Thomas and Brown pose the question: “What happens to learning when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the twenty-first century, where technology is constantly creating and responding to change?” (p.17) In clear, straight forward prose, the authors lay out their epistemological argument for embracing the “phenomenon” they call “a new culture of learning”. (p. 17) While Thomas and Brown dedicate the book to “the parents of children who are growing up in the digital age” the text may also provide insights for teachers, educational administrators, and indeed–any stakeholders of our educational system– including those interested in technology mediated language teaching and research.

Rather than suggesting that learning is just taking place in classrooms, Thomas and Brown in chapter 1,  state that learning is happening everywhere within this new culture of learning. This new culture has two basic features; it is made up of a growing digital networked infrastructure with nearly unlimited resources and is “a bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries”. (p.19) The authors use the metaphor of cultivation to describe the mixing of both features and the interaction between them. Yet instead of cultivating plants, the process that stems from this new culture cultivates minds. Thomas and Brown assert that the solution for how to cultivate the imagination is the focus for attempting to make the best use of this new culture of learning.  How do we cultivate the imagination? How do we “harness these new resources, which make play, questioning, and imagination the bedrocks of our new culture of learning” ?(p. 20)

In answer to these questions, the authors provide numerous  examples of this new culture of learning and what shape it is taking in our world. In one case, a man named Allen “mastered” the computer languages necessary to run his own programming business.  How did he do this?  He did not step into a classroom, instead he participated in the new culture of learning as a member of a “collective” in which he located the solutions to programming problems by “googling his errors”. (p. 26) Thomas and Brown define collective–one of the cornerstones to their idea of a new culture of learning–as “a community of similarly minded people who help others with a particular set of needs”. (p.21)

Along with those needs, play, questioning, and an emphasis on imagination are at the center of the authors’ idea of “arc of life learning” which is comprised of “the activities in our daily lives that keep us learning, growing, and exploring.” (p.18) Thomas and Brown define play as ”the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules” so when play “happens within a medium for learning–much like a culture in a petri dish–it creates a context in which information, ideas and passions grow.” (ibid) This is the central metaphor the authors refer to over and over to explain all the fundamental precepts in the illustration of this new culture of learning.

The authors follow with anecdotes that illustrate the connection(s) made between two spaces–“one that is largely public and information-based (a software program, a university, a search engine, a game, a website) and another that is intensely personal and structured (colleagues, a classroom, a business, family, the daily challenges of living with a chronic disease).” (p. 31) Through the interplay within and between these two spaces, people’s imaginations are cultivated, thus giving rise to innovative, spontaneous uses of the space.
Although this new culture of learning is occurring without books, teachers, or a classroom, Thomas and Brown do not argue that classrooms or teachers are no longer relevant, but instead suggest that this new culture of learning can augment current learning practices.

Thomas and Brown suggest that this new culture of learning is vastly different than the “old model of teaching” or “mechanistic view” as made clear through the discussion in the second chapter. (p.35) They state that the twentieth century educational system is based on the idea of “transferring” information from teacher to student.  Within this old model, learning is “treated as a series of steps to be mastered” whereby the goal of efficiency is to learn as much as possible in the shortest amount of time.(p. 35) Standardization, testing and results are emphasized over process. Thomas and Brown continue to contrast the two cultures: A teaching-based approach to culture is the environment and teaches us about the world while a learning-based culture emerges from the environment and “focuses on learning through engagement within the world.” (p. 38) The teaching-based approach  focuses on outcomes based on students’ understanding of the material while the learning-based approach is about embracing what they don’t know, developing better questions, and continuing to ask those questions while coming up with more. While the old, traditional or mechanistic model struggles to become more stable and adjusts to change only when necessary, the emerging new culture of learning “responds to its surroundings organically.” (p. 37) This new culture flourishes on change.

In chapter 3, Brown and Thomas make the case for embracing the change that stems from this new culture. Twentieth century education and technology were once influenced and defined by “stability, continuity, and maintaining the status quo” at the same time “progress was carefully controlled.” (p. 39) This is no longer the case. Within the mechanistic model of education the teacher “transfers” information that is “stable” or unchanging, while in the new culture of learning information is not static as technology provides a platform through which the information is regularly changed through participation. (p. 39) Current news aggregator websites provide a vivid exemplar of this changing model; as people show more interest in a given story, it is moved to a more advantageous position on the page.  Furthermore, technology is changing at a much more rapid pace.  While “it took 70 years to go from the first color signal to widespread adoption of color television”, in the last decade the Internet has changed profoundly.  (p. 41) For example, now many cell phones have “more computing power and Internet access than the average home computer did in 2000.” (p. 42) The authors advocate embracing change as a way of looking into the future and considering new possibilities instead of feeling forced to adapt to the pressures of change.

Thomas and Brown suggest that we consider and expand the type of learning environments that attracted numerous kids to learn about history, geography, philosophy, interpersonal communication and basic sociology through the Harry Potter books, websites, wikis, blogs, and fan fiction. They emphasize how the kids learned (through following their passion) more than what they learned.  The kids “anticipated, were energized by, and ultimately, looked forward to the changes that each new installment brought to the narrative”. (p. 45)  The authors make the point that while memorization may work for learning things that infrequently change, it is not as useful for learning things that are in constant flux.

The authors posit Wikipedia as a system that not only embraces change, but thrives on it and provides a detailed record of those changes.  Comparing the accuracy between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, Jim Giles (2005) concludes they are more or less equally accurate.  Brown and Thomas suggest  that assessing both for stability, neither gets it right in terms of information that is factually wrong and outdated.  They declare tha “[m]aking knowledge stable in a changing world is unwinnable.” (p. 46) However, they suggest that what Wikipedia can do that  Encyclopedia Britannica can’t is provide a “record of the controversies” over certain pieces of information. (p. 46) They give the example of the Christopher Columbus entry and how one can “read across time” as one traces the debates over Columbus’ role in the history of the Americas. (p. 46) “The entry reflects, in myriad forms, the shifts in opinions about the cultural, social, and political aspects of colonization, exploration, and the writing of history.” (p. 46) In contrast, print resources, like Encyclopedia Britannica effort  “to create a permanent record of stable knowledge” must make editorial choices to “include or exclude similar material” thus making the information invisible. (p. 47) In contrast, within Wikipedia, one can see what editorial choices have been made and leave with a better understanding of this process.  This type of reading provides the reader a much richer understanding of the knowledge and perhaps insight into how much weight to give the ‘facts’ or how to interpret the information.

Thomas and Brown suggest three “principles” of the new culture of learning:

1. The old ways of learning are unable to keep up with our rapidly changing world.

2. New media forms are making peer-to-peer learning easier and more natural.

3. Peer-to-peer learning is amplified by emerging technologies that shape the collective nature of participation with those new media. (p. 50)
In chapter 3 the authors illustrated the first principle while in chapter 4 they discuss  the second and third principles of peer-to-peer learning and its implications in the new culture of learning. As Thomas and Brown mention, “[l]earning from others is neither new nor revolutionary; it has just been ignored by most of our educational institutions.” (p. 51) Within the new culture, learning happens with others who are your equals and have knowledge or experience on a specific subject–without teacher or student roles. The authors explain that in the life of a college student, learning happens through the whole college experience not just those hours in a classroom.  When a college student acts as part of the environment in which she is part of  a collective as defined in chapter 1. The idea of collectives are an essential part of Thomas and Brown’s new learning environment and so are referred to and clarified throughout the text of the book. In this chapter, collectives are further “defined by an active engagement  with the process of learning,” and are not communities, which can be passive. (p. 52) The authors make the distinction between communities where “people learn in order to belong” while in a collective “people belong in order to learn” and participate. (Ibid)

Principle three of the new culture of learning involves peer-to-peer interaction among group members who all have a passion, but various skills and talents. Once these members begin to interact constantly, the collective “functions as a kind of amplifier, providing numerous outlets, resources, and aids to further an individual’s learning.” (p.51)  Out of these collectives, the authors suggest that meaningful learning is produced since the “inquiry that arises comes from the collective itself” while in a classroom it is the teacher who is most often posing the questions. (p 54)  Not surprisingly, if a collective makes too much effort to direct or define itself, then innovation within the collective will wither and die.

In chapter 5, Thomas and Brown suggest collectives “unlike the larger notion of the public, are both contextual and situated, particularly with regard to engaging in specific actions.” (p. 57) The authors use the example of a person who sings a song at a karaoke bar. Within the environment of the karaoke bar, participation is prized and an essential part of the enterprise. Since these activities are designed around participation, those that are involved in them have a sense of investment.

Thomas and Brown suggest that the most challenging problems we currently encounter are collective more often than personal.  Through the collective, some of the largest problems we face have resulted locating solutions.  For example, Kiva is a nonprofit organization that uses micro-fiance to fund start-up businesses.  Kiva melds “the collective (450,000 loan officers) with the personal (highly motivated entrepreneurs who want to put their ideas into action).” (p. 59)  This type of exercise, Thomas and Brown state, is creating a learning environment where passion and imagination grow while providing “agency for the recipients of the loans.” (p. 59)

When discussing collectives and education, Thomas and Brown suggest that one need only look as far as a social networking environment to witness a group project constructed by a collective. The authors note how assessing group projects can be difficult for a teacher, but the product of a collective is easier to evaluate because it is based on how the participants  “personal sense of identity and agency matches with the various collectives” that make up various spaces. (p. 63)

Thomas and Brown suggest Social networking sites (SNSs), like Facebook, are a way to “harness the collective” and thus “through the new media, the collective serves not only as a kind of resource for learning but also as a kind of amplifier:  It intensifies and heightens the process of learning by continuously relating it back to the personal.”  SNSs are spaces that are both personal and collective where people are learing “with one another”, not just “from one another.” (p. 67)

The authors then discuss the case of a college student whose school accused him of a breach of academic integrity for developing an on-line study group of 147 students via Facebook. Thomas and Brown suggest that the study group was nothing more than a digital re-creation of a physical-world study group that have been part of our educational traditions for centuries. The authors then suggest that the students involved in the on-line study group were able to learn much more as a collective than if they worked alone.

In chapter 6, Thomas and Brown borrow the term tacit knowledge from Michael Polanyi to exemplify the idea that we know more than we can say. Typically, if a person knows the answer to a question, we say that person has explicit knowledge, while the idea that we know more than what we can say is suggested by Michael Polanyi (1966) as the “tacit dimension of knowledge, which is the component of knowing that is assumed, unsaid, and understood as a product of experience and interaction.” (p 74) Rather than the explicit knowledge prolific in twentieth century learning practices,  like the use of an encyclopedia “which has its roots in the ancient Greek conception of rounded and complete knowledge” (p. 76) and is an example of how many have tried to create knowledge in a fixed form, tacit learning is about embracing knowledge that changes. Tacit learning is when “we learn by doing, watching, and experiencing,” for example, when one learns how to use email, one learns by “doing it, learning by absorption and making tacit connections.” (p. 76) Explicit knowledge has been a foundation of the mechanistic model for “transferring knowledge from one person to another” while tacit knowledge is not transferable–it is absorbed into the body through the senses by participating in every day activities. Through these everyday activities we pick up knowledge rather than in formal education where learning takes place at a specific place and time. Can we measure the amount of our tacit knowledge?  Although Thomas and Brown suggest that since tacit knowledge does not fit the transfer model of learning, it is a challenge to measure it.  They do not provide an solution for the problem.

Thomas and Brown suggest that instead of the idea that people learn in different ways even when given the same information–people learn different things. We don’t make room for students arriving at different answers within our current education model and this leads to teaching that “tends to focus on eliminating the source of the problem: the student’s imagination.” (p.79) Rather than limit the student’s imagination, Thomas and Brown suggest that using the process of learning through inquiry, can expand the imagination. Instead of the focus being on finding the answer to say, a math problem, Thomas and Brown suggest that we reverse the order of things so that the goal is to ask questions. These questions are restricted by the subject of inquiry and our tacit knowledge. Since tacit knowledge is not, by definition, explicit, it is difficult to use the associations held by this deeply embedded knowledge. However, tacit knowledge can find expression through the formulation of questions and the process of inquiry. In turn, inquiry can serve as an instrument for leveraging the tacit knowledge that comes from indwelling. Thomas and Brown borrow this term indwelling from Polanyi (1966)  to mean “a familiarity with ideas, practices and processes that are so engrained they become second nature.” (p 84) Indwelling is also adaptive, and thus flexible by nature, while we use it to make connections among the tacit dimensions of things. A disposition will reveal how a student will make tacit connections. It does not provide answers about what someone is  apt to learn but how someone might learn. A person who plays a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) is referred to in this chapter as a gamer. Thomas and Brown describe a “gamer” disposition based on six characteristics of gamers:

1. they want to improve so seek to be evaluated

2. gamers understand the power of diversity through teamwork

3. they thrive on the change that is embedded in the game

4. they see learning as fun

5. they live on the edge and “push the boundaries of the environment” of the game (pp.87-88)
The authors then close the chapter by mentioning that students with a gamer disposition are becoming the common and by using inquiry a diverse set of dispositions can find expression in the collectives they participate in and create; this final expression of a collective process the authors call collective indwelling.

In chapter 7, Thomas and Brown suggest three frames–homo sapiens, homo faber, homo ludens–that can be utilized for redesigning our educational institutions in order to embrace the credo you live, you learn at the center of the new culture of learning. Both knowledge and belief have been explored through the use of “what” questions. With the term Homo sapiens, or humans who know, the authors suggest that in the new culture of learning the questions are more geared toward, “where is the information?” These “where” questions rely more on context. In this new culture of learning, expertise is about knowing “how to find and evaluate” information on a certain topic more than having a number of facts or pieces of information. (p.93) Homo faber, or humans who make (things), is not just learning through doing but finding meaning through “contextualization” rather than “interpretation”. (p.95) In a world where everything can be remade and remixed, it is not just about learning through doing, but learning through shaping context which requires a new kind of reading in order to be critical of, and evaluate, such remixes.

Homo ludens, or humans who play, is an idea that Thomas and Brown think is “probably most overlooked aspect in understanding how learning functions in culture” and reveals something that is more fundamental than playing a game but is more about disposition or approach to the game. (p.97) Play, according to Johan Huzinga “is not merely central to human experience, it is part of all that is meaningful in human culture.” (p. 97) Indeed, he adds, “[p]lay is not something we do; it is who we are.” (Ibid) Play can be the chance to experiment with finding the answer to the riddle which will contain an organizing principle, just as an epiphany creates awareness and makes sense of all the elements that came before that moment. For both riddle and epiphany, a requirement of locating a solution is to consider the problem from various perspectives.“In play…learning is not driven by a logical calculus but by a more lateral, imaginative of thinking and feeling instead.” (p. 99) This kind of lateral thinking is a necessity to locate progress in the new culture of learning.

In chapter 8, Thomas and Brown discuss hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: expressions for the “way young people participate with new media” according to an ethnographic study by Mizuko Ito. (p.100) Learning social practices that provide meaning or “hanging out” is the first step of indwelling, according to Polanyi. (p. 101) Ito’s term use of hanging out is “about learning how to be with others in spaces that are mediated by digital technology.” (p. 101)
The second step of indwelling is messing around; “[w]hen messing around, young people begin to take an interest in and focus on the workings and content of the technology and media themselves, tinkering, exploring, and extending their understanding.” They begin to transition from social agency, during hanging out, to personal agency during the messing around phase as they begin to pursue topics of interest.

The final step of indwelling includes two conditions. According to Ito, “The ability to engage with media and technology in an intense, autonomous, and interest-driven  way is a unique feature of today’s media environment.  The Internet can provide access to an immense amount of information related to their particular interests, and it can support various forms of ‘geeking out’…” The second condition of geeking out extends one’s social agency developed from hanging out and personal agency from messing around. As Ito states it, “[g]eeking out involves learning to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participating in communities that traffic in these forms of expertise.” (p 104) Collective indwelling is a outgrowth of participating in these experiences and is explained in the next chapter.

In the final chapter of the text, Thomas and Brown suggest MMOs are almost perfect examples of a new learning environment.  The authors use the game World of Warcraft (WOW) to provide a full illustration of their new culture of learning;  WOW serves as a “large-scale social communit[y] that provide[s] a case study in how players absorb tacit knowledge, process it into a series of increasingly sophisticated questions, and engage collectives to make the experience more personally meaningful.” (p. 107) The authors continue to flesh out this illustration of their new culture of learning through WOW by explaining the general aspects of the game. As part of the experience of playing the game, the authors connect two of their terms–collective and indwelling.  They state that “the feeling and belief that group members share a tacit understanding of one another, their environment, and the practices necessary to complete their task could be described as the virtual space of collective indwelling.” (p. 113)

Built on Huizinga’s precepts of Homo Ludens that play is something we do and that “play precedes culture”.   (p.116) Thomas and Brown add to those ideas by proposing a fusion of play (as they define it) and “experimentation, growth, and evolution” that emerge from the play and increase drastically when performing within a collective . These elements will, in turn, transform imagination.  “And where imaginations play, learning happens.” (p. 118) Alas, if I had a deeper understanding of the World of Warcraft game I could provide criticism in terms of how well it illustrates the authors ideas and this new culture of learning.

This text provides me, as an educator, a possible new lens with which to view and discuss learning. Everything from the many neologisms to the ideas of disposition and culture are worth considering.  Although the text is terribly optimistic, I found inspiration in both the examples and the explainations. I
The authors suggest that change motivates and challenges and while that is sometimes true for some people, that is certainly not true for all people–change can be intimidating and scary for many, just take a look at politics where the status quo is king.

More than provoking criticism, this text brought up many questions for me.  Here are a few: In this new culture of learning, what would assessment look like?  Perhaps something like the feedback the the authors suggest is an intricate part of a game such as World of Warcarft; Can we duplicate this type of feedback?  If the nature of this learning does not have a goal per se, what understandings do the student, teacher and educational institution have to arrive at in order to participate in this new culture of learning?

More than advocating for a change in paradigm, Thomas and Brown suggest embracing a paradigm that already has put its roots down–already exists.  Through the use of metaphors from nature, rather than from the man-made or mechanistic, they  invoke the spirit of a new age of relatedness.  I found inspiration in both the examples and explanations. In particular, I appreciated the analogies of learning to ideas of biomimicry or taking inspiration or metaphors from biological systems, like swarm intelligence. Besides ecology, the text is one that is of such an interdisciplinary nature as it draws from education, anthropology, communication, business, computer sciences and  language learning.

Overall, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change is a concise, accessible book that will appeal to teachers, parents and researchers in addition to any stakeholders interested in the future of education or indeed anyone interested in ideas for addressing the world in which context is rapid and changing.  Above all, I found this book inspiring for many reasons, but suffice it to say that on a deep, embodied level it reinforced some of what I already tacitly know to be true yet cannot express explicitly.


Giles, Jim (2005). Nature.

Huizinga, J. 1971. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play–Element in Culture. Boston:  Beacon Press.

Ito, M., S. Baumer, M. Bittanti, d. boyd, R. Cody, B. Herr-Stephenson, H. Horst, et al. (2009).  Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out:  Kids Living and Learning with New Media.  John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press.

Polanyi, M. (1966).The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, Ky: CreateSpace?.