A New Culture of Learning


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"A New Culture of Learning is at once simple, subtle, and sophisticated. Thomas and Brown help us understand the profound changes brought about by digital technology in a way that calms anxieties and fires hope for the future. We come to understand that the twenty-first century is about embracing change.

It is about how concepts like tacit knowledge, indwelling, and collective play can restore America’s competitive edge. The new culture of learning draws energy from massive information networks while honoring the bounded and structured environments in which experimentation unleashes powerful imaginations.

This is not a book about school reform but rather an exploration of how people of all ages are learning by doing, asking fresh questions, and working together to solve problems and seize opportunities. It is a call to action to reconceive how we learn at all ages. This is a profoundly optimistic book that gives us the confidence to embrace change—indeed, it compels us to celebrate change as it guides us toward the future."

—Jonathan Fanton, former president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


"Thomas and Brown introduce the provocative and extremely important new paradigm of a ‘culture of learning,’ which is appropriate for a world characterized by continual change, ubiquitous connectivity, and almost unlimited access to knowledge resources. Drawing upon their extensive experience with digital technology, learning environments, and new social structures, such as massively multiplayer online gaming, the authors make a strong case for reframing learning as a social experience more akin to play, relying on experiment and imagination to cultivate learning collectives as the natural successors to current paradigms used in today’s schools.

This is a must read for anyone interested in the future of education."

—James J. Duderstadt, President Emeritus, University of Michigan and author of A University for the 21st Century


"A New Culture of Learning may provide for the digital media and learning movement what Thomas Paine’s Common Sense did for the colonists during the American Revolution—a straightforward, direct explanation of what we are fighting for and what we are fighting against. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown lay out a step-by-step argument for why learning is changing in the twenty-first century and what schools need to do to accommodate the resulting new practices. Using vivid narratives of people, institutions, and practices at the heart of the changes, and drawing from a growing body of literature outlining new pedagogical paradigms, the authors place the terms of the argument in language that is accessible to lay readers. You can give this book to the educator in your life who wants to become an agent of change. My hope is that our schools will soon embrace Thomas and Brown’s emphasis on knowing, making, and playing."

—Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California, and the author of Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century


"A New Culture of Learning is at once persuasive and optimistic—a combination that it is all too rare but which flows directly from its authors’ insights about learning in the digital age. Smart teachers have always known that students learn from each other, and we have been admonished from time immemorial to learn from our mistakes. Thomas and Brown show that access to ubiquitous information, and the ability to communicate and collaborate with groups large and small at low cost, can create powerful learning environments that evolve as quickly as knowledge itself. Pearls of wisdom leap from almost every page: ‘Blogs are a medium for learning, but they do not teach’; ‘We know more than we can say.’ The old saw that ‘people learn in different ways’ becomes the insight that different people, presented with the same information in the same way, will learn different things. Hence, they can learn a great deal from each other: ‘Play becomes a strategy for embracing change, rather than a way for growing out of it.’ My advice to teachers at all levels is to use this book to create learning environments that harness the intelligence and eagerness of today’s students. Thomas and Brown show us that the constant change that is so often decried as an impossible challenge for teaching in the twenty-first century is actually an asset to be deployed in the service of learning."

—Paul Courant, University Librarian and Dean of Libraries, Harold T. Shapiro Collegiate Professor of Public Policy, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Economics and Information, and former Provost, University of Michigan


"Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown portray the new world of learning gracefully, vividly, and convincingly."

—Howard Gardner, John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education


"At the start of this remarkable book, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown pose a direct question: What happens to learning as we move from the comparative stability of the twentieth century to a more fluid and dynamic new century, where technological innovation is inciting almost constant change? The answer, if we as a society are wise enough to grasp it, is a promising and powerful new culture of learning. This new environment is made possible by the emergence of massively networked information and our ability to inhabit it and experiment within its secure borders. A New Culture of Learning provides a sturdy theoretical framework as well as many compelling, accessible stories that serve as guides to the future that the authors envision. The tenets of this new culture of learning include access to almost limitless information through digital media, play as a strategy for embracing complexity and change, learning proceeding from active engagement with the world, peer-to-peer interaction and communities of like-minded learners enriching learning, and questions being more valuable than answers. American education is at a crossroads. Given the relentless pace of change, doing nothing is tantamount to sliding backwards. By illuminating how play helps to transform both information networks and experimentation, and how collective inquiry unleashes the power of imagination, A New Culture of Learning provides an irresistible path to the future. Let us hope that we have the wisdom to follow."

—Joel Myerson, Director, Forum for the Future of Higher Education


"Brown and Thomas bring to life their idea of ‘collectives,’ or self-reinforcing communities of mentors and learners, by describing the new learning environments that exist in massively multiplayer online games—and this is nothing short of a brilliant revelation to those of us who have been hesitant to see the value of gaming in education. A mind-bending, and ultimately optimistic, look at the future of education, the book is filled with so many brilliant ideas that I immediately read it through a second time."

—Steve Hargadon, Founder, Classroom 2.0


"Among the most emotional and politically charged debates in this country is the state of education. Sides are sharply drawn with critics demanding change—but change to what? Into this debate step Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, two highly thoughtful people who have listened, observed, and played with ideas that have led them to a completely new and considered approach, one that needs to be heard by all citizens. They present not an ‘either-or’ approach but a ‘both-and’ set of ideas that reframe the discussion about what is core—learning. Learning that takes place everywhere and continuously. Learning that happens when we are open to it, and in unexpected circumstances. Thomas and Brown’s ideas will open minds and help us to get beyond the arguments that are holding back our ability to see and understand what is already happening in front of our eyes—the forces of learning in the twenty-first century that will make a difference in our lives—if we can embrace the possibilities of a new culture of learning."

—Richard P. O’Neill, President, Highlands Group


"A New Culture of Learning is an important book that upends the assumption that teaching is necessary for learning to occur and replaces that long-held but false belief with a powerful and convincing argument for the role of structured play, questioning, and imagination in peer-to-peer collectives. Thomas and Brown’s concise and compelling narrative, replete with playful tales from the digital frontier, is essential reading for educators, policymakers, and all others concerned with the future of our children."

—Beth Simone Noveck, Professor of Law, New York Law School and author of Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful


"Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown have written an inspiring resource for any parent, teacher, or other adult who cares about kids and the future they will build for us all. A New Culture of Learning shows all the ways that games, virtual environments, and other forms of digital culture offer possibilities for imaginative play, which helps kids deal with the challenges of today’s monumental technological and social changes. Instead of wringing their hands over the supposed ills our children face from the Internet, Thomas and Brown applaud the ways kids learn through their imaginative interactions on line. Thomas and Brown are the John Dewey of the digital age."

—Cathy N. Davidson, Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, Duke University


"Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown make it clear that education is too often a mechanistic, solo activity delivered to the young. It doesn’t have to be that way—learning can be a messy, social, playful, embedded, constant activity. We would do well, as individuals and as a culture, to listen to their message."

—Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age


"Like the best games, this story-infused book compels you to explore, discover, challenge, and focus on what’s most important: nonstop learning and evolution. Thomas and Brown demonstrate that collective play is not mere preparation for life, it is life. In order to thrive in a world of constant change, we must challenge the very nature of how we participate with one another and how we prepare for whatever comes next. Brilliant. Insightful. Revolutionary."

—Marcia Conner, coauthor of The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media


"Our top-down approach to learning is ineffective in the face of the information tsunami, complexity, and accelerating rates of change. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown describe a fresh and compelling view for the twenty-first century. They point out that learning from others is neither new nor revolutionary; it has just been ignored by most of our educational institutions. William Butler Yeats said that education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire. A New Culture of Learning ignites the fire of learning how to learn. If you care about the sustainability of human progress, read this book. You’ll never think about learning in the same old way again."

—Jay Cross, Principal, Internet Time Alliance, and author of Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance


"Thomas and Brown provide insights for engaging in the new learning paradigms all around us, which are indeed unique, nontraditional, and something that all leaders need to understand.

—Stephen Gillett, CIO, Starbucks


"Anyone who fears, as I do, that today’s public schools are dangerously close to being irrelevant must read this book. The authors’ argument, that questions are more important than answers, provides a road map—and a lifeline—showing how schools can prosper under the most difficult conditions. Learning is no longer static and discrete but continuous, because answers to real questions lead inevitably to more questions. This hopeful message is also a welcome departure from all the school bashing.

—John Merrow, Education Correspondent, PBS NewsHour and President, Learning Matters


"We need a new mode of thinking, learning, and doing— about everything from renewable energy to renewable health, pollution to poverty, global economics to global water. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown empower us with ways to boost our imaginations and let us harness change in the world and in ourselves. Their powerful insights give us the escape velocity to get past old learning debates and get on to using our minds collectively to conceive and invent an awesome future."

—Tara Lemmey, CEO, Lens Ventures


"As an ‘informal learner’ myself, I particularly appreciate the framework that A New Culture of Learning provides. If it had been around when I was still in school, I might not have dropped out. This book is essential reading not just for educators but for anyone who hopes to thrive in the twenty-first century."

—Joichi Ito, Chairman and CEO of Creative Commons


"A New Culture of Learning should be read by everyone who cares about innovation and the next generation. The work transcends the current education debate and puts forward a bold vision of lifelong learning. To inspire the next wave of entrepreneurs and change agents, we must transform our education system. This book is a great start."

—Jack D. Hidary, cofounder, Vista Research and Chairman, National Lab Network



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