By STEVE DENNING
The economic future of the country depends on how well we educate our children. At a time when the US doesn’t even rank in the top 30 countries in the world in education status, we are fortunate to have a new book: A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (CreateSpace, 2011).
The book is a short, clear and profound—all wonderful qualities in a book. Just as in management, we need to make a fundamental shift from push to pull, so in education, the book shows why we need to make a shift from teaching to learning and how to go about it.
I conversed with the authors recently about their exciting new book as follows:
1. In the book, you distinguish two senses of culture. One is the culture of the classroom, where stability and predictability is the norm. The other is a culture that is analogous to what a scientist grows in a petri dish in a lab. It happens under controlled conditions, but there is very little foreknowledge of what will result. Here the whole point of the experiment is not to intervene to control the outcome, but rather let the culture grow in an organic way. In the new culture of learning, which emphasizes this second type of culture, how do you verify what students are learning?
One of the things that we believe has really been holding education back has been a very backward model of understanding assessment. When you treat education like a machine, your main concern is efficiency: Is the machine functioning smoothly? So we actually assign numbers to outcomes: 72% or 95%, As, Bs, and Cs. But if you ask anyone what their most powerful and life changing educational experience was, rarely do they say “The time I got an A in my sophomore physics class.” The moments of learning that affect us most deeply are often unanticipated and deeply surprising.
The other problem we see in the current state of education is that answers carry more weight than questions, which we believe is exactly backwards. Answers are easy to assess or verify. Questions are trickier. But of the two, questions are far more important. In turns out, however, that it is very easy to assess questions as well. And we actually can tell what students are learning by the questions they ask. In fact, maybe more so than by having them spout out answers.
In our current system, there is usually just one answer for every question. But if we reverse the priorities, it turns out there is a multitude of questions that can be raised by working on any interesting problem.
We feel the leaders of the 21st century are going to be the ones who can ask the best questions and drive things forward. The kinds of questions we are talking about lead to outcomes and those also provide a kind of verification as to whether the questions are good ones or not.
2. You say this new type of learning takes place without books, without teachers and without classrooms. Yet you are not saying classrooms are obsolete or that teaching no longer matters. What is the role of classrooms and teachers in the new culture of learning?
We very much see classrooms and teachers as a critical part of the new culture of learning, but not in their current state. The learning we see happening all around us is bypassing teachers and classrooms because those institutions are stuck in the old ways of thinking and are ill equipped to deal with a world of constant change. It is not a necessary outcome, however. As we see it, classrooms and teachers will need to play a critical role in the new culture of learning, as they are the ones that create what we discuss as a “bounded learning environment.” In that sense, both the role of the teacher and the environment of the classroom need to change, but the changes are relatively minor. The realization we came to is that it isn’t our schools that are failing: it is our theory of learning that is failing. Once we rethink what it means to learn in a way that is based on passion, imagination, inquiry and questing, it becomes easy to reshape classrooms to those goals. One of the greatest shifts for teachers is moving into a role of mentorship and guidance, which has traditionally been the role of teachers throughout history.
3. Some traditionalists would argue that there must be still be a core curriculum of math and language skills and that unless students master these basic skills, they will still be unable to cope with the future. Do you agree? Is this something that requires the old teacher/classroom approach?
A big part of what is missing in schools today is a connection to the passion and desire to learn. If you watch a small child explore the world, they don’t need to be told to study, explore, experiment or learn; they do it naturally. Schools today have been insistent on dividing work and play, holding them out as opposites and confining play to a 40 minute break in the day called “recess.” One of the things we think is the most important about the new culture of learning is that play be seen as a critical part of all learning. Learning the rules of a game is boring, tedious and time consuming if you aren’t interested in playing it. If students see those basic skills as the “rules of the game” that enable them to play, mastering them acquires a whole new meaning. We have witnessed over and over kids mastering all kinds of “basic skills” because they were being put in the service of a deeper passion.
4. Traditionalists could be skeptical as to how much students are learning by hanging out on line. You yourself distinguish between “hanging out”, “messing around” and “geeking out”, each with an increasing level of learning. “Geeking out” is the richest and most rigorous kind of the three learning experiences. How can one know which mode students are in, or even whether they ever get beyond hanging out?
The research we draw on for this section came from the work of Mimi Ito and her team at the MacArthur Foundation’s program in Digital Media and Learning. This was an amazing ethnographic project documenting what it is that kids today are actually doing with their time online. What we were trying to do was build off of that work and try to understand what kind of learning is happening in those different modes and how they embrace the idea of change.
A big part of the idea of hanging out is that this is where people gain a huge amount of information at the tacit level. When we think of a college campus, most of the benefit we get from being at a University comes from exactly that practice: hanging out. The best lectures are the ones that prompt students to continue discussions and debates after class ends. There are talks, events, organizations and clubs, and discussions. Classes are important, no doubt, but they work best as fodder for an expanded view of learning that is about immersing yourself in a culture where discussion and learning from the people around you matters too.
Hanging out is not simply relaxing and taking it easy, it is immersing yourself in a new context and understanding how that context shapes and creates meaning. Those skills are going to be increasingly important for the 21st century, so I think we need to be careful not to underestimate the importance of hanging out in the way we talk about it.
As for knowing what stage people are in, Ito does an outstanding job of analyzing and documenting those things, so they are actually very easy to identify and understand.
5. Some traditionalists would argue, “no pain, no gain;” that unless students are forced to struggle with difficult issues, they are unlikely to hone their intellect. Yet you argue that learning must be fun and playful. Is there any hard work in the new culture of learning?
There is no question that learning can be a painful experience. But we need to remember that play can be serious and challenging as well as fun and joyful. I think we err in assuming that learning needs to be painful to be effective and our current system seems to presume that learning isn’t happening if there is no suffering.
Consider two students. One dreads his calculus homework, finds it dull and tedious and painful. He works 3 hours a night solving problems that he finds pointless. The other absolutely loves math, considers it a passion and looks forward to setting aside a few hours a night to work on calculus problems, especially ones that really challenge her.
Which of those two is actually honing their intellect? You find something that a student is passionate about and they will find the difficult issues on their own, they will push themselves, and with the proper guidance and resources, they will learn how to ask the kinds of questions that will make their interest last a lifetime, not just a semester.
6. You stress the importance of cultivating the imagination. You argue in the book that inducing students to ask the right questions can be more important than having the right answers. How do you assess whether students have asked the right questions?
This turns out to be easier than it sounds. We tend to forget that the roots of modern education in the West have their start in the Socratic method, which was all about questions and seldom about answers. We all tend to know a good question when we hear one and frequently, when we are posed with one that challenges us, we will pause and acknowledge it with a statement such as “Wow! Good question!” So at a basic level, we all understand what constitutes a good question.
In a recent class, one of us (Doug) gave a quiz to his students. Instead of asking for an answer to a question, he simply posed this problem. “If you wanted to know if someone got the most important point of this book, what question would you ask them?” The remainder of the class was spent having each student pose their question for class discussion. The discussion and debate about what the best questions were was far more interesting or revealing than having them all answer the same question would have been.
Part of the point we try to make in the book is that inquiry is not about asking a “right” question, but it is a process of asking increasingly better questions. And I think we would say that the best questions are the one that ignites a student’s passion and cultivates their imagination. And it is very easy to tell when that is happening. When students have passion and enthusiasm, it is infectious and impossible to hide.
7. How ready for implementation are the ideas in the book? For instance, do we still have to figure how to measure the progress of learning in this new, less structured environment, with a lot of experimentation still needed? Or do we have an established body of experience that can be applied immediately?
What makes a new culture of learning exciting is that we are able to take the very best elements that have always existed in learning (back to the time of Greek education and the polis right up to the one room school house) and find a way to make it accessible to everyone. What we have is the idea of a one room school house that scales to a global world with an almost unlimited set of resources of “rich nutrients” to give depth that has never previously been possible in any learning environment.
Once you make a shift in thinking to putting questions first, everything else sort of spills out of the idea. One of our colleagues wrote us a note that he sat down and read the book cover to cover one night. The next day, he completely restructured his class around the principles in the book and has the best class of the semester. In that case, we are talking about less than 12 hours to put our ideas into the classroom.
There are also some real opportunities here for the development of what we describe as learning collective, which have very different properties than communities or more traditional institutions.
Another example is the opportunity for “reverse mentoring,” a process by which the students are able to take the lead and help teachers get access to information, ideas, or resources they might not even know exist. The idea of the teacher as the all-knowing expert is not something that we think can be maintained. Every good teacher knows they can learn a lot from their students if they listen to them. That skill, which used to be optional, is fast becoming necessary in today’s classroom.
8. How is your book being received in the education community?
There is a lot of excitement about the ideas in the book and we are getting quite a few anecdotal stories about educators putting our ideas into practice with fantastic results. It does require some pretty deep changes in thinking and in the roles we all play, as administrators, teachers, and students alike, so there is a natural fear that comes with abandoning the familiar. Overall, there seems to be a pretty wide recognition that what we are doing now is no longer working and the ideas in the book seem to strike most people as being headed in the right direction and that are also scalable. Moving from the world of ideas to putting these kinds of things into institutional practice is always a challenge. We hope we have accomplished the first step in helping people see the importance of play, passion and, especially, imagination.
Some of our best responses have been from a segment of the education community that is rarely considered: the students themselves. We’ve gotten quite a few students who read the book and say “This is me!” as if it is the first time they feel like someone has gotten their sense of learning. There is also a lot of excitement from parents who see the effects of our current system on their kids. As an educational movement, getting students and PTA parents on your side is not a bad place to start. One medical school student wrote to tell us she was buying a whole stack of copies to distribute to the Deans and administrators of her program!
In some ways our theory is about making room for the student, their passion, and imagination, so it makes some sense that it may have its greatest impact as a bottom-up movement.
For more discussion of The Culture of Learning, read Why Lean Programs Fail — Where Toyota Succeeds: A New Culture of Learning
A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (CreateSpace, 2011).