Shaping Serendipity for Learning: Conversations with John Seely Brown

Shaping Serendipity for Learning: Conversations with John Seely Brown

July 31, 2013 12:40 AM

“Conventional wisdom holds that different people learn in different ways.  Something is missing from that idea, however, so we offer a corollary: 

Different People, 
when presented with exactly the same information in exactly the same way,
will learn different things. 
Most models of education and learning have almost no tolerance for this kind of thing.  
As a result, teaching tends to focus on eliminating the source of the problem: 
the student’s imagination.”

-John Seely Brown

Serendipity in Maui
Videos Below

by C.J. Westerberg

I recently sat down with John Seely Brown, an iconic name in education-technology-science spheres, to talk about his book, A New Culture of Learning.
How our initial meeting came about was a serendipitous story in its own right. It goes something like this: friend sends me video clip featuring JSB (his moniker) about lessons learned from surfers near his home in Maui (we both live there, Brown part of the year).  Later that same day, I have conversation with a school Head who mentions spending time with JSB on campus the day before. Completely out-of-the-blue.

Just a coincidence?  Maybe. But there’s more. Later that evening, shortly after sending an interview request to JSB with the subject line, “one of the serendipitous moments,” I viewed a JSB video that I’d never seen or heard before where midway through, his talk revolved around “Shaping Serendipity”. True. Fast forward to this past weekend where I learn thatengineering one’s serendipity was an ubiquitous topic of conversation at the SxSW conference and continues to be a trending meme.  Who knew?
Okay, so much for THAT serendipity and onward to JSB’s book subtitled “Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change” which actually has much to do with creating the conditions for the s-word to happen in education. Being one of those carnivores of books, I did read Culture some time last year yet a second read gave me a different take on it.  Changing education contexts and the cultural zeitgeist demand a different lens. For example, early last year, MOOCs were an embryo in the edu-conversation landscape and now they’ve become the daily headline in one form or another.
Characteristically, JSB is big on espousing the importance of context and is absolutely right to bring it to the forefront of our thinking. In our work, how often have we’ve heard, “We tried this before and it didn’t work” as if different timing and context have no relevance?  Taking this  thinking one step further, if an idea failed in a good economy, it must surely fail in a bad economy.  JSB believes that knowledge is becoming less of a question of “What is the information?” and more of a “Where is the information?” because of the increasing importance of context, what to do with it, and so on.
Two concepts that JSB unravels in Culture are tacit knowledge and tacit learning. Whether one is a parent, educator, administrator, researcher, policy-maker, or bureaucrat,understanding and articulating these learning dimensions are necessary in order to create the conditions for motivated, life-long learners with imagination.  From Culture:
Traditionally, a person who can answer a given question is said to “know” the answer.  We say that person has explicit knowledge.  It is content that is easily identified, articulated, transferred, and testable.  But it’s not the only kind of knowledge there is.
Michael Polanyi, a scientist turned philosopher, wrote a great deal about the concepts of knowledge and knowing.  In a short book called The Tacit Dimension, he begins with a very simple premise: 
 “We know more than we can tell.”  What he describes is the tacit dimension of knowledge, which is the component of knowing that is assumed, unsaid, and understood as a product of experience and interaction – . . . (p.74)
For most of the twentieth century, the explicit was both abundant enough and important enough to sustain an entire system of educational practices and institutions . . .(snip)

The twenty-first century, however, belongs to the tacit.  In the digital world, we learn by doing, watching, and experiencing.  Generally, people don’t take a class or read books or manuals to learn how to use a web browser or e-mail program.  They just start doing it, learning by absorption and making tacit connections.  And the more they do it, the more they learn.  They make connections between and among things that seem familiar.  They experiment with what they already know how to do and modify it to meet new challenges or contests.  In a world where things are constantly changing, focusing exclusively on the explicit dimension is no longer a viable model for education. (p76)

Tinkering, Building and Imagination
In conversation, JSB has the curiosity and analytical view of a scientist (no surprise here with his creds), the energy of a “mad scientist,” and the unboxed thinking of an entrepreneur crossing silos with every topic and his varied work projects.  He exudes the thinking of a tinkerer!
What surprised me was that I was expecting more of an absolutist in terms of education and technology.  Not. How I expected JSB to espouse technology as the grand solution to challenges in education (the technological-solutionist). Not. In a certain respect, technology is an integral yet often invisible element in the conversation, hovering but not the shiny new toy.
Part of our conversation was fundamentally about how play and experimentation are critical components for learning and motivation, whether on or off the grid.  His advocacy for tinkering, building and creating included anecdotes running the gamut from surfers, MIT’s ScratchMontessori, and Waldorf methods. Case in point, JSB asked me what Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Julia Child, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, and Bill Gates had in common. (I was thinking college drop-outs but knew Page and Brin weren’t). The answer? They are all Montessori and Waldorf-schooled alums and/or advocates.
When asked to further elaborate about project-based learning (PBL) or hands-on learning, he doesn’t see this as a solo act if we are interested in developing life-long learners. In fact, in order to move PBL up the food chain of learning, JSB posits that there are a few other key components. One is learning as inquiry which is discussed in Culture within this new context. Learning by inquiry flips the student-teacher dynamic having students asking questions as opposed to answering questions.
By allowing the student to be in a “what if?” mode of thinking, the student is provoked to be more imaginative.  What if I do this? and What if I do that? is another form of tinkering. If you fall down, you get back up.  If you make a mistake, you try something different. The old culture of learning pegs a student if they fall. In the old culture of learning, if you fail once, you may
get a pass. Fail twice, get branded.
As far as becoming an “entrepreneurial learner,” JSB distinguishes this from “learning to be an entrepreneur” in an entertaining and mind-thumping video featured in Part Two of this post.
A related gem quote from Culture:
But thinking about play as a disposition, rather than as merely engaging with a game, reveals something more fundamental at work.  Much of what makes play powerful as a tool for learning is our ability to engage in experimentation.  All systems of play are, at base, learning systems.  They are ways of engaging in complicated negotiations of meaning, interaction, and competition, not only for entertainment, but for creating meaning. p 97

Good examples of project-based-learning, learning through the arts, real-world internships, gaming, connected learning, the makers movement – all are illustrations of tacit learning at work but have little or no place in reports of US global competitiveness because there is no standardized test for tacit knowledge. We all know how “testing knowledge” is not only big business but currently represents high stakes for students and teachers.
So what are we really measuring in education?  In modern culture, we celebrate those who have imagination, those who not only think outside the box but create a different box, those who think different (RIP Steve Jobs), and yet in school, we are structured to celebrate those who can do . . .  what exactly?
Culture is a compact book (118 pages exclusive of references) without the extra padding many non-fiction books often make one endure to pump up the value perception. In this case, lean does not equate to thin.  Quite the opposite.


Cultivating the Entrepreneurial Learner

July 31, 2013 12:35 AM

We dedicate this book to the parents of children 
who are growing up in the digital age. 
We hope our contribution will illuminate the strange and wondrous learning styles
of the next generation.

– Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown

Connected Learning: Communities and Collectives
Part Two:  John Seely Brown
Videos Below

by C.J. Westerberg

In Part One, Shaping Serendipity for Learning, we talked to John Seely Brown (JSB) about explicit vs. tacit learning and knowledge from his book,
A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.
Here’s another excerpt for a refresh:
Explicit knowledge, as we have seen, lends itself well to the process of teaching – that is, transferring knowledge from one person to another.  You teach and I learn.  But tacit knowledge, which grows through personal experience and experimentation, is not transferable – you can’t teach it to me, though I can still learn it.  The reason for the difference is that learning tacit knowledge happens not only in the brain but also in the body, through all our senses. It is an experiential process as well as a cognitive one.  
It is not about being taught knowledge; it is about absorbing it.
 (p 77)

The second pre-requisite for The New Culture of Learning for a world of constant change is  “learning in the collective”:
A collective is very different from an ordinary community.  Where communities can be passive (though not all of them are by any means), collectives cannot.  In communities, people learn in order to belong.  In a collective, people belong in order to learn.  Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives drive theirs from participation. (p 52)

In fact, JSB points to a “line of research begun by Harvard University professor Richard J. Light which demonstrated that study groups dramatically increase the success of college students in the classroom. Further studies have shown that virtual study groups also work . . . ”
So now, let’s apply tacit learning with the collective as it applies to college residential experience and MOOCs, the latter critiqued for most being explicitly lecture-based.
Will MOOCs 2.0 have an equally strong collective component?
College campuses illustrate the phenomenon clearly.  Within the old culture of learning, the value of a college education could be said to consist of the sum total of the accumulated explicit knowledge one learned and the techniques of learning that one mastered.  But in universities today, as in other educational institutions, learning is happening outside as well as inside the classroom – in late-night discussions among students, in study groups, during campus events, and in student organizations.  When that tacit dimension is taken into consideration, the value of a university education grows to include the learning that happens when students are immersed in an environment that values learning itself.  . . (p78)

Schools as institutions can no longer be citadels of learning (bold emphasis added by editor):
Throughout life, people engage in the process of continuous learning about things in which they have a personal investment.  Learning that occurs outside of schools or the workplace – though hobbies, reading, the media, and so on – is almost always tied to their passions. Yet although they are constantly learning about the things that really interest them,
 those things are rarely acknowledged in educational environments.
(p 57)

. . . A growing digital, networked infrastructure is amplifying our ability to access and use nearly unlimited resources and incredible instruments while connecting with one another at the same time.  However, the type of learning that is going on as a results looks so different from the kinds of learning described by most educational theorists that it is essentially invisible. (p 18)

Cultivating the entrepreneurial learner (and not “how to create an entrepreneur which JSB distinguishes in video #1 below) has to do with learning through collectives:
A website dedicated to gardening, for example, makes no demands on its users; there are no tests or lectures.  There is no public influencing of private minds.  Yet learning happens all the time.  And because there is no targeted goal or learning objective, the site can be used and shaped in ways that meet the needs of the collective – in this case, a group of people with a shared interest in gardening. Identity and agency within that space are both fluid, but they are defined by how the personal meshes with the collective.  And that meshing, when it occurs, is likely to transform both the individual and the collective he or she is interacting with.  (p 58)  

Such a transformation embodies both play and imagination. (p 58)

Project-based learning (PBL) in schools needs to go beyond this scenario:
When considering the personal and the collective in the context of education, similar principles apply.  Take, for instance, one of the most difficult and dreaded classroom activities: the group project.  Students struggle to complete the exercise and teachers struggle to grade it.  Why? Because our models of how a classroom works have no way of understanding, measuring, or evaluating collectives.  Even worse, thy have no means of understanding how notions of the personal may engage students.  As a result, group work is almost always evaluated by assigning individual grades to students based on their contribution…”  (p 62)
Now surf the web and look at any social networking environment, video, or art site.  They are all group projects.  No one dreads them, and no one has any trouble evaluating them at all. . . .  (p 62)

If the quest to create lifelong learners is a goal:
The connection between the personal and collective is a key ingredient in 
lifelong learning.
  Amateur astronomers looking to the sky for new discoveries, 
Andrew Sullivan
 blogging, college students studying, and kids reading over their summer break all demonstrate how pervasive this dynamic is in our contemporary landscape for learning.  
They also all point to the same thing: the fact that technology has now made connecting personal interests to collectives possible, easy, fun, and playful because people are inspired to think past the boundaries and limitations of their current situations.  Kiva’s funding of microloans, for example, does more than make new businesses in the developing world possible; it makes them imaginable.
(p 72)

One need look no further than today’s education Twitterverse and blogosphere to hear and see JSB’s work, thinking and contribution – – – connected learning, inquiry-based learning, taking project-based learning to the next level, the importance of the arts and play in education – and the newest meme, serendipity.  The beat goes on.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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