A New Culture Of Learning

A New Culture Of Learning

John Seely Brown is quickly becoming a bit of an academic rolemodel for me. The ideas he presents are in step with my own thinking. My research is going to look closely at his works and apply some of his theories directly to gaming – particularly Minecraft. Brown and Thomas’ book is an exploration on learning in the digital environment. Arc-of-LIfe Learning – Brown begins his exploration by looking at some examples of learning. A few case studies are used as an illustration of how learning has been achieved beyond educational institutes. Kids and adults have shown that they are learning through interaction, discovery and having fun.

Briefly, A New Culture Of Learning begins with some discussion about culture and how culture shifts due to technology’s influence. Traditional ideas (such as the classroom) are a mechanist approach where learning is a series of steps to be mastered. The focus is on the end result, the product, not the process of learning. This view is obsolete and, according to the book, a more environmental view (including digital networks) should be taken. These learning environments promote a more organic learning process. The crux of this book is the very idea that technology has created an avenue for a new culture of learning to develop; a more environmental, holistic learning approach with technology as an ingrained part of that learning.

To achieve this goal, there must be change. The infrastructure of the internet has grown exponentially faster than any technology advances before it. The biggest realisation is that culture has changed from static (information as a one way street) to a participatory medium. Information shifts and changes as we interact with it, share it and remix it across the internet. We participate and interact with knowledge in a way that has never been possible before.

The result is a new way of learning. Through play and imagination we can change how we think of the learning process. No more memorising. Instead, information absorption through the process of engaging with information and the world around us. Playing is a powerful learning tool.

Enter here the collective. I like this word … collective. It’s not community, it’s not collaboration. It’s more like bees in a hive. There’s a certain busy buzziness and “many as one” feeling to the word. The collective is a way to describe how we interact as online groups. The focus is on original content. Through peer-to-peer learning we can share and compare information and learn from each other. Skills and talents are unleashed as a kind of peer amplifier. From this emerges a collective in which we share knowledge and produce original content.  Creating and moulding information.

There’s no middle or core in a collective, and collectives improve with size and diversity (they scale well). participation doesn’t mean contribution but can be as simple as following a conversation, liking a blog post or “lurking” in a group that is creating something interesting. Collectives are innovative.


When a gamer plays a game hundreds of times they become familiar with the practices and ideas and processes of the game. It becomes engrained. The same happens with any form of action that is repeated continuously. This is referred to as indwelling – where a practice or idea becomes second nature. It’s an adaptive process, meaning that the habits learned are flexible and responsive to change. This relates to the notion of tacit knowledge, which comes from a lifetime of experience doing something which has become second nature. It’s knowledge that wasn’t explicitly learned, but has been acquired.

People who play games or spend time online are indwellers. They develop vast amounts of knowledge an information.

Gamer Disposition

As well as indwelling, gamers have a “gamer disposition”. This disposition is using resources and experimenting to find solutions to problems inside a game – such as a way to complete a task. However gamer disposition isn’t always about the most efficient way of completing a task. Sometimes gamers look for the most unique way, or elaborate way. Having solved the task already, they might repeat the task to complete it differently.  Sophisticated solutions are often preferred over routine ones.

Gamer disposition characteristics are

  • Keep an eye on the bottom line – gamers like to improve. They like to be evaluated and compared to other gamers. 
  • Understand the power of diversity – games require teamwork, so teams have a mix of talents and abilities. Gamers don’t think about how good they are but think about how good the group is and their role as part of that group.
  • Thrive on change – games aren’t static. If they were, gamers would lose interest quickly. The seek out change.
  • See learning as fun – this is a key characteristic. Games require learning and gamers love to learn the rules or systems involved in a game. As well, they love to solve puzzles and overcome obstacles (a core tenet of gaming). They convert knowledge into action.
  • Live on the edge –  gamers seek out alternative methods or strategies for completing tasks. They aren’t satisfied with mundane solutions, but try to find elaborate ways of finishing tasks. They desire to push the boundaries in order to discover something that deepens their understanding of the game.

Finally, Seely Brown and Thomas put together their thoughts in the form of knowing, making and playing. Experts know everything about their given topic. The understand the ‘what’ their topic is about. They don’t just know information, but they have a deep understanding (often through practice) of their area of knowledge. By doing something, such as hands-on activities, people are making. Building, creating content and making connections gives meaning to content and information. They are learning by doing. Finally, is the importance of play. The idea of ‘playing’ is a recurring theme in Seely Brown’s work. Through play we are able to discover and experiment, fail and test outcomes. It’s problem solving, or as Seely Brown explains it, riddling one’s way through a problem.

The world, they say, is constantly changing. This represents a state of flux which is a good thing. Flux inspires the challenge to learn and acquire knowledge. Through the many ideas brought together in the book (indwelling, playing to learn, collectives and imagination) the internet – and gaming – creates a space where new culture emerges. It’s a culture of collective inquiry that harnesses information and transforms it into something we can play and experiment with. This environment is a place which demands imagination because “where imaginations play, learning happens”.

Note: Due to time constrains, this is an abridged review and doesn’t encompass the entirety of the book.

Addendum: Apologies to readers of this blog who might have been mislead by any statements in this blog that have been poorly attributed; particularly the last comment “where imaginations play, learning happens”. When I wrote this book review, I didn’t use quotation marks around this statement, which implied that I had said it myself. This is not the case. I had simply forgotten to attribute it correctly. I have quoted other points from the book itself, but failed to quote this one (and also mis-quoted the authors by saying ‘imagination plays’ instead of ‘imaginations play’). This was unintentional. For a full reading of the twitter discussion that followed from a failure to correctly attribute a quote, see the pingback in comments below.


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