How to scale John Dewey: A Conversation about innovation from the margins with John Seely Brown

We recently spoke to John Seely Brown of the Center for the Edge. Over an expansive career, Dr. Seely Brown cofounded the Institute for Research on Learning, worked as the Chief Scientist of Xerox, and acted as the director of Xerox’s famous Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Additionally, he is a prolific speaker and writer, having published numerous books and articles on an array of topics. He is also featured in a number of popular YouTube videos. While his work spans many themes and disciplines, Dr. Brown’s work in books like A New Culture of Learning has particular relevance for efforts to rethink and reimagine education around the world.

Our conversation primarily focused on his concern with innovative ecosystems of learning in the rapidly transforming contexts and demands of the 21st century. This work explores spaces where learning takes place and examines how these spaces operate within the demands of areas like the job market. In our conversation, Dr. Seely Brown suggested a number of examples of innovative learning ecologies such as online communities and the creative spaces of Silicon Valley like PARC. A learning ecology, he believes, accounts for and uses a new kind of learning, where we “step back and loo[k] at the forces and trends underlying” these learning spaces and communities. Learning ecologies, Dr. Seely Brown believes, cultivate innovation and deep learning. Moreover, they are increasingly necessary in modern educational landscapes. If it once took an entire village to raise a child, Dr. Seely Brown believes that it now “takes an entire ecosystem to educate a child.”

One of Dr. Seely Brown’s objectives is to “attack the core,” meaning attack dominant approaches to learning. While he does not specifically disregard mass schooling, he suggests that we “look to the edge,” where the activities of communities and collectives provide a contrast to rote and outcome-based approaches to learning. He believes that these often informal learning environments can provide a “beautiful compliment to formal schooling.” Dr. Brown finds great value in learning that takes place in these marginal space. For example, he spoke of the creativity, collaboration, and innovation present in virtual communities such as players of the video game World of Warcraft. The learning community and the collective indwelling produced in World of Warcraft comes from collective participation in the game, one’s role while playing the game with other players, and the social life that functions around the game. Referring to Jean Lave’s work, he refers to games like World of Warcraft as having the qualities of “virtual communities of practice.” Dr. Seely Brown uses this example as a case for the productive, educative value in activities that Mimi Ito refers to as “hanging out, messing around, geeking out.” These playful and self-directed activities, he asserts, allow learners to creatively tinker or play with their learning and imagination

In moving away from dominant or centered approaches to learning, Dr. Seely Brown suggests that researchers and educators can examine the “broader context of learning.” Again, this line of inquiry does not discount the value of schooling. Instead, it opens up where and how learning takes place and looks for ways to “transform learning into a deep adventure.” To do so, Dr. Seely Brown promotes a heavy role of “deep play,” where learners thoroughly engage problems, tasks, or activities. Within this deep play, whether it is in formal school or elsewhere, he asks “how do you honor” imagination? Regardless of the context, learning runs the risk of becoming rote if it does not value creativity and imagination. Finally, he believes that deep play, and learning more generally, should be driven by curiosity, connection, and an overall intrinsic drive to learn. From his perspective, education should provide opportunities to “help kids navigate through the web of possibilities to explore things they’re interested in.”

Turning our conversation toward “learning in action,” as he put it, Dr. Seely Brown spoke of the problems, needs, and purpose of the types of learning he outlines. A central problem, as he frames it, is “how do you scale John Dewey?” In other words, Dr. Seely Brown writes and talks about many examples of communities and places that embrace and embody a pragmatist approach or a constructivist approach to learning. At issue is how to move these marginal spaces toward the center. Or, to use Dr. Seely Brown’s terms, how do we make more room for the edge?

As learners cultivate higher degrees of imagination, Dr. Seely Brown also proposes the need for them to be adaptable. While he sees many of these places of learning working through an apprenticeship model, where new users progressively learn skills through different forms of participation, he states that, “in a world changing so rapidly, there are very few masters.” So, if those who master a craft are those who have practiced and engaged for extensive, dedicated periods of time, mastery becomes much more difficult when nature of learners’ interactions changes so quickly. Both the notion of adaptability and that of cultivating imagination are reasons why Dr. Seely Brown highlights teachers as another need for this type of learning. “The skillful teacher,” he says, “is a gift to mankind.”

Finally, we discussed the purpose in considering and promoting learning in these way. Dr. Brown sees a playful, creative, and flexible approach to learning as necessary for rapidly changing demands in the job market. Where previous generations dedicated full decades to mastering and practicing singular jobs, Dr. Seely Brown believes that those entering the job market now and in the near future will have to adapt and shift their focus and skills on a rapid basis. The ability to adapt relies greatly on an intrinsic desire to move through certain learning landscapes. This approach to learning instigates a “shift from push to pull” for learners. By allowing learners to guide their learning through their imagination and interests, we invite opportunities for learning and work that is both deeper and more open.

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