A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change

Douglas Thomas’ and John Seely Brown’s book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, provides a fresh insight into the rapidly changing learning environment and ways in which technology can enhance the quality of learning outcomes.  Thomas is an Associate Professor in the Annenberg School of Communications at University of Southern California (USC) and Brown is a visiting scholar at USC.  They state in their book that learning in the 21st century is not taking place in the classroom but is taking place everywhere thanks to changes in the culture of learning.  The authors write that the foundation of the new culture of learning consists of two elements:  the first is a massive information network that provides access to learning about almost anything; the second is a bounded and structured environment that allows individuals to build and experiment within those boundaries.  According to Thomas and Brown, the combination of those two elements is what elevates the culture of learning to the promise that it holds for the future.

Online games and the collectives that develop around them are a prominent example of how individuals are able to learn through the collective participation of many players working together to share tips and through collaborative team-playing.  Thomas provides an example of a class that he taught on gaming at the University of Southern California and the extra efforts and enthusiasm expressed by the students as they explored the multi-player game Star Wars GalaxiesWorld of Warcraft is another multi-player game described by the authors that is used for a comparison of the learning that takes place in a collective environment.

Collective learning is not limited to gaming, however.  Brown and Thomas discuss the experience of a person diagnosed with diabetes who consulted the website Diabetes Daily and participated in a number of the forums where patients discuss their problems and experiences living with diabetes.  The patient learned how to live with diabetes from the social interaction with others diagnosed with the disease.  In a new culture collective, people belong in order to learn.  In a classroom in the new culture of learning, students take an active role to create and provide the latest information to the collective, supplementing the role of the teacher.  According to the authors, collectives scale almost unlimitedly and their learning outcomes improve with increases in size and diversity when assisted by technology.

Traditional learning environments in the classroom or workplace are predicated on a mechanistic approach.  Thomas and Brown state that the new learning environment is a model where digital media provides access to a rich source of information and play where learning is based on engagement with the world, not a single teacher.  According to the authors, the traditional model of education was adequate when change occurred slowly.  However, the rapid rate of change escalated by technology leads to successful learners embracing collective learning.  An excellent example provided in the book is the difference between the traditional encyclopedias popular in the 1950’s through the 1980’s and Wikipedia.  Wikipedia has many more entries (approximately three and a half million in English) than encyclopedias and it is updated much more frequently.

The culture of learning is based on three principles:  (1) the old ways of learning are unable to keep up with change, (2) new media is making peer-to-peer learning easier, and (3) peer-to-peer learning is enhanced by technology improvements that assist the collective nature of learning.  As the authors point out, learning from others is neither new nor revolutionary but educators have primarily ignored it.  The authors recommend that educators adapt to the style of learning as inquiry with answers leading to more questions.

As befits a scholarly work promoting the style of learning as inquiry, Thomas and Brown’s book stimulates the reader to pose more questions using the examples of learning accomplished by technology and social media.  Given our nation’s determination to increase the percentage of college graduates, this book would serve policymakers, college administrators, and faculty as an excellent guidebook for ways to improve learning.  I would also recommend it to educational entrepreneurs looking for opportunities to merge technology with learning.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence