The Real Problem With Education (VIDEO)

[ 0 ] March 5, 2012 |

Watch genConnect interview John Seely Brown on his new book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. “The real problem with education is kids are bored,” he said. “Kids that are digital are sick and tired of having stuff delivered to them, they want to actually do things [themselves].”

JOHN SEELY BROWN: Greetings. Glad to be here.

NANCY SPEARS: Great to talk to you. Congratulations on your new book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Something I think you know a little bit about.

JOHN SEELY BROWN: Constant change, absolutely. Imagination, who knows?

NANCY SPEARS: Yes. Yes. tell us about the book, please.

JOHN SEELY BROWN: Well, the idea was to step back and question the basic assumptions that we have been using for the last 100 years in education. Everybody says education is broken. That’s probably true. And you see at the Aspen Festival many new ideas on how to fix our quote unquote broken system. But if you listen to these ideas deeply, you discover that many of them are trying to fix what our view of education was for the industrial age. And the real challenge we have is how do you start to rethink what education is in terms of 21st century skills, 21st century dispositions, and so on, so forth?

So Doug, my co-author and I, Doug Thomas and I, set out to challenge some of the fundamental assumptions, to step back and say like, in a world of constant change, where most often our skills, any skill we have, is apt to be relevant for maybe five years. When I started out as a kid, it may be 35 or 40 years, you could pick up a set of skills and count on the use of those through life. Today it’s like every five years you’ve got to reinvent yourself, reinvent your skill base. One of the reasons why your program is so useful.

I think the catch is, is how do you want to rethink learning in a way that facilitates your ability to pick up new ideas all the time, number one. But maybe more importantly to pick up new lenses with which to make sense of the world.

And so, the theory here starts out in saying the catch here is to move beyond just thinking about knowledge, in terms of how do I deliver knowledge to you. But how do you combine something that we think of as a triangle– I call it the epistemological triangle, but you can overlook that fancy word. I know it’s confusing, but that’s my job– in terms of, how do you combine man as knower, which is more the classical notions of education, the man as maker, which in terms of how do you actually build things and learn from building things, and how do you learn from tinkering with the things that you build or try to make, and then, how do you actually then combine that with man as player? And so knowing, making, and playing all come together.

Now most people say I get the knowing, and I get the making, and I maybe understand the power of tinkering, although notice no school talks about tinkering? But what they completely overlook is what’s the role of playing? And to us, the role of playing takes us back to the fact that, as a child, when you come into the world, actually it is play that enables us to finally find ways to stabilize the world, in order to make sense of the world.

Like whack-a-mole, I do this over, and over, and over again, and I kind of understand some very simple motor operations, how it connects with my vision. And I begin to be able to make sense of the world and so on, so forth. What we want to argue is, in a world of constant change, you have to be willing to play with what’s going on, and play freely without feeling embarrassed or shame, in order to find new ways to find the lenses with which to make sense of it.

So we think of that, and we think, in fact, of the role of epitome. Or, how do you actually have, let me put it slightly differently, the role of epiphanies? How these things suddenly come together in a way that you never forget it.

So think about solving a riddle. Well, you can’t think your way through a riddle. You have to let it go. You have to let your mind play with it, to some extent, subconscious. And then suddenly I can design. Suddenly, oh, these pieces suddenly fit together. And you say oh, my God, I got it. And then often, there’s a reframing of how you started first approaching that riddle. And it generates a feeling of an epiphany. Now the interesting thing to us is, you never, ever forget an epiphany. It’s kind of one shot for learning, OK?

Now think about poetry. How do you play with these words in order to finally find things that just really come together? Do you have an epiphany that this phrase and this set of phrases perfectly captures what I’m trying to say inside and captures my, my relationship to the world? That also generates an epiphany.


JOHN SEELY BROWN: And so it’s these kind of making and playing with the world that actually lets you appreciate the awe in the world. Now the real problem with education is kids are bored. And kids that are digital are sick and tired of having stuff delivered to them. They want to actually do things with it. And they want to do things, not only with creating artifacts, but creating contexts.

So the old education system focused on content, left context very stable. And today, as you know in your own world, I can remix the content, changing the context and completely change the meaning. Well, kids start to become very attuned to reading meaning from context. This turns out to be an incredibly important skill for the 21st century because, basically, we now have powerful tools to manipulate or to create contexts as much as content. And so we now have much more powerful ways to create meaning.

We also have more powerful ways to distort meaning. And so you want to become a really literate person in understanding how to deconvolve some of the political messages, et cetera, et cetera. You become more aware of how this utterance may have been cast in this one particular context, but has now been slightly shifted to now mean something just the opposite. You have no trouble getting kids to say, like, can I remix this to completely change the meaning of that message?

I love to say let’s take a little trailer of our film and I’d like to see how much we can change the meaning of that film by just changing the music track, OK? And so you begin to understand the interplay between these two things. And I think to really understand the world, you have to understand that interplay between content and context.

NANCY SPEARS: Well, I think my epiphany today is that you’re brilliant than I even knew.

JOHN SEELY BROWN: More confused, please.

NANCY SPEARS: And I’m sure there’s a lot of punch in this little book. And I encourage everyone to go ahead and order it on Amazon.

JOHN SEELY BROWN: Amazon, and get it on Kindle as well.

NANCY SPEARS: Yeah. You can download it. You can get in on genconnect. We’ll carry it for you, too.

JOHN SEELY BROWN: Oh, that’s even better.

NANCY SPEARS: A New Culture of Learning by John Seely Brown. And thank you for sharing it, so much.

JOHN SEELY BROWN: Oh, say the subtitle. Yeah.

NANCY SPEARS: Oh, please. Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

JOHN SEELY BROWN: Yeah. Thank you.

NANCY SPEARS: Right. Thank you.


John Seely Brown



genConnect covered the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colo., where we interviewed the premier speakers and attendees at the conference. For more of our video interviews and articles from the Ideas Festival, click here.

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About John Seely Brown: John Seely Brown is a visiting scholar and advisor to the Provost at University of Southern California (USC) and the Independent Co-Chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. Prior to that he was the [...]
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