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College Quarterly
Summer 2012 - Volume 15 Number 3
A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change
Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown
Lexington, KY: Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, 2011
Reviewed by Cecilia Aponte-de-Hanna

Thomas and Brown have joined forces to share their extensive knowledge in the field of communication, culture, and digital learning environments. Douglas Thomas is Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, while John Seely Brown is a Visiting Scholar and Advisor to the Provost. In this book, they share their experience and vision of twenty-first-century education. They use a combination of narrative inquiry and metaphor to convey their ideas of how and why twenty-first-century schooling needs to adapt to the learning needs of the new generation growing up digital, and to advocate a new approach to teaching and learning where the learning economy mimics the success of the existing gaming economy by adopting a curriculum that incorporates play, questioning, and imagination. The authors first support their claim through real life stories from regular folks—young and old—whose lives improved as they made use of the resources available on the internet. Douglas Thomas even shares his first educational experience with the virtual world of gaming and how it helped him understand the engaging collective power it holds. From here, Thomas and Brown focus on why the rationale behind massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) should become the model for a new culture of learning. Dividing topics into nine chapters, the authors elaborate on how gamers benefit from MMOs as these games intuitively help players learn how to socialize and collaborate in fun, engaging, non-threatening environments—where the only requirement to join in is the individual’s tacit knowledge and interest at a given moment in time.

Tacit knowledge, as Thomas and Brown explain, is the type of gut feeling MMOs’ players use when coming up with ways to beat the games they play. They base their argument on Mizuko Ito’s ethnographic research on gaming who found that MMO’s encourage players to use their tacit knowledge and form collectives in order to solve the riddle hidden in each game. This model of inquiry is what Thomas and Brown feel can help the education economy meet the demands of the ever changing environment characteristic of the fluid, non-linear information superhighway. An entire chapter goes into explaining Ito’s findings; however, the best way to understand the process is to read Ito’s research which is accessible online through MIT Press. Ito concluded that what non-digital adults perceive as youth wasting time is really young people’s way of communicating, socializing, and creating, which she calls ‘Hanging Out’, ‘Messing Around’, and ‘Geeking Out.’

Besides Ito’s research, Thomas and Brown also support their claim by relying on old and new education theories such as Piaget’s theory of play, Dewey’s experiential education, Lareau’s concerted cultivation of young minds, Huizinga’s concept of humans as born players or Homo Ludens, and Gee’s learning matrix, among others; they however do not make mention of Vygostky’s sociocultural theory, theory of play, or the zone of proximal development, which I believe fits Thomas’ and Brown’s Play to Learn model with its emphasis on learning through social interaction, discovery, and mediation. Vygotsky, after all, is the founder of sociocultural theory, and his teachings, I believe, resonate in many of the current learning paradigms. They also needed to focus more on ways to achieve gender equality. For example, it has been found that most MMOs players are males, so further studies are needed to determine what it is that keeps women away from this type of technology and how to make it more accessible to all.

To me, this idea of learning in the twenty-first century definitely gives a new meaning to Bob Dylan’s phrase ‘The times they are a changing’ because, in the new culture of learning, time changes while culture adapts. Hence, culture is a volatile phenomenon, and this is where teachers come into play in order to keep the game focus on a given content. This means teachers become mediators who guide learners in their quest for the next question, making sure every participant gets a chance to play expert or take on different roles for the sake of the collective. Play, therefore, becomes the strategy teachers use to mediate learning. Standardized testing as Thomas and Brown explain becomes irrelevant. According to the authors, assessment should be used to enhance performance—not measure it: a type of self-diagnostic instant feedback which allows participants to find the next clue.

So, if anyone ever thought computer-based gaming just looked like hanging out, messing around, and geeking out, Thomas and Brown want their readers to know this is a good thing because, according to them, Play to Learn is what is needed in the twenty-first-century knowledge economy.

Overall, this book does provide an excellent introduction to most twenty-first-century learning theories. I only wish Thomas and Brown would have provided more pedagogical advice on how this teaching is to be implemented in terms of lesson ideas which is what teachers would ultimately need to turn theory into practice. I guess this is because most educators navigating this digital millennium (me included) are on the same boat…trying to figure out how to make on-line learning work. Also, the fact that I am left with questions means that Thomas and Brown have accomplished exactly what their educational model proposes: question creation as a tool for learning.

My questions to Thomas and Brown (or whoever wishes to answer):

  1. If learning is to mimic MMOs, how can we as educators help all learners conquer the next level?
  2. If in the new culture of learning there is no such thing as failing, then how will teachers assess learning? Does this mean the end of the report card?
  3. How can we begin to control social and teacher/learner demassification as the educational ecology faces the inevitable: the massification of higher education?

For now… GAME OVER.

Cecilia Aponte-de-Hanna teaches in the School of English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College in Toronto. She can be reached at