Saturday, January 20, 2007

John Seely Brown on Web 2.0 and the Culture of Learning (School 2.0, Part 6)

"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."

John Seely Brown and I started to have this interview a few weeks back after I had read the short article "To Fix Education, Think Web 2.0." A bad wind storm knocked down a tree and his power just after we started, so we rescheduled for this week. I caught up with him while he was on vacation in Hawaii, where he was concerned that the sound of the surf would come through onto the recording. Luckily, it didn't, but you can tell that he is speaking over a cell phone...

The second half of this interview is so powerful that I have listened to it myself three or four times.

Interview Notes:

  • JSB was formerly the director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). They were always engaged in pushing technology to extremes. He was hard-core high-tech toward education, then moved toward thinking of learning; thinking not so much about structuring content, but the context for learning. People are inveterate learners when put in social groups. Almost all of the real learning we do today is with and from each other. Not building up stocks of knowledge, but how do you participate in social "flows" of action from which you can pick up new ideas.
  • The social basis of learning is not understood at all. Collaborative learning: with and from each other. The whole notion of passively sitting and receiving information has almost nothing to do with how you internalize information into something that makes sense to you. Learning starts as you leave the classroom, when you start discussing with people around you what was just said. It is in conversation that you start to internalize what some piece of information meant to you. One of the best indicators of success in college is if you know how to form and join study groups, where you socially engage with others and collaborate. Huge shift from Cartesian "I think therefore I am" (knowledge as a substance getting poured into your head) to "we participate therefore we are." It is in participation with others that we come into "being" and internalize our own understandings of the world.
  • Web 2.0 -- the beginning of a participatory architecture. Learning come about through participation. Dewey's "productive inquiry." He doesn't think we understand just how profoundly Google has changed the context of how we work--in our willingness to engage in things we don't know how to do completely because we have this tool to fall back on. Moving from passive to active to "productive inquiry."
  • Is there such a thing as "School 2.0?" His belief: develop the edge, and let the edge transform the core. Allow other programs to turn kids on, let them be totally engaged in learning outside of the school, so that seeing this sends messages through parents or teachers to ask how come they are so engaged except in the classroom. Basically, when we grew up there were three pillars to the platform of education: school, community (library--Andrew Carnegie--transformed how leaning happed 100 years ago), and family. The whole world of community has been diminished, and now role of family also becoming less prominent. Two out of three pillars which educated us have disappeared, and we are expecting the school system to do everything. Now we are starting to build new types of pillars. Community: things you see with web, forming groups of learners, amateur associations, and a rethinking of what the community library could be. Reference librarian can be mentor for helping. The home, with Internet connections, becoming a different site for informal learning. Some two- and three-generational families getting together in World of Warcraft (WOW).
  • We confuse looking at the center of games (like WOW) and the edge, or periphery, of the games. What can be learned, for instance, in the social life around the edge of WOW--like in creating a "guild." Some of these things which happen outside of school don't necessarily need to be brought into the classroom. Dispositions which are critical for the 21st century. You don't teach a "disposition," you enable it to be formed. This is different than the learning of "hard-core" content. Is the learning of content as important as it used to be? Being able to find content and engage in productive inquiry and critical thinking. Rethinking schools built around projects and the inquiry method, with the teacher as "coach."
  • Open Source: truth is determined by the execution of the code. You don't need an arbitrator of truth--does it work or not? Learning in able to join that community of practice. Learning "about something" versus "learning to be," which happens when you engage in a community of practice. You start to inculturate into a practice, and you learn to "become" in that practice. Learning through "inculturation" is a critical notion, where kids learn to "be" much, much earlier than in the past. The apprenticeship model of learning to "be" hasn't usually occurred until graduate school. Thinks this is starting to happen now for youngsters when they engage in social networks, building stories, building games, building guilds, etc. The sense of engagement. "Becoming" through the process of building something that gets picked up and further modified by someone else. Create -> Share -> Mod. In some interesting way, my persona starts to with the things that I build and share--all the way up to amateur/citizen science. Example of amateur astronomy groups, kids working together, hooking up their telescopes together, being able to engage in pretty serious discovery of stuff, serious enough to being to interact with the professionals, creating new relationships where both are working together and learning from each other. A major step toward culture of learning. Start at 7/8 years old or younger, build a momentum that extends through life, that will be the real basis of economic capability of this country in the 21st century.
  • "Studio-based learning." In the studio, all work in progress is always rendered public. Like architectural studios, with all looking over each others work. Master comes in and does a "crit" of a particular student, which all students learn from, and which is an amazing learning experience for each student in the studio. Master's comments reflect back into all the steps of the final product, which the students have seen. A major learning event for everyone in studio, as all were kind of "co-participants" in the project being critiqued. You are not just learning about being an architect, you are learning to be an architect. Example of AP history class with students working on answers for different questions, which are placed in a class wiki. The role of social software in the classroom is a major step forward in this way--like learning to write to your peers instead of writing to your teacher. Educational blogging and being engaged with an audience.
  • Training. Before any new technology has a chance to reach its real power in terms of changing learning, it will involve teachers changing their own practice. Changes in grading as well can make a real difference. Better students helping other students helps them to learn the material even better themselves.
  • Home schooling is one more example of "the edge." We can learn a lot more from them as to what parts of this work really well, and then use that to inform the center. Homeschooling is going to turn out to be a major source of insights into how to morph the core. Child can become a significant player in multiple communities of interest.
  • Continuous productive inquiry almost as a form of entertainment now for youth, displacing "television viewing."
  • Singapore: a huge educational shift, partly because the government has taken deadly serious that knowledge work is the essence of the 21st century. Making amazing progress in the school systems bringing in the "full inquiry method." Small groups of kids that go off and explore in depth.
  • The Xerox technicians story: figuring out where learning was actually taking place, and finding that it was completely contrary to the formal learning structures that were in place. Understanding a social phenomenon that could be tapped into that brought meaning and identity to the technicians, and produced much better dissemination and learning results. It took a huge amount of trust to make this change--it went against the whole culture and the power structure to realize that the learning moment weren't where they thought they were. Parallel to education. We're so busy measuring all these "on-task" things that we don't realize that much of what we are doing "off-task" may actually be more relevant to learning.
  • A huge amount of the learning that a lot of us do, that formed the foundations of all the formal education that we got afterwards, could be called "tinkering." Because of changes in electronics and cars, a whole generation couldn't tinker. In the last ten years, these participatory architectures have introduced tinkering again. It is virtual and social tinkering, not necessarily mechanical, tinkering. And what is interesting is that it is relatively non-gender-specific. You are going to find women tinkering as much as guys do.

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  1. Please check out Wesley Fryer's blog post on this interview, which does a much better job than I did of summarizing the discussion points!

  2. Steve - I am about to listen to the interview, but must say I really agree. Teaching to the participatory students of today takes a lot of work. Thank goodness it is all so much fun.

  3. Anonymous7:34 AM

    All the problems and solution to learning
    have been dicovered a long time ago . The info
    is in the libary . gk

  4. Geo: if you mean what I think you mean, I agree. I think the new technologies are helping to bring some things to the fore, but I have been impressed by the degree which this dialog is very informed by voices from the past.

  5. Anonymous1:39 AM

    Its crazy where will web 2.0 stop. I mean I can do just about anything online these days. That wasn't an understatement.

  6. Anonymous7:46 PM

    I'm just stumbling upon John Seely Brown from a podcast and I just wanted to say thanks for putting this blog together. Wish I found it sooner.

    Lots of good intel; all worth reading. I'm going in.



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