#astd2013, General Session, Day 3: Part 2 – John Seeley Brown

John Seeley Brown is another education thought leader who I personally enjoy reading his thoughts. I recently read, A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. I was not disappointed in what I gleaned from Brown’s writings and presentations.

Brown began his presentation by pointing out that we were entering a new culture of learning in a world of constant change. We need to become entrepreneurial learners, always looking for an opportunity to learn. In a rhetorical manner, he asked, how do we turn any situation into a learning opportunity?

During the presentation, Brown tended to jump from idea to idea, and it was often difficult to keep pace. For example, he produced a number of graphs showing an S-curve where is a major jump in learning. The last jump was at the end of the 20th century. The changes where driven by the introduction of electricity and transportation changes. The S-curve of 20th century is being replaced by the 21st infrastructure of the digital age. He mentioned the challenges of managing the increased magnitude of information. For example, he says that he knows how to manage reading 100 books, but cannot grasp reading 100,000 books. Does not know how to select from an  exponential number of ideas.

He always seems to give out a shout for the benefits of World of Warcraft. In his presentation, he again talked about the power of World of Warcraft, and how the gamers gather and test ideas. Because the gamers crowdsource ideas, they can make significant overnight advancements. Businesses cannot make the same gains overnight. The half-life of a skill is constantly shrinking. We are in a state of constant flow, and we need better ways to stay current.

Creating knowledge is a critical new skill in these ever-changing times. Brown pointed out that tacit knowledge knowledge cannot be passed on through normal training techniques. We need to work towards scalable learning. Learning has to be in the moment. He illustrated this point by explaining the difference between sailing and kayaking. Kayaking you are part of the current; you must learn while doing and make rapid adjustments along the way. We need to change our ways of working, organizing, and innovating, etc.;  our methods need to be reframed. Brown stressed that a new idea has the half-life of two weeks, and we must use it or lose it.

Brown gave a great example of how to change learning by telling a story  about Dusty Payne who became a world class surfer.  Here is that story:

6 ways to become a world champion

  1. Passion to achieve extreme performance and a willingness to fail
  2. Analysed DVD of best surfers of the best in the world.
  3. Use video to capture and analyze each of their own improvisations.
  4. Pull the best ideas from adjacencies, e.g., skateboarding, motorcross, wind surfing, etc. learning from other experts. Although competing, they help each other.
  5. Accessing spikes of capabilities around the world. Leveraging networks of practice.
  6. Attracting others to help them.

Dispositions of an entrepreneurial learner:

  • Questing
  • Connecting
  • Reflecting
  • Play – probing boundaries

These dispositions can not be taught but cultivated through mentorship:

  • reverse mentorship
  • peer mentorship

Brown also told the “Skadden Story” where new lawyers where hired on an internships basis to help solve cases. These new lawyers where too efficient and were solving cases too quickly; solving cases too quick cost law firm money. Basically, these new lawyers were using Twitter and texting to share information about cases in an effort to solve them. An internal technology consultant set up mentoring sessions between the experienced lawyers and new lawyers. They meet on a regular basis so they could learn from each other and they continued to improve the business. Mentorship and reverse mentorship must co-mingle.

Brown provided other examples where technology was used to help improve learning efficiency. For example, SAP developed a network community that answers questions in 17 minutes. The people who answer questions develop reputation both internally and externally to the organization.  Xerox takes stories from technical representatives and feeds them through peer groups for resolution. This is an example of combining social capital and intellectual capital.

Google Hangouts was highlighted as a powerful learning tool. With Google+, 10 people can be brought together and knowledge can be shared. Additionally, people can lurk on the periphery.

For me, one of the most interesting associates was when Brown asked what the following people had in common. Answer after the list.

They all went to Montessori schools. Brown had high praise for the concepts taught by Maria Montessori as well as John Dewey. John Dewey is another one of my personal favorites. I think we keep getting further and further away from their teachings. Play is an important element to both of their teachings. Brown recommends that we should play more. He recommends reading Homo Ludens (PDF) written by Johan Huizinga. Brown pointed out that play gives permission to fail, a gateway to imagination, and resources to reach epiphany. Play allows us to probe the boundary of the system. Brown then showed us a relationship between homo sapien – man as knower; homo faber – man as maker; and homo ludens – man who plays.

Homo Ludens

Brown jumped into examples where companies use play as a way to advance their companies:

The key message in Brown’s presentation was that we need provide employees with the permission to play and to encourage entrepreneurial learning. Millennials are inherently entrepreneurial learners. The question is do we have the right environment to attract these high-speed learners.

Schools are another area requiring attention. Individuals will increasingly reshape institutions rather than vice versa. Individuals are unique and should not be pressed into a cookie-cutter mold. We need to provide agile tools, agile networks, for the development of agile minds.

Where imaginations play, learning happens.