solutions,” which was, as the name suggests, intended to be an online study group. The university took issue with this group and charged the student with 146 counts of academic misconduct. The academy’s argument centered around three things:

  • learning should be hard
  • there is no structure of academic rigor in the online environment
  • it is the institution’s job to guard against any threat to academic integrity

In other words, unless learning is hard & controlled by others, it fails to meet academic standards.

The good news in this story is that the student was eventually cleared of all charges. A lesson here is that learning and education are not the same thing – learning is fundamentally fun and fulfilling, while education is what is determined by the academy and utilizes a top-down approach. I’ll add that though they are not precisely the same, they can reinforce and compliment one another, and the Ryerson case helps to illustrate this.

The Grommets
An interesting example of social learning gone right is that of “the grommets” in Maui. Never before had a world champion surfer come out of the island of Maui, and a young man by the name of Dusty Payne wished to change that. He started with a small cohort “study group” of his peers, the grommets. The way the story ends is that they are all world champions now.

How is this possible? The kids had extreme passion & a willingness to fail. They analyzed, frame by frame, world champion surfers on DVD. Then using their own video equipment they analyzed themselves by comparing themselves to the champions and working on corrections. They pulled the best ideas from adjacencies – similar sports such as skateboarding, mountain biking, and motor cross. They accessed “spikes” of capabilities around the world, leveraging networks, and attracting others worldwide to help them.

The mindset for becoming a world champion is thus: passion for extreme performance, a deep questing disposition, and a commitment to “indwelling” within the practice.

Other examples

JSB also gave examples from the World of Warcraft and speed chess communities and urges us to play close attention to the social life on the edge of the games rather than what’s going on in the games themselves. Deconstructing these practices gives us a lot of ideas for learning and education. We observe a blend of the tacit and the cognitive – that which is easily observable and measurable (cognitive) vs. the tacit, social learning on the edge which is arguably just as important.
A Blended Epistemology

This brings us to the core of JSB’s talk and the blended epistemology he’s urging us to consider. What we have now is man as knower (homo sapiens) vs. man as maker (homo faber). For home faber, answers become questions and tools are seen as means to productive inquiry. Yet there is a third way to look at humans in society today. Homo ludens possesses a highly nuanced concept of play, the freedom to fail, and imagination. Each of us has experienced a homo ludens moment in the form of an EPIPHANY or through learning as “riddles”. These are things you never forget, they stick with you. Homo ludens‘ play is the progenitor of culture.

A simple reframing

Through new media, we can now create context as much as content. Blogging itself is a form of joint context creation. The blogger is a node among nodes, connected but unfinished. With the links and the comments and the trackbacks that make up the blogosphere, it’s a conversation rather than just a productive activity. Blogging in this sense is like jazz. Both are intimate, improvisational, and communicative.

On that “note” (excuse me for pushing the jazz metaphor), let’s look a little deeper at this. :-)
my reflections

First of all, and this is probably a minor point, but I couldn’t help but take interest in the script-like font JSB chose for his slides. It gave the presentation a handwritten, sketchy feel. To me, this set a backdrop for the theories and concepts that JSB was presenting – nothing set in stone here, it’s all being sketched out. Rather than call into question any legitimacy issues with JSB or his content, I feel it served to reinforce his points rather well. We live in rapidly changing times and the best any of us can do is sketch out what we think is happening. That’s my take, anyway.

Now, I feel the need to note something. JSB contrasts old pedagogy models that utilize “transfer” to deliver “stocks” of knowledge with new models that recognize the social construction of knowledge. This is far from being a new concept. The great educational theorist Paulo Freire is perhaps best known for pioneering the concept of the “banking” model of education, which sounds very like the “stocks” JSB describes. What JSB calls the “Cartesian” model of learning sounds very like what those who study education call the “behaviorist” model or pedagogical approach – simple, rote learning and transfer of knowledge. By no means, though, do I think any of this means we should not still be allowing these social pedagogies to be driving our thinking and our practice. We need constant reminders; to those of us on the edge, none of this is a big deal, but we’re still dealing with forces in the academy invested in the older pedagogical models. A pep talk is always welcome.

I also found JSB’s use of species name construction (homo sapiens, homo faber, homo ludens) to be a bit strange and intriguing and it’s taken me a while to really wrap my head around it. Homo sapiens I get; we are genetically not all that different from our hunter-gatherer days, right? What’s up with implying that we are somehow a different species now? I think that what JSB’s getting at is that we really have evolved – as a culture and as individuals. We no longer live by the same set of rules and cognitive structures as we once did. Not even the same as 100, 50, even 25 years ago. Not even close. Sure, our species and cultures have faced great challenges and opportunities in the near and distant past (wars, famine, disease, technological innovations), and I’m not advocating we dismiss or forget those experiences in our collective memories. They have helped define who we are. But as I believe JSB would say, we are not just being, we are becoming now. There is no steady state. Get used to the flux. And have fun learning along the way.

JSB’s talk affected me deeply and gave me renewed optimism for the future of education. I think the NMC made an excellent choice for a closing plenary speaker. At a conference like this, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the number of choices, the quantity of information, and of course all the great conversations that happen. There were times I wished there were 5 of me to take it all in and not miss a beat. But I feel like I’m in the right place, and I feel like it’s ok to go with the flow, to not become overwhelmed with it all. I’m reminded of why I love my job, and why it’s ok to become deeply involved and at the same time not become too attached to one particular skill or project I might pick up along the way. It is the process of learning that I will always look forward too.

5 thoughts on “John Seely Brown – A New Culture of Learning

  1. I agree with Michael Berman re deep and provocative and with Natalie’s most personal and thoughtful response to that talk. I had a similar response when reading the book, A New Culture of Learning… it is meant to be read twice methinks. While the book is aimed at transforming learning in schools every concept I read can be equally applied to any part of our lives – lived well with others.

    If you’d like to see the next chapters of your life as the kind of adventure story you co-create with others and want a bigger voice in the role you play – literally – read and share this book with those you think will make engrossing, imaginative playmates.

    Some of my favorite quotes from this book:

    * The new culture of learning gives us the freedom to make the general personal and then share our personal experience in a way that, in turn, adds to the general flow of knowledge.

    * In the new culture of learning, people learn through their interaction and participation with one another in fluid relationships that are the result of shared interests and opportunity.

    * Play is the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules. When play happens while learning it creates a context in which information, ideas and passions grow.

    * The important thing about the Harry Potter phenomenon is not so much what the kids were learning, but how they were learning. Thought there was no teacher in this setting, readers engaged in deep, sustained learning from one another through their discussions and interactions.

    * In a world of near constant flux, play becomes a strategy for embracing change rather than a way of growing out of it.

    * The challenge is to find ways to marry structure and freedom to create altogether new things.

    * Study groups dramatically increase the success of college students in the classroom.

    * The connection between the personal and the collective is a key ingredient in lifelong learning.

    * When information is stable, the explicit dimension becomes very important. The speed of light, for example, is probably not going to change….The twenty-first centry, however, belongs to the tacit. In the digital world we learn by doing, watching, and experiencing… not by taking a class or reading a manual.

    * Students learn best when they are able to follow their passion and opeate within the constraints of a bounded environment. Without the boundary set by the assignment there would be no medium for growth.

    * Indwelling is a familiarity with ideas, practices and processes that are so ingrained that they become second nature. When engaging the learner, we must think about her sense of indwelling, because that is her greatest source of inspiration, but it is also the largest reservoir she has of tacit knowledge.

    * Dispositions indicate how a student will make connections on a tacit level… how she is likely to learn.

    * Learning from others is neither new nor revolutionary; it has just been ignored by most of our educational institutions…

    … and, I would add, by most of our organizations.

  2. just saw JSB present the same set of concepts to the STEM conference in Brisbane … not sure that his concept of the transitory and ephemeral nature of knowledge is enhanced by this repetition of his idea.
    I noted too his use of ‘sketchy’ font in the presentation but it made me feel that his ideas were not thought through so it surprised me to find your review from July. I was actually searching for his quote from Huinzinga but could not locate it.

  3. Thank you Natalie – I always find that when JSB talks I find it hard to think and listen at the same time – what he is saying it seems to be open and simple but it’s deep and provocative – so I really appreciated reading your summary which seemed to capture the feel of his talk quite well.

  4. Natalie, I’ve been following JSB since his book, “The Social Life of Information.” His ideas on learning as participation have always intrigued me. Now some of his examples of the intense learning done by surfer’s and WoW players interests me and I am looking for what might be possible with with workplace learning.

    Great discussion of his work.


    • Thanks for your comment, Lynn. I haven’t read “The Social Life of Information”, but it sounds intriguing and I will be adding it to my summer reading list. I have a strong interest too in the implications for workplace learning; I think that the tacit learning – the interactions and stories – tell a lot about the learning culture in an organization.

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