Shaping Serendipity for Learning: Conversations with John Seely Brown


“Conventional wisdom holds that different people learn in different ways.  Something is missing from that idea, however, so we offer a corollary:

Different people,
when presented with exactly the same information in exactly the same way,
will learn different things.

Most models of education and learning have almost no tolerance for this kind of thing.
As a result, teaching tends to focus on eliminating the source of the problem:
the student’s imagination.”
-John Seely Brown

Serendipity in Maui
Videos Below

by C.J. Westerberg

1494905893-7498-x400-1112-thumb-200x266-1113I recently sat down with John Seely Brown, an iconic name in education-technology-science spheres, to talk about his book, A New Culture of Learning.

Talk Story (aka back-story)
How our initial meeting came about was a serendipitous story in its own right. It goes something like this: friend sends me video clip featuring JSB (his moniker) about lessons learned from surfers near his home in Maui (we both live there, Brown part of the year).  Later that same day, I have conversation with a school Head who mentions spending time with JSB on campus the day before. Completely out-of-the-blue.

Just a coincidence?  Maybe. But there’s more. Later that evening, shortly after sending an interview request to JSB with the subject line, “one of the serendipitous moments,” I viewed a JSB video that I’d never seen or heard before where midway through, his talk revolved around “Shaping Serendipity”. True. Fast forward to this past weekend where I learned that engineering one’s serendipity was an ubiquitous topic of conversation at the SxSW conference and continues to be a trending meme.  Who knew?

Okay, so much for THAT serendipity and onward to JSB’s book subtitled “Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change” which actually has much to do with creating the conditions for serendipity to happen in education. Being one of those carnivores of books, I did read Culture some time last year yet a second read gave me a different take on it. Changing education contexts and the cultural zeitgeist demand a different lens. For example, early last year, MOOCs were an embryo in the edu-conversation landscape and now they’ve become the daily headline in one form or another.

Context Matters
Characteristically, JSB is big on espousing the importance of context and is absolutely right to bring it to the forefront of our thinking. In our work, how often have we’ve heard, “We tried this before and it didn’t work” as if different timing and context have no relevance?  Taking this  thinking one step further, if an idea failed in a good economy, it must surely fail in a bad economy.  JSB believes that knowledge is becoming less of a question of “What is the information?” and more of a “Where is the information?” because of the increasing importance of context, what to do with it, and so on.

Two concepts that JSB unravels in Culture are explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.Whether one is a parent, educator, administrator, researcher, policy-maker, or bureaucrat,understanding and articulating these learning dimensions are necessary in order to create the conditions for motivated, life-long learners with imagination.  From Culture:

Traditionally, a person who can answer a given question is said to “know” the answer.  We say that person has explicit knowledge.  It is content that is easily identified, articulated, transferred, and testable.  But it’s not the only kind of knowledge there is.

Michael Polanyi, a scientist turned philosopher, wrote a great deal about the concepts of knowledge and knowing.  In a short book called The Tacit Dimension, he begins with a very simple premise:  “We know more than we can tell.”  What he describes is the tacit dimension of knowledge, which is the component of knowing that is assumed, unsaid, and understood as a product of experience and interaction – . . . (p.74)

For most of the twentieth century, the explicit was both abundant enough and important enough to sustain an entire system of educational practices and institutions . . .(snip)


The twenty-first century, however, belongs to the tacit.  In the digital world, we learn by doing, watching, and experiencing.  Generally, people don’t take a class or read books or manuals to learn how to use a web browser or e-mail program.  They just start doing it, learning by absorption and making tacit connections.  And the more they do it, the more they learn.  They make connections between and among things that seem familiar.  They experiment with what they already know how to do and modify it to meet new challenges or contests.  In a world where things are constantly changing, focusing exclusively on the explicit dimension is no longer a viable model for education. (p76)


Tinkering, Building and Imagination

1494905893-1386-jsblaughs-thumb-150x142-1117In conversation, JSB has the curiosity and analytical view of a scientist (no surprise here with his creds), the energy of a “mad scientist,” and the unboxed thinking of an entrepreneur crossing silos with every topic and his varied work projects.  He exudes the thinking of a tinkerer!

What surprised me was that I was expecting more of an absolutist in terms of education and technology.  Not. How I expected JSB to espouse technology as the grand solution to challenges in education (the technological-solutionist). Not. In a certain respect, technology is an integral yet often invisible element in the conversation, hovering but not the shiny new toy.

Part of our conversation was fundamentally about how play and experimentation are critical components for learning and motivation, whether on or off the grid.  His advocacy for tinkering, building and creating included anecdotes running the gamut from surfers, MIT’s Scratch,  Montessori, and Waldorf methods. Case in point, JSB asked me what Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Julia Child, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, and Bill Gates had in common. (I was thinking college drop-outs but knew Page and Brin weren’t). The answer? They are all Montessori and Waldorf-schooled alums and/or advocates.

When asked to further elaborate about project-based learning (PBL) or hands-on learning, he doesn’t see this as a solo act if we are interested in developing life-long learners. In fact, in order to move PBL up the food chain of learning, JSB posits that there are a few other key components. One is learning as inquiry which is discussed in Culture within this new context. Learning by inquiry flips the student-teacher dynamic having students asking questions as opposed to answering questions.

By allowing the student to be in a “what if?” mode of thinking, the student is provoked to be more imaginative.  What if I do this? and What if I do that? is another form of tinkering. If you fall down, you get back up.  If you make a mistake, you try something different. The old culture of learning pegs a student if they fall. In the old culture of learning, if you fail once, you may
get a pass. Fail twice, get branded.

As far as becoming an “entrepreneurial learner,” JSB distinguishes this from “learning to be an entrepreneur” in an entertaining and mind-thumping video featured in Part Two of this post.
A related gem quote from Culture:

But thinking about play as a disposition, rather than as merely engaging with a game, reveals something more fundamental at work.  Much of what makes play powerful as a tool for learning is our ability to engage in experimentation.  All systems of play are, at base, learning systems.  They are ways of engaging in complicated negotiations of meaning, interaction, and competition, not only for entertainment, but for creating meaning. p 97

Good examples of project-based-learning, learning through the arts, real-world internships, gaming, connected learning, the makers movement – all are illustrations of tacit learning at work but have little or no place in reports of US global competitiveness because there is no standardized test for tacit knowledge. We all know how “testing knowledge” is not only big business but currently represents high stakes for students and teachers.

So what are we really measuring in education?  In modern culture, we celebrate those who have imagination, those who not only think outside the box but create a different box, those who think different (RIP Steve Jobs), and yet in school, we are structured to celebrate those who can do . . .  what exactly?

Culture is a compact book (118 pages exclusive of references) without the extra padding many non-fiction books often make one endure to pump up the value perception. In this case, lean does not equate to thin.  Quite the opposite.

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