Ever since The Social Life of Information came out in 2000, John Seely Brown has been one of my favorite thinkers and authors around how learning and schools are changed by social media. I loved Pull, and his Big Shift blog at Harvard Business Review is always one of my favorite reads. Most of his work to date has been centered on business shifts and informal learning in the work environment. But this week, he’s releasing a new book that’s aimed directly at learning in school titled “A New Culture of Learning,” the first three chapters of which have already been released in pdf format. It offers an interesting, shifted view of schools away from the mechanistic “learning as a series of steps to be mastered” current system to schools as a “learning environment” where “digital media provide access to a rich source of information and play, and the processes that occur within those environments are integral to the results.” It’s not teaching about the world as much as it is “learning within the world” which reminds me of Chris Lehmann’s oft asked question “What if school wasn’t just preparation for real life; what if school is real life?”
I love this snip especially:
Finally, in the teaching-based approach, students mustÂ prove that they have received the information transferred toÂ themâ€”that they quite literally â€œget it.â€ As we will see, however,Â in the new culture of learning the point is to embrace what weÂ donâ€™t know, come up with better questions about it, and continueÂ asking those questions in order to learn more and more, bothÂ incrementally and exponentially. The goal is for each of us to takeÂ the world in and make it part of ourselves. In doing so, it turns out,Â we can re-create it.
Brown hammers home the idea that schools in their current configuration simply cannot serve students in a time of huge, hairy, fast change:
Many educators, for example, consider the principleÂ underlying the adage, â€œGive a man a fish and feed him for a day,Â teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime,â€ to represent theÂ height of educational practice today. Yet it is hardly cutting edge. ItÂ assumes that there will always be an endless supply of fish to catchÂ and that the techniques for catching them will last a lifetime.Â And therein lies the major pitfall of the twenty-first centuryâ€™sÂ teaching modelâ€”namely, the belief that most of what we know willÂ remain relatively unchanged for a long enough period of time to beÂ worth the effort of transferring it. Certainly there are some ideas,Â facts, and concepts for which this holds true. But our contentionÂ is that the pool of unchanging resources is shrinking, and that theÂ pond is providing us with fewer and fewer things that we can even identify as fish anymore.
The whole “embracing change” idea has been one on my mind a lot of late as we put the finishing touches on a new book that is attempting to create a road map for existing schools to create, as Brown suggests, a different culture around learning. The fish = facts and knowledge metaphor will not work any longer, not now when we have immediate access to information and people that will allow us to learn whatever we want to learn at the moment. Now, the “fish” so to speak are more about the learning skills we need to navigate that interaction between anytime, anywhere content and teachers really well. That’s a very difficult new emphasis for most schools which are all about stability. How do we become places that “thrive on change” instead of avoid it?
This isn’t deconstructivist when it comes to school, either.
By reframing the discussion this way, we can see how theÂ new culture of learning will augmentâ€”rather than replaceâ€”Â Â traditional educational venues. For example, people today oftenÂ describe schools as â€œbroken.â€ At first, it seems hard to argue withÂ that. But what the proponents of that position mean is that schoolsÂ have ceased to function efficiently; they are failing as machines.Â If we change the vocabulary and consider schools as learningÂ environments, however, it makes no sense to talk about them beingÂ broken because environments donâ€™t break.
It’s a lot to ask, but I think in many ways, that captures the size of the re-envision work we have in front of us. It’s more than about the language and the lens we bring, but that’s an important starting point in the work
Catherine Hainstock says
Thank-you Will for this thoughtful and informative entry.
I am a Teacher Librarian about to move from an alternative school environment into a mainstream school; the ‘sausage machine’ mentality of educating children was one of the reasons I pursued and preferred to teach in an alternative system. I will be firmly holding Brown’s idea of environment vs. machine topmost in my mind as I begin this next part of my teaching/learning journey. I look forward to reading the rest of his book, thanks for sharing!
Steve Goldberg says
I’ve been thinking a lot about learning environments, and about how people today can learn anywhere. For example, late last night I watched a TED talk about the Koran by Lesley Hazelton and I learned about a book she’d written about the Shia-Sunni split. One click later (using the amazing library-finding tool called WorldCat), I found that her book is available in my local library and I reserved a copy online to pick up later in the week. That’s so radically different from how I would access information growing up. If I was curious about something at midnight in the 1980s and early 1990s, I couldn’t do much about it… And I certainly was not choosing among TED talks to watch.
Schools (or maybe not schools — let’s call them learning environments) need to recognize that students can similarly learn anywhere any time.
Particularly today, on a “snow day” (in North Carolina, one inch of snow means a day off), it highlights for me the idea that students can — and do — learn anywhere. In fact, I just learned about John Seely Brown’s new book (thanks Will) because I had the time (snow day) to catch up on blogs.
The problem is that in school teachers proscribe what students must learn and give them tons of work that teachers have pre-determined, and so students are up until all hours of the night, and as a result, they have no time to pursue their own academic interests or pose their own questions (or even watch TED talks).
I looked up more information about an author late last night because a TED talk piqued my curiosity and I was curious what other works that author had written.
How do we give students time to be genuinely curious about “important” topics? And perhaps a better question is: how do we let students determine and pursue THEIR OWN questions, all the while developing — as you put it, Will — “the learning skills we need” for the 21st century and beyond?
We do indeed need new learning environments. And we would be well-advised to start with creative assessments, such as this exam-replacement assignment that Meredith Stewart, a colleague of mine at Cary Academy, recently developed for her High School US History class.
Do click on the link — it should be a neat assessment for the students in her class. They have to write a paper, but they also have to lead a lesson, and they have to interview someone who lived through the event/topic they choose to learn about. But my further question is whether that sort of assessment can scale from a load of 15-20 students to a load of 100+ students (she teaches one section of the high school class and is also a full-time 6th grade teacher).
If not, then we have to figure out a way to lower the student-teacher ratio in an educational environment that is less industrial and more personal. It’s hard to have a personal relationship with more than 100 students.
Meredith (@msstewart) says
Thanks for the nod to my class’s project, Steve!
I think it’d certainly be possible to “scale up” the project to a typical full load of students. There will certainly be prep and scaffolding on the front end. (A fair bit of it focused on discussions about learning and teaching to help students think through how they want to lead the class.) But I think considerably more onerous than that for most teachers would be the idea of turning over “your” class for 15 or 20 periods. With students choosing the topics they want to teach and learn about, it’s certainly not going to be a standardized curriculum. (As Chris said, “If you assign a project and what you get back is 30 of the same thing, you did not assign a project, you assigned a recipe.”) That lack of control and standardization might scare or perplex many teachers, even those on board with the idea of project-based learning.
Even though I like the project, I’m still struggling a bit with the idea of it. I worry that in some ways it simply replicates traditional close classroom pedagogy but makes the student the sage on the stage instead of me. I wrestled a little bit with that in an earlier post. I’m hoping that as the project goes along students will find meaningful ways to connect the topic to other parts of their lives and to contribute to a larger conversation than just the one that will go on inside our classroom and on the class blog.
Gary Stager says
John Seely Brown is a smart guy and I agree with your sentiments.
However, I truly wonder about the range of change. I addressed this topic in http://bit.ly/fWBxP9
Earlier today, you shared a New York Times article in which the writer “discovered” an open classroom in New York City and treated it like he found an alien life form. I have a bookshelf filled with literature on “open classrooms” and “open education.” I could take you to successful open classrooms tomorrow and have taught in them myself. The school district I grew up in had a Rand-funded open education research project underway in the early 1970s.
The real point of the NYT article was to find a BAD example of an open classroom, complete with chaos, minority kids acting primitively teacher incompetence and another example of merit pay. The article contained lots of talk of “new” this or that, but 1) rejected the new and 2) missed that open education is not new at all.
It just occurred to me. Do advocates of open-source education know about open education or free schools?
Jay Banks says
Even though I have read just tiny pieces of the book “A New Culture of Learning”, honestly I am impressed. The author uses original and figurative ways of passing on sophisticated information. Those examples drown from real life serve not only for better understanding but also give us assurance that we follow the author in every detail. This book will soon get a special spot in my private library.
Gary Stager says
It might be interesting to read, compare and contrast the new JSB book along with Frank Smith’s book, “The Book of Learning and Forgetting.” http://amzn.to/cPJ7mM
Other interesting companion reading options might include:
Seymour Sarason’s, “And What Do You Mean by Learning?” http://amzn.to/aNbdwU
Frank Smith’s “Ourselves: Why We Are Who We Are” http://amzn.to/dLE7tO
David Truss says
I read a book a while back, ‘Metaphors We Live By’, by Lakoff and Johnson. It seems that some of our metaphors we live by no longer serve us. ‘Broken schools’ is definitely one of them. I’ve been arguing recently that the big thing we need to do is put ‘learning time’ into our learning environments. Teachers spend a disproportionate amount of time teaching and have minimal learning time within their scheduled day. Learning happens ‘at’ pro-d sessions not ‘at’ school… that’s for prep time to get through the teaching of the next day’s lessons. This isn’t advocating for extra ‘free’ time, but rather scheduling learning time into a teacher’s day… giving ‘communities of practice’ regular practice and creating the learning opportunities for cross-disciplinary partnerships to actually happen.
On a lighter note, I played with the metaphor below, just for fun:-)
Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll overfish for profit and diminish supply at an alarming rate, teach a man to learn and to critically access a network of all human knowledge and he just might contribute to a solution to over-fishing or to feeding the 7 billion people on this planet.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how I could establish such a new learning culture in my classroom. As a result, I’ve started my students on a project that I hope will lead them in such a direction. I wrote about the project and process in my last blog post
ken long says
does the world really need more people that can ask interesting questions, full of wonder?
Thought experiment: if you were king, would you rather have, right now, 100M people who can reliably set up and maintain water purification and solar energy farms that could support a village or 100M people who can ask wondrous self-reinventing questions without answers?
someone has to feed the hungry and tend the sick while we gaze in wonder at the stars
people are starving right now while we sit and twitter away
Lisianna Emmett says
I found this blog very interesting. I worked in an alternative school for one semester, and honestly, the system is broken. However, ideas like this give me hope for education. I always try to incorporate things my students enjoy as part of my teaching methods. I definitely believe we have to do more to help our students be free-thinkers, to keep them interested in learning, while keeping a structure to channel their focus. I think Dr. John Strange said it best when he said he doesn’t want “burp back education.” We must be able to compete globally, and I think with the constant flood of information we receive today, students need to be taught young how to decipher who is trustworthy. I also love the idea of using social networking programs including blogging to allow students to connect with people around the world and bounce ideas off of each other. I hope to get this book soon.
N Shehadeh says
In order to benefit more from education, the education content should be reflective of challenges in the current professional environment. In this regard, education needs to address the complexity of the emergent problems with ease. Students should be equipped with vital skills and knowledge to address wide ranging problems effectively. Only them would education be important in the current society. This has varied implications requiring reforms in the current curriculum as well as instruction methods. As the complexity of emergent problems increased, more knowledge need to be generated to address them. To enhance sustainability, traditional knowledge should anchor the entire process.
What we learn or the content of education is currently reflective of the learning environment in different ways. To bridge the gaps in the process of education, curriculums have been reformed to be in line with instruction methods and learning environments. For instance, education has currently encouraged innovation and creativity. To attain this, theory is combined with practice through experiments and tests to attain optimal output. Learning environments mostly contain equipment found in the course contents.