EdTech & Design, Engagement, Promising Practices

Playing to Learn

A review of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, 2011. ISBN-13: 978-1456458881

Play is neither trivial nor frivolous; it is how we learn. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown take seriously the role of play as a mindset that needs to be cultivated in education. In A New Culture of Learning, they invite us to see how a world in constant flux is not either a problem to solve or a challenge to overcome. Via richly textured stories about what learning and play look and feel like in digitally connected participatory cultures, the authors invite readers to imagine how teaching might respond to a world in constant change.

In a skillful analysis of shifting learning contexts and cultures, the authors explore learning as a cultural, social, and continuous process of inquiry, engagement, and participation in the world around us. Given that knowledge and information are dynamic and changing, that current technologies are participatory and emergent, they argue that learning environments must be transformed into knowledge building collectives that constantly create and respond to change.

They explore the power, nature, and benefits of learning collectives that shift away from a culture of solitary professionals and experts to worldwide webs of professionals and amateurs working together in knowledge building groups – groups like those highlighted in the book, Seeing in the Dark, a collaboration of amateur and professional astronomers interested in astrophysics theories, or like fan fiction collectives, which illustrate how interest-driven inquiry is about how people learn in addition to what they learn.  Harry Potter fans join an online community engaged in ongoing conversations to connect with like-minded enthusiasts and experts. Through contributions to wikis, blogs, and online forums, readers change the culture by participating in it. Readers learn the stories via the books and explore the meaning of the novels through active engagement with others online in rich, participatory cultural contexts.

Thomas and Seely Brown’s key ideas about new learning cultures converge in a case study of a massive, multiplayer online game. In World of Warcraft, groups of players form guilds, go on raids, battle monsters, and progress through increasingly difficult challenges. A raid is a complex group action that can involve 25 globally dispersed players in six-to-eight hours of game play.  The authors invite us to imagine the ways in which players develop and hone dispositions and character traits – embracing change, understanding the power of diversity, using feedback for constant improvement, and living on the edge – valued competencies and attitudes needed for a world in constant change.

A New Culture of Learning is an important book that disrupts notions of schooling built on stable knowledge and individual learning. In constantly changing contexts, where new ideas are exploding, learning has to be continuous, connected, and collective. Play becomes a strategy for cultivating our imaginations, engaging our creativity, and embracing change, not something to “grow out of”. As the world grows more complicated, complex, and fluid, our opportunities for imagination, innovation, and play increase.

In technology-enabled learning environments, teaching can be transformed in ways that recognize learner participation and engagement in networked conversations as fundamental to knowledge building. In new learning cultures, teachers design learning environments to cultivate creativity and the imagination, offer flexible boundaries, and support learners in undertaking meaningful, challenging, and collaborative tasks – playing with rich resources and making collective contributions to their culture.  Evaluating the collective act of knowledge building involves a shift of focus from the individual effort to the quality of the product.  Reminiscent of Seymour Papert’s ideas about hard fun, the authors argue that when students feel passion for a topic, they will seek out the tough problems, work hard to solve them, and have fun doing it.  Participatory learning environments sustain student motivation and engagement in powerful ideas and in questions about things that matter to the learners and to the world.

Thomas and Seely Brown’s book will appeal to prospective and practicing teachers, school leaders, graduate students, post-secondary teachers, and leaders who need to understand how complex learning happens beyond school in order to design participatory learning environments. The authors’ examples of beyond-school learning, from blogging, to multiplayer online games, to Wikipedia, serve to illustrate the new, fluid culture of learning.

The authors call for a balance between the structure that educational systems provide and the freedom to play in new participatory and connected cultures. Education should be a place where we embrace the many online resources and rich opportunities for play, exploration, and cultivating the imagination, not attempt to shut them out.

Readers can access the book’s online community for reviews, videos, and additional resources at  www.newcultureoflearning.com

Meet the Expert(s)

Michele Jacobsen

Dr. Michele Jacobsen

Professor, Werklund School of Education | Teaching Scholar, University of Calgary

Dr. Michele Jacobsen is a Professor in the Learning Sciences in the Werklund School of Education. Michele uses design-based and action research approaches to study blended, online and technology-enabled learning in K-12 school and campus classrooms and to evaluate the use of participatory pedagogies to sponsor knowledge building, intellectual engagement and authentic assessments.

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