Blog Post

Learning by Doing in Mixed Realities

John Seely Brown advocates returning to "the one room school house"model of learning by doing and learning from one another, not only inschools but in corporations and in everyday life. For a full report, check out David Armano's blog on his Logic + Emotion site:


JSB was presenting a IT's Strategy 08 Conference in Chicago, where topics ranged from how to change the culture of corporations through design thinking to designing technologies for the other 90%. Yet the theme throughout seems to have been what we are branding as "participatory learning," learning from others and contributing to what you learn, and what HASTAC calls "collaboration by difference," the skill (it isn't taught in kindergarten, on the playground, or in business school) that is increasingly urgent in a globalized world of learning how to work with those who start from entirely different assumptions from one's own.


If I am in a culture where the group means everything (we believe) and you are in a culture where individual achievement is all (you believe), then how do we work together to a common and productive end? That's the challenge of the future and requires an entirely different conception of learning than No Child Left Behind and other systems based on standardized tests and measurements and individual-based achievement and learning styles.


We're betting that one thing we're all learning today is how to trust people who are not experts. That's the one-room schoolhouse model. If someone isn't the teacher, how do you tell if they are helping you out with a math problem or making matters worse? On line, when all is public, you learn partly by others--who agrees, who disagrees, who corrects, who says, "Great idea---let's take it one step further." In the one-room schoolhouse, you learn that way too. Credibility is earned, not credentialed. It is conferred by the respect of the whole, no one single person of which may know everything that a leader knows but all of whom may know something more about some part of the project. Together, you weed out what counts, what does not, what works and what does not, and who is worth following down a certain path and at what point to suggest a divergent path.  Of course there are con artists in digital world as they are in real life . . . but hopefully the "wisdom of crowds" lets us work together to expose the con, too.  That's another part of participatory learning.


It's a little like dancing, knowing when to lead, when to follow, and how the dance itself is more important than the individual excellence of any of the partners.


You do this on line, in a virtual community or even a virtual environment, but here's the amazing part: the participatory learning skills you hone on line carry over into real-world interactions, real world and face-to-face contacts. If you are lucky that is, the process works both ways. You take your real-world experience into the virtual learning environment and then you take what you learn there and how you learn there back into face-to-face contexts.


Sound idealistic? It certainly is. That's the point. Our current educational policy aims low, for the standard, the average, the lowest common denominator. With participatory learning, we're saying aim high! And see what good may follow . . .



The top photo is from the India Knowledge Exchange 2008 sponsored by the Global Fund for Children as part of one of the winning projects for the first HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition. The second is of GirlStart Festival, in Second Life, sponsored by RezEd, another DML I Competition winner. The third image is from the One Laptop Per Child Project, an attempt to make laptops affordable for all the world's children, at any income level. Together, all represent phases and modes of participatory learning. Stay tuned for the opening of the second Competition, on "participatory learning," soon.



Hi Cathy,

You write beautifully!


Hi Cathy,


Great point! While I think aspects of OLPC are laudable, I'm skeptical about its market strategy . . . raising the next generation of kids to be digitally dependent even before we have the basic bandwidth and other issues straightened out . . . inc in the U.S where, even among the affluent, the infrastructure just isn't there yet. Digital Divide still exists and it's not just about the laptop! We need a rural electrification program, like the New Deal, but for cyberinfrastructure--in whatever form--worldwide.