Q&A: John Seely Brown on Interest-Driven Learning, Mentors and the Importance of Play


3.1.12 | As the leading thinkers and do-ers meet this week at the third annual Digital Media and Learning conference, Spotlight talked with DML2012’s keynote presenter John Seely Brown, self-proclaimed “chief of confusion,” and one of the most enlightening thinkers on nearly any topic.


John Seely Brown. Photo by Joi Ito.

Seely Brown is renowned for his pioneering work at Xerox PARC and work on interplay between organizations, technology and people. He is currently the co-chair of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation and a senior fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication at University of Southern California. His latest book (with Douglas Thomas) is “A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.” Spotlight spoke with him about how to better engage kids and transform education.

Spotlight: Why is “play” such a buzz word when people talk about 21st-century learning?

John Seely Brown: The key to an arc-of-life learning is figuring out how to honor the fact that when we first come into this world, we are mammoth learning engines. How do we honor what it was that made us able in our first two or three years to master one of the most complicated structures we ever have to face in our lives—natural language?

Somehow we were pulled into making sense of the world and making sense of the world continuously. And we did this through play. It was part and parcel to being.

Spotlight: Is play particularly critical for learning right now, at this moment in history, or has it always been crucial but now we just like to talk about it?

JSB: I would say both. It’s through play that we’re given permission to fail again and again in our first few years of life as we try to make sense of the world. It’s our job as youngsters to build a frame of reference through which we will understand the world. I would argue that building that initial frame actually comes from constant experimenting.

When you come into the world, it’s kind of like being dropped into a massive video game—you don’t have the rules figured out and relative to that, you have to figure out how things work. Eventually you start to connect the dots, to make sense of the world, and that comes from play.

But now let’s zoom forward to the 21st century.

So, yes, play has always been extraordinarily important for the first couple of years of life. I’m going to argue that the importance of play is now of paramount importance throughout our lives. The reason for this is we’re now living in world with exponential and continuous change. We’re not just living through a transition; we have transitioned into always transitioning. So what’s really happening is we’re living in a world with some of the same basic properties as when we were first dropped here as babies. That is to say, we have to be willing to constantly regrind our conceptual lenses.

In order to continually make sense of this changing world, we need the freedom to explore, mess up, pull back, reflect, and try again. One of the things I say in my talk [at DML2012] is how education tends to be focused on the world of Homo Sapiens—man as knower. We put next to that Homo Faber—man as maker. I want to add a third point, which is man as player—Homo Ludens.

Spotlight: You hear people talking about connected learning a lot these days. What does that actually mean, and what would an education system with connected learning at the center look like?

JSB: I’m not an authority on connected learning, but Mimi Ito is. But let’s consider a kid’s trajectory through a day or through a year—they spend more time outside of the classroom than in it, and they encounter all kinds of opportunities to learn. The question is: How do we weave together all of the naturally occurring resources—libraries, planetariums, museums—so they fit together for a particular kid?

For interest-driven learning to work, you need mentors. ... The role of the mentor is to get you to discover things you might not actually know you were interested in, to confront topics you may not be very good at understanding, but once discovered, you will.


Connected learning is driven by kids finding their interests and having the social tools, the information tools and the permission to explore that interest. If you can find a way to structure a context that honors that, then this kind of learning can start to complement what happens in the classroom. It may diminish the importance of the classroom, or it also may enhance the kid’s ability to pay attention in the classroom.

When I was young, I was a radio amateur. I found mentors. And those mentors helped me build radios. And that was my passionate interest. And let me tell you, once I got hooked on that as a 12-year-old, I had no trouble understanding high level mathematics because it wasn’t math; it was how to build a radio!

Today, through the internet, we have access to collectives of knowledge/expertise for learning—so when you get stuck on something, there are resources. This is part of connected learning as well. Part of my talk is going to be, hey guys, you know what, Dewey and Montessori had it right. But there’s a problem. Their techniques didn’t scale.

Spotlight: What were Dewey and Montessori doing right, and what we have to do make their ideas scalable?

JSB: What they were doing right is understanding that learning comes from doing. You capture a kid’s interest, let the kid explore that interest through making things—in a safe environment—and give them the freedom to fail while trying to perfect the thing they’re building.

But in the past, it was likely to be very hard to find other people around you with your specialized interests. For example, when I was obsessed with building transmitters and radios as a kid, there were maybe five other kids in the entire state of New York who were also designing electronic equipment. I had no cohort group. Today, no matter how specialized a kid’s interest is, he or she will find a cohort group.

When my godson was 9, he became fixated on penguins. He went on the internet, and he found himself a group or a collective that was deeply engaged with penguins. I said to him one day, “Well, who is this group?” And he said, “Well, they have a funny name.” And I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “Johns Hopkins!” He’d locked into a research group at Johns Hopkins! Yes, as a 9-year-old.

Spotlight: So when you talk about making ideas from Dewey and Montessori scalable, you’re going back to the idea of connected learning. It sounds to me like you’re saying scalable means the ability to tap into larger resources than you’d have in your classroom.

JSB: Yes.

Spotlight: A lot of time when one tries to talk about education and technology, the conversation gets bogged down with talk of iPads and SMART Boards. How do you articulate the difference between what DML is trying to do and gadget talk?

JSB: I radically separate technology from new practices that these technologies enable. Let’s take Wikipedia. I live by Wikipedia. Much of the world is very concerned about the accuracy of Wikipedia. Nature compared it to Encyclopedia Britannica, and it came OK, but I said, oh my god, you guys don’t get it. The reading practices of how you read Wikipedia versus how you read Britannica are completely different.

Britannica is an authoritative source. It’s been through all kinds of vetting. It’s stabilized, for better or worse, because being stabilized probably means it’s going to be out of date by the time you get it. The reading practices surrounding Wikipedia mean you have to understand the edit page, and you have to be able to use the history page.

If you go to Wikipedia and just take the front page as an authoritative source, you’re apt to be screwed. But if you open up the history, it’s like peering into the backroom of the Britannica. You begin to see the debates, what knowledge is still being contested, what knowledge is stabilized. It’s a great source for learning and witnessing competitive argumentation (a limited form of scholarship) in practice. And it’s a fantastic reading resource—but you have to view the practice of using it as different from the practices that surrounded the technology that came before.

Spotlight: So you’re saying that the intelligent way to deal with digital media and education is not to focus on the technology, but rather the practices around the technology.

JSB: Absolutely. Otherwise you’re missing 99 percent of the action.

Spotlight: There’s a lot of focus on interest-driven learning, because with interest comes engagement. But not everything we need to learn is going to be of interest. Does interest-driven learning overlook that?

JSB: For interest-driven learning to work, you need mentors. I would never claim that teaching isn’t important, or, oh, just jump into a lake, and you will know how to swim. There’s peer-based mentoring, master-based mentoring. I personally feel that in order to get hooked on something—well, that’s the role of a great teacher, a great mentor. The role of the mentor is to get you to discover things you might not actually know you were interested in, to confront topics you may not be very good at understanding, but once discovered, you will.

Spotlight: Do you think the kinds of ideas floating around DML will be mainstream in the future, or is it all just wishful thinking?

JSB: Yes, these will be mainstream practices, because they capture the energy of the individual. What impresses me about MacArthur is it’s such a balanced approach. It’s not ideologically driven. It’s not just love of technology. Technology is the backdrop.

I see a profound understanding of how to learn together, work together, and create together. And if you can understand how to do those things, you can actually get at exponential learning.

Carousel photo by Lexie Flickinger.

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