Book review – A New Culture of Learning

A narrative review of the book, A New Culture of Learning. Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, by Douglas Thompson and John Seely Brown

Followed by A proposal for education reform.

The authors cite a telling anecdote: A recent study revealed when young people were given a map without labels and asked to find Ira, few succeeded. The authors did their own study, and found that when students were given computer access and asked to find Iraq, 100% succeeded, and offered to provide additional information.

The book makes a case that quality learning is happening despite the efforts of formal education, online. The learning is customized to each person, working with the interest, learning style, and pacing that a student of any age may have. Specifically, the internet is a good way for people to teach themselves, whatever and however they want to learn.

Whether it’s the way people teach themselves to word process or use Excel, post questions on a forum about their health, learn to strategize and take initiative on World of Warcraft, or put together gaming or designing programs with a code program, these examples of self-guided online learning show how it can be real, multi-level and inspired. Students form bonds with peers who help each other out, and they learn as fast as they can, or want to. Though facts and technology are forever changing, this electronic medium forever adapts, allowing people to make and keep friends, find out about themselves and each other, learn all sorts of information, and grow. The internet allows various learning styles and directions.

Basically, the internet is Open School, the model so many progressive education reformists have proposed. Computers make open schools more possible and fruitful, like Montessori for older kids.

The book lays out three main things. First, the internet provides an excellent means to educate. Next, we should characterize education as a dynamic – not static – thing, since people, knowledge and technology constantly change. Third, learning that occurs via the internet provides an example, or metaphor for learning in any form.

The book stops there. The authors don’t propose any detailed recommendations for education reform. There is no critique of our present school system, nothing complaints about poorly performing schools, deprived students, or bad teachers or corrupt leaders. I suppose the book seeks the high ground, providing only ideals, and avoiding the trappings of specific commitments. All of that is left to someone else.

The lofty ideals in A New Culture of Learning were inspiring to me, who has experience both outside and inside of many schools. Reform is best done at once from a bird’s eye, a fly-on-the-wall, and in the trenches. We can take the points of the book and identify its concrete and symbolic suggestions. Then we use that list, integrating it with the keepers and the rubbish of the present system. I will offer my own proposal for educational reform below.

We could reform school along these lines, making room for today’s requirements along the lines of standards and accountability. In open school, there are some centralized times, and mostly decentralized, project-oriented times. Students pursue what they choose, with teachers and their peers as advisors, giving counsel, inspiration and assistance.

There are parts we should keep of No Child Left Behind, but a lot of it to be thrown out. The good intentions of the law were to specify what education looks like, step-by-step, and be able to characterize and measure a Product, a Student, a Graduate; a Citizen. Say we made an outline something like the following:

The ends of our educational system are to produce thinking, productive, contributing citizens. We shall delineate various stages of learning, in various subjects – affective and effective – which can be identified as they are manifest in students along their educational journey.

Rocks shall be defined as specific, observable steps which can be checked off as a student manifests the behavior or understanding. Levels shall roughly approximate present traditional grades, as if many students will achieve them around that time. Subjects would include traditional ones, like reading, writing, mathematics, calculus, local and world history, biology, physics, and so forth. Other Rocks would be in more affective areas, such as leadership, emotional maturity, teamwork, creative expression, or self-discipline. Certain Rocks would be required as core areas, which everyone must manifest in order to pass a level. Rocks Examples might include:

Level 5, Science: Student recognizes that insects have six legs, and go through complete and incomplete metamorphosis.

Level 4, Personal Development: Student offers a solution to a group problem which involves different roles/tasks of three others.

Level 2, Writing: Student can write complete sentences, involving a subject, direct and indirect object.

Level 6, Reading: Student can read and understand a book of at least five chapters and 5,000 words.

Level 3, Fitness; Student can throw and catch a ball to and from 3 meters.

Level 8, Learning: Student can research and prepare a persuasive monologue with associated media lasting five minutes.

Level 6, Social Studies: Student provides insight in a current event that could contribute to the welfare of a cause or nation.

Level 11, Math: Student can compute quadratic equations, manipulate them, and understands how they work.

There would also be more specific Stones, in a wide variety of subjects, available to most any age. One requirement of a specific stone may be to pass a certain level. A stone is like a scout badge, each with levels of basic, intermediate, and advanced. Each stone would have a number of requirements to show appropriate mastery of a subject. Examples of specific stones might be rocketry, organic chemistry, dinosaurs, rock climbing, philanthropy, auto mechanics, multi-player online games, romantic fiction, ballet, or cubist art.

We have all seen certain young people who show great skills in specific areas, and deserve credit for them. In pursuing these Stone interests, a student may manifest one or more Rocks, which is admirable and desirable.

A teacher has several duties. One is to maintain a checklist of Rocks and Stones for each student in her purvey. Keeping watch on each individual learner, the teacher is trained to identify students’ understanding or a behavior shown and make note. Each student could have Rocks for a variety of levels, and their interests could allow them to work toward diverse Stones. Another duty is to facilitate group and individual learning. Students would be encouraged to create learning projects as they show talents and interests. Finding answers to questions, doing research, consulting peers and experts – from whatever source or media – are all encouraged. The culture in the school should be maintained as constant, active learning. Of course, we seek this in every school, but when what counts as learning is so specific, a tension is created between what a student wants to do, and what is expected from the state. When nearly anything that seems like learning is acknowledged, then that tension is lessened.

Field trips, small lectures, expert programs, inspiring films, book reviews, teambuilding games and sports should all happen regularly, even randomly.  Designated areas for group meetings, socializing, healthy meals and snacks, computer interfacing, reading, and quiet alone time should be important parts of the school design.

What shall be done about activity not considered productive? First of all, when students are encouraged to pursue their peculiar interests in an environment rich in stimulation and resources, only limited by safety, and those around them are engaged in active learning, far less time is wasted. Still, kids are kids. There must be time for play, motor activities, new experiences, and new acquaintances. Students must be given time to debrief, find a new perspective, to rest their spirit, and to know others. Teachers would be charged with maintaining a balance of on- and off-task.

This whole system would be very individualized. It could produce lots of Doogie Howsers, and Mozarts, prodigies, so to speak, since as soon as a certain Rock or Stone behavior is manifest and recorded, the student advances to whatever is next. A student might be very advanced in one or more areas, and lacking in another. And the diversity within a class group should contribute to others’ learning. Dylan may have poor social skills, and have few math Rocks, but he knows a lot about music. Sarah can talk for hours about welding, but has little knowledge of astronomy. Derrick is a spelling and grammar whiz, but has few athletic skills. Students should be both recognized for their abilities, and provided formats to share their expertise. And, of course, be given opportunities to grow in any area as they can. The system also allows educators to identify strengths and weaknesses in each student very specifically, especially since there are Rocks and Stones for both affective and effective desired understandings and behaviors. Thus, if special needs become known, teachers and specialists may provide appropriate responses.

Standard tests would be unnecessary. Students would simply have a record of their behavior, skills and understanding. A Rock or Stone could require good performance on a quiz, presentation or essay with performance at a pre-determined level. Each Rock or Stone would either be checked (observed), or not. Several teachers should observe each student, and it would be common for teachers to consult each other about whether a Rock or Stone was actually observed. The student might say, “Could you please watch me do this Science Stone?” And a teacher may observe it, with the student unaware.

For the most part, teachers would teach less, facilitate, reward and observe more. In the less structured setting, they could know each student better, more deeply. The teacher would be recognized as a general expert in many subjects (and other teachers with other skills would be around too), an example of a life-long learner, and one who studies human achievement in many ways. Lesson plans would be replaced by insights and recommendations for individual students. Rocks and Stones records would replace tests.

I think this sort of school should be year-round, and each day should be longer, like an adult work week. Sports, workshops, outdoor camps, school yard studies, pen-pals, social events, short internships, and service projects should all be commo


About Jim

I've been leading outdoor environmental education in the YMCA since the 1970s. I love teaching nature, history, current events, being a dad, fixing stuff, groups, and general thinking.
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