Book Review-Thomas and Seely Brown

This week I read A New Culture of Learning; Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown.  This is a quick read, and contains some interesting ideas as well as a good summary of some of the ways people are learning in the 21st century.  Unfortunately, the book relies heavily on knowledge claims and anecdotes.  The authors have tried to create an education book for the masses, which means that many of the statements in the book left me, a teacher, scratching my head and wondering where the citations were.  For example, let’s look at the opening lines: “When people think about learning, they usually think about schools.  And when people think about schools, they usually think about teachers.  In this book, we take a different approach.”  Huh?  what people? where? when?

Much of the book is laid out in this fashion.  Is there a name for this genre of nonfiction?  Popular nonfiction?  Pop-culture professional literature?

But, let’s be for something and not against it.  The big idea in this book:

“…what makes the concept of the new culture of learning so potent-is how the imagination was cultivated to harness the power of almost unlimited informational resources and create something personally meaningful…fusing a vast informational resource with a deeply personal motivation led to an unexpected, unplanned, or innovative use of the space.”

In short, our imaginations and motivations, when combined with unlimited access to information and networked communities, can lead to powerful learning.

My problem with this book (I’m going to have to retract my earlier “let’s be for something” statement), is that throughout the book the authors work hard to give the reader the impression that this big idea is contrary to our education system.  I’ll grant them the point that the “imagination + motivation + access to information = profound learning” equation is impossible to measure with standardized tests and that standardized tests dominate our current public education system.  But this is a cause and effect fallacy.  It’s not teachers that are hankering for standardization.  Teachers are arguing nonstop to NOT let standardized tests drive instruction.  It’s in every professional journal, graduate course, teachers lounge, and PTA meeting.  Teachers, and the best researchers/thinkers in education, agree with the authors’ above quotes.  Where are these teachers who think that “students themselves (are) machines being programmed to accomplish tasks” as the authors state.  I could stand behind this book 100% if it didn’t try to create a false debate between this “new culture of learning” and the reissue of popular negative ideas of “traditional education”.

You see how the book went for me.  Deep engagement and agreement on many points, furious and disgusted disagreement with others.  Chapter 3 in particular, where the authors discuss the “traditional view of teaching” had me practically gouging my eyes out with anger.  I think books about kids/teachers/education should always have an actual teacher reader/reviewer to detect crap.  (listen up danah boyd).  That way, brilliant ideas can reach those of us in the trenches without completely offending our professional sensibilities.

I will say that after you get past chapter three the information is interesting and the digs at teachers are a bit more spread out.  Much of the book is an uncited rehashing of current ideas about digital literacy (all chapter 8 does is review Mizuko Ito’s findings from her book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out), but it’s still a good review.

Aside: Oh my gosh as I’m paging through this book on my kindle, I can’t help but notice that I highlighted all the irritating parts.  Maybe I shouldn’t be reviewing this book.  Here’s a particularly astute question: “What if, for example, questions were more important than answers?”  ARRRGH!  This is not new, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Seely-Brown!  Have you ever been in a classroom or met a teacher?

Granted, I could be wrong about this book.  Will Richardson, who I read, adore, and seek to imitate, gave the book a positive review.

OK.  I’ll leave you with a few great quotes from the book.  I know it’s obvious I’m quite conflicted.

“In the twenty-first century…knowledge is becoming less a question of ‘What is the information?’ and more of a ‘Where is the information?'”

“In the new information economy, expertise is less about having a stockpile of information or facts at one’s disposal and increasingly about knowing how to find and evaluate information on a given topic.”

Your thoughts?

One thought on “Book Review-Thomas and Seely Brown

  1. Fascinating.

    And I would *never* assign a book that I’d read as teacher bashing. Honest. And at the same time I completely respect that others would read this differently.

    I’ve had some small groups of preservice teachers read this book. Suffice it to say that it sometimes makes them nervous, as it shakes up the adult-driven model of learning that is so common.

    *where* is the information is the key question for me. And in schools where so many teachers aren’t yet clear themselves where to go to find networks of people generously sharing information, it seems a good question to keep exploring.

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