Where I Take a Beef with “A New Culture of Learning”

After commencing the first four chapters of a book for required reading this week, it caused some pondering and ultimately, some rather unsatisfied conclusions. Now this is a conundrum for me, because in A New Culture of Learning by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, it addresses many ideas that should bring accolades and praises from me, yet I am left feeling… dissatisfied. In it, they talk about how “a new culture of learning” is emerging through peer-to-peer interaction and collective learning which is amplified by emerging technologies. They address many points of great value, like how kids can learn and retain so much about something like the Harry Potter series, all without any kind of memorization of formal lecture method and to use the world as a lifelong vehicle for learning. And these authors hit it right on the head when they state “fusing a vast information resource with a deeply personal motivation le[ads] to an unexpected, unplanned, or innovative use” (Brown, 2011).

But it is how to engage across a broad wealth of foundational knowledge that seems to be grossly overlooked. They actually skip over many vital points in the road to creating this “new culture.” One of them is the absolute requirement for a “massive” information network or resource. What if that is not available? And how does one even create or sustain it? Even in my notes I was scribbling in the margins that was the very first question I asked myself. There are many households that do not even have access to a computer, let alone the sheer flood of information that is the internet (which I am assuming is one of the key ideas behind this new culture. They are kind of vague on specifying any of this). And what if that “vast” resource becomes unavailable, temporarily or permanently? They do not offer a lot of modes of adaptability in this model.

This also does not point out the negative sides of such a massive overload of resources and information. I think of the times I have stood stunned over the sheer number of choices of something as simple as buying a new toothbrush. Besides the internet being of questionable accuracy at times (we understand this well, as this is one of the primary purposes of our education is to be able to seek out and evaluate these resources. I will allow that the idea of “collective-correction” through something like Wikipedia as having high potential value, but even that has a framework of requiring documentation and editors working behind the scenes that the authors do not address. The talk frequently about the necessity of “a bounded and structured environment” but never give any indication of what kind of framework or structure that should be).

Lastly was the idea of collective culture. Not in the idea of peer-to-peer learning, but in their notion that “you don’t interfere with the process itself… In fact the entire point of the experiment is to allow the culture to reproduce in an uninhibited, completely organic way, within the constraints of medium and environment—and then see what happens” (Brown, 2011). Now granted, this is in reference to a petri dish culture, but they are directly comparing it to the desired ideal of this new culture of learning. Equally, “any effort to define or direct collectives would destroy the very thing that is unique and innovative about them.” So how are students expected to learn without objectives or goals? Yet they contradict themselves by saying we simply throw kids at the internet and that it would be just as detrimental as the current format of lecture and standardized tests. I think this is meant more to be a dialogue to engage for solutions than actually offering them themselves. The problem with this is that it falls into mere conjecture and philosophy. Because a simple truth is that information without direction for guidance becomes meaningless.

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