These are my notes from the excellent hour-long podcast interview Steve Hargadon had with John Seely Brown recently. (I’m listening to the podcast on my iPod shuffle as I wait for my delayed flight to Arkansas.)

John stated early in the interview that he is spending more time thinking about structuring the CONTEXTS for learning rather than the CONTENT. This is significant, because I think much of the effort in educational reform and improvement agendas in the past two decades has focused primarily on CONTENT via standards and testing: essentially the reverse of what John is talking about. I remember from my graduate studies on the educational philosophies of John Dewey that the ENVIRONMENT and CULTURE of learning is one of the most important things he emphasized. Dewey saw learning as an inherently social process, and in his view I think it is impossible to talk about education and authentic learning without discussing context. One of Dewey’s focus words for authentic education was whether an experience was EDUCATIVE. In order to be EDUCATIVE, the social and broader context of the learning and the learning environment has to be considered. So I am very glad at the outset of this dialog to hear John talking about redefining the pedagogy of John Dewey for the twenty-first century!

school 2.0

John contends that “the social basis of learning is not understood at all” by traditional educational structures. The fact that collaborating and sharing ideas in traditional educational settings is generally considered CHEATING belies this perspective. John shares the catch-phrase that “real learning happens when you leave the classroom,” and I feel personally committed to helping change this perception on a broad level for American educational environments. We spend so much PRECIOUS time and money every day to ostensibly create opportunities for learning for millions of students all over this nation– and it seems ridiculous that we would consciously perpetuate a model for learning which, at its core, seems to ignore this fundamentally social aspect of learning. Schools must NOT be prisons and child-care centers where young learners perceive they are largely “doing time” until they can check out with a piece of paper (a diploma) that says they have learned, whether they have or not.

John relates “it is in conversation that you begin to fully internalize what some piece of information means to you.” That is EXACTLY right, and a focus of my messages in “Podcast77: Learning As Conversation and Messy Assessment”, “Podcast49: Open the Door – Conversation, Complexity, and Messy Assessment,” and posts “Conversations and content creation” as well as in “Education is conversation.” Doug Noon reflects his understanding of the value of conversations for student learning and the teacher who can ask conversation-inspiring questions in his post, “Contested Ground.”

John shares in the interview that one of the best indicators of success in college is an individual’s ability to form and participate in study groups, because in study groups learners must converse and collaborate. SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT WITH OTHERS is the key. John has shifted from a “I think, therefore I am” paradigm of learning, to a “I participate, therefore we are” model which is fundamentally different. Through participation with others, we literally come into “being” and internalize our understandings about the world. It is vitally important that we help students learn to collaborate effectively in schools. I referenced this last week in observing that a wide gap exists between the primary skills cultivated within our present educational culture (and particularly environments focused on high-stakes accountability) and those needed for 21st century workforce success (including collaboration.)

John likes to think of web 2.0 as “the beginning of a participatory architecture for the Internet.” He is fond of thinking about learning as “playing with ideas” and struggling to build meaning collaboratively with others as a result of that “play.” For me, this describes a lot of my blogging and podcasting work! I play with new ideas, process and turn them over in my mind, share them, and end up remixing them in forms that have personal meaning. John relates that this is what John Dewey referred to as “productive inquiry.”

What do you do when you are “stuck” in your learning about something? As John says, most people (who have access to it) go to the web. Google (and the hyperlinks of the web) offer TREMENDOUS resources to learn, and we may not fully appreciate this as both individuals and educational organizations. This makes me think about 1:1 learning and the importance of putting web-connected digital tools in the hands of every learner, so he/she is empowered to move forward with the knowledge of the global community via the Internet whenever he/she is “stuck” with a learning challenge.

“Let the edge transform the core.” John talks about the experience of seeing kids “totally engage with learning” and turned on to the learning process. That type of excitement and passion is exactly what I want to help infuse more of our classrooms, teachers, and learners with. This reminds me of the excitement my 9 year old son has when watching a NOVA special about dark matter or building the “space elevator.” Wanting to be a catalyst for this type of contagious learning is what motivates me to learn about Lego robotics and start an after-school team with students at my kids’ elementary school this year.

John discusses the three pillars of traditional education:

1- Schools
2- Community (often community the library)
3- Family

John mentions Robert Putnam’s metaphorical commentary on the lessening importance of community in “bowling alone,” and extends this to the lessened influence of the family as reflected in the metaphor “dining alone.” With two of these traditional pillars of education either gone or significantly reduced in their potential to help educate learners, he points out how ludicrous it sounds to think that the school alone can accomplish the educative task. I would add to his list of pillars “the church,” but agree that its broad influence upon the minds within society has certainly waned as well. I’m not sure if the metaphor for that is “praying alone” or something else, since often I’m not sure if many people are praying at all. The point John makes, however, which I agree with is that we need to collaboratively work to construct new pillars. The social web is and will likely continue to form part of the new community pillar. He predicts in the next five years, we will see a rethinking of what the COMMUNITY LIBRARY is and should be in the context of learning. He hypothesizes that reference librarians could become MENTORS OF LEARNING for the complex process of navigating and making sense of the overwhelming plethora of digital informational sources accessible via the web.

He also recognizes the changing dynamic of the home becoming a hub of learning, in the context of multi-generational guilds forming within the same family group playing world of warcraft (WOW.) On this topic, I found via a Google Search the paper “The Play of Imagination: Extending the Literary Mind” (PDF) which John collaboratively wrote and shared in September 2006 with Douglas Thomas. In reference to MMOGs, they wrote:

As these games become increasingly popular and as they begin to approximate large scale social systems in size and nature, they have also become spaces where play and learning have merged in fundamental ways, where players have become deeply enmeshed in the practices and cultures of interactive play, collaboration, and learning. More important is the idea that the kind of learning that happens in these spaces is fundamentally different from the learning experiences associated with standard pedagogical practice.

John states his belief that many of the games and environments (like WOW) do not necessarily need to be brought directly into the formal classroom, but the DISPOSITIONS which these games often foster can and should be invited as well as further developed. If you’re unsure about the popularity of WOW, the following graph from Bruce Sterling Woodcock is illuminating:

MMOG subscriptions

In the context of open source software projects, John reflects that their beauty lies in how “truth is determined by the execution of a code: you don’t need an arbitrator of truth (like a scholar) to determine if something works or not.”

John encourages listeners to draw a distinction between “learning about something” and “learning to be.” John contends when you build something and enter a community of practice, you start to “inculturate into a practice” and “learn to become” within that practice. Learning through inculturation is something I have not considered before. The challenge of constructing learning environments in which students can effectively “learn to be” is fundamentally different than the high-stakes testing challenges we see most public K-12 schools focused on today in the United States. In his own life, John relates how it was only in graduate school that he stopped learning ABOUT research mathematics and started learning TO BE a research mathemetician. He states this change was tied directly to his access to a mentorship and tutor/tutee model of learning. We need to integrate this model of tutor/tutee and mentorship into K-12 education spaces, and NOT relegate it to only the graduate / university level of education.

This is perhaps the best quotation from the entire interview with John:

I think that the amazing moment we have right now in time is to kind-of go back and rethink what Dewey really was about. I think we have to reinvent Dewey for the 21st century–finding a way to bring productive inquiry, bring the social basis of learning, bring the cognitive basis of learning all together. And I think now we can actually start to do that in a much more authentic way for kids at almost any age in a way that there’s truly authentic things that these kids are doing that are being picked up by other kids and shared and built on and so on and so forth.

What an exciting prospect! This challenge is a major part of the work that I think we in the edublogosphere are engaged in. For more discussion on this, check out the School 2.0 wiki site.

The ability to “create, share and mod” (those are John’s words) in environments like second life represents an extremely exciting and fundamental shift in gaming/virtual environments. My perception is that many people recognize the great potential offered by an environment like second life, but don’t know how that can or should fit into formal educational settings because the entire environment and culture is so foreign to “traditional education.” John mentions both SL and the remix culture of the web as platforms for authentic learning communities. John contends that “participatory architectures for learning” can build a momentum that extends through life and may become the foundation of economic competitiveness in the years ahead.

I like the concept of “Studio-based learning” where “all work in progress is always rendered public.” Web 2.0 technologies and structures seem ideally suited to support studio-based learning. John comes back to the idea of not just learning ABOUT something, like architecture, but learning HOW TO BE a designer or an architect. He talks about how history is being taught at Exeter, where students come together after doing readings to present and critique different arguments. Again, this is the tutor/tutee model of education.

home studio

Steve and John discuss different catch-phrases for the needed instructional transition from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side:” Mentor / Coach / Tour-guide. John relates that at MIT where they had perfected the lecture, a key part of making this transition in physics classes has involved the instructors balancing a small amount of recitation with the process of facilitating learning. One of the fundamental shifts that took place at MIT was deciding NOT to “mark” (grade) students on a curve, since that decreases student motivation to collaborate. John relates the fairly well known saying, “You don’t actually know something until you have to teach it.” This reminds me of my own undergraduate preparation program at the US Air Force Academy, where virtually EVERY course was graded on a curve. I had not thought about this recently but it is certainly true: Grading on a curve is a fundamental de-motivator to a collaborative dynamic which is essential for authentic learning.

On the subject of home schooling, John views the potential of these ideas to improve homeschooling as quite dramatic. He views homeschooling as another example of “the edge” which should inform, shape and morph “the core” of education. My wife has just recently (like this past week) become further convicted of her desire to at least temporarily homeschool our middle child, who is not really engaged and thriving in her 1st grade public classroom this year. I hope she and I will embark on a homeschooling experiment at some point (perhaps next school year,) because I think we would all learn a tremendous amount from the experiences we’d have.

John discusses schools in Singapore implemeting “the full inquiry method” with success, where students (facilitated by a teacher) are able to independently explore different topics with remarkable levels of depth. This is something I’d definitely like to hear more about. John also mentions the importance of learners “creating meaning and identity” for themselves. I think blogging is a major way I do both these things today, and that these ideas should become instructional goals for many teachers as they craft lessons for students.

His story about Xerox reps and their reticence to use formal “fault identification diagrams” instead of the tacit knowledge which was built as a result of storytelling and relationship building they did with their peers and customers is insightful. The recognition that informal work and sharing, if done right, can become very significant learning moments was a major challenge for Xerox during John’s tenure there. We are so focused on measuring “on task” behavior in schools that recognizing our “off task” behaviors may be the most important contributors to authentic learning is a revolutionary idea to say the least.

John’s last thought: A huge amount of the learning he did which formed the foundation for all his formal education had to do with informal “tinkering.” Lawnmowers, radios, car engines, etc were the contexts for John’s early tinkering, which his parents (who were academics) felt was wasted time. John now realizes that his ability to pick up new skills today was hugely facilitated by those formative experiences with TINKERING. In the 1980s, cars, radios, and televisions become almost “untinkerable”– John mentions, in fact, that in California “tinkering” with certain kinds of cars is actually against the law since people can easily mess up emissions-related settings on their automobiles. Now, however, “tinkering has come back IN” through these virtual participatory architectures: with music, open source software, social networking environments, online games, virtual worlds, etc. John also observes that this new form of tinkering is gender-neutral and does not privilege men in the way past forms of tinkering did.

One lesson here, I think, is that we need to encourage and empower kids to be TINKERERS again. I recognize that I am a “tinkerer” when it comes to the blogosophere, online software, and computer technology. I’ve made the connection before about how my love of Internet-powered global communication is analogous to my late grandfather’s love for ham radio, and probably also related to his love of “tinkering” with our tube-television set every Chirstmas holiday. (See #4 of my “5 things” post.) I need to encourage my own children and other learners with whom I have contact (that includes YOU!) to be “tinkerers.” The need to be flexible and adaptable in our learning styles (having a more navigational rather than procedural approach) is certainly important now in our dynamic information environment, and I think it’s safe to bet that “disposition” will continue to provide relevance in the years ahead.

Great podcast interview, thanks to John and Steve for making this wait for my Southwest airlines flight an extremely educational and thought-provoking time. (I just love being able to time and place shift my professional development!) Thanks Dave Winer, Adam Curry, and Apple Inc.! 🙂

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  • Another note on ‘tinkering.’ Although many dislike the connotation, I think that ‘hacking’ using the definition from O’Reilly, really is tinkering. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hack_(technology_slang)) Look at the definition a few paragraphs down the page.

    “An inelegant and usually temporary solution to a problem.”

    The ‘Lifehacker’ blog is one that teaches tinkering with software and hardware. Also within the computer culture, ‘Modding,’ becomes tinkering in the fact that one must learn how to fit all of the requsite pieces that make up a functioning computer in another type of case or in a case that is ultra quiet, there are even mods that air cooled like the old Volkswagen beetles. Modding also takes on an artistic aspect when you see some of the cases that are fabricated to hold computer components that are works of art unto themselves.

    I do agree with the comment that we need to encourage the ‘exploratory motive’ of the students and teachers we work with on a daily basis. We enourage

  • OK, Wes. You did a much better job summarizing the interview than I did! I think it’s mostly because you know much more about the background information than I do. Thanks for doing this!

  • Thanks Steve, but I wouldn’t put this in a better/worse light! I was taking notes and reflecting on what was said– I often feel like I have some good background knowledge when it comes to discussions like these but not nearly enough! There is so much more to read, learn about and strive to understand. I didn’t even know about John Seely Brown until this past December. What a great mind! Thanks again for doing this interview and sharing these great resources. 🙂

  • Wes (and Steve): While I’m ‘just’ beginning to absorb the ramifications of what you’ve sparked here, I can tell you that the interview and this reflection have sparked a great deal of what-if thinking for me. No lack of appreciation for that.

    In the spirit of that, I’d like to offer a challenge and invitation to you individually or as a pair:

    If you were to share this piece with a global forum of school designers and architects and planners (nearly word-for-word or using it as a starting point) and the central ideas pushed forward by Brown as a confirmation of what ‘school design’ in the future can mean, how would you write that article?

    If interested, please let me know. I’d love to talk to you about the idea of publishing just such a piece at DesignShare.com in the near future (next 2 weeks, perhaps?) with the possibility of doing an additional follow-up piece in the coming months.

    Let me know. I’ll be blogging about this entry of yours, Wes, as well as Steve’s interview with Brown. But I think that you can reach a larger and more diverse audience if we sent it out as a published article on our site and in our e-newsletter that has a pretty good sized audience/community that would be most intrigued by these connection points.

    Cheers…and very well said!
    Christian

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