“Learning about” versus “learning to be”

Stephen Downes highlights a stimulating article by John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler:

Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0 (also available as a PDF)

Read in detail; here are just a few highlights that struck me:

  • During the next decade [1996 – 2006] , this 30 million [people qualified to go to university but with no place to go] will grow to 100 million. To meet this staggering demand, a major university needs to be created each week. [Sir John Daniel]
  • The Cartesian perspective assumes that knowledge is a kind of substance and that pedagogy concerns the best way to transfer this substance from teachers to students…
  • …Social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are learning…

Brown and Adler argue that a widely held model is the one in which students spend years learning about a subject. “Only after amassing sufficient (explicit) knowledge are they expected to start acquiring the (tacit) knowledge…of how to be an active practitioner/profession in a field.”

Social learning tools enable anyone with an interest to join in a community of practice and participate in that community. (On the internet, no one knows you’re a grad assistant.) Here’s one of the illustrations from the article:

Most of this I’ve read about in one way or another, but the authors have done a great job of bringing concepts together. I’m seeing some of the implications of “new learning” more clearly than I had.

4 thoughts on ““Learning about” versus “learning to be”

  1. Re: “On the internet, no one knows you’re a grad assistant.”

    This is something I really like about social media. I especially notice it in environments like Second Life where you don’t even use your own name. All those stereotypes, hierarchies are removed.

  2. I had some similar thoughts on my post today. Hmm; first learn to be (or even to do) and then learn about what is of interest or important for you in your social (including work) context.

    Gotta read this one – thanks, Dave.

  3. Oddly, the thing this comment triggered for me was the collegial way I was welcomed (in person) by people at my first ISPI conference. Maybe the luck of the draw in terms of who I bumped into, but I felt part of a face-to-face community of practice.

    I take your point about SL, though I think it depends on the sim you’re in. (As many people have pointed out, in general you don’t see avatars of color, nor fat ones, nor old ones. The Lake Wobegon effect meets Gold’s Gym.)

    Still, I agree with both your point and the one in the article. In a sense, the immediate community (however defined) chooses how to value the contributions of its members. Eric Kandel makes a similar point about his brain research: he doesn’t think he and his teams could have achieved what they did in the more hierarchical world of European academia. In the U.S., postdocs and even grad students were encouraged and even expected to have ideas, pursue hypotheses, ask questions.

  4. Harold, I think the flow can run either way — in learning about some topic, you can find yourself being drawn into it, going beyond the general and obvious, so that you shift into “to be.”

    Learning to be is more diffuse, more difficult to get a handle on, which is probably why our formal models have tended the other way.

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