Blog Post

"Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production"

John Seely Brown, who calls himself the Chief of Confusion and whommany of us prefer to call "Maestro," has created a new YouTube video"Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production." You can watch it on hiswebsite.


JSB's idea is that the one skill we most need to teach our children and that is most lacking in contemporary formal education is the capacity to imagine. Without imagination, you cannot create. In a fastpaced world, without imagination and creativity, you lack the confidence to size up a situation and then figure out how to redesign yourself and your ambitions for the changed environment. Imagination is partly a license to think anew. Interestingly, one of the models JSB most favors for this free ability to unthink and rethink oneself is critique.


JSB believe the model of the architectural critique is especially useful. You imagine, you tinker, you build. You learn to work with others to negotiate ways to put your ideas together with that of others in order to end up with a concrete, working product. And then, in the architectural critique, the master comes through and offers critique of what you have done. The truly imaginative person welcomes this critique and learns how to learn from it. Slavish acceptance isn't right. Proud rejection is a know-nothing response. Learning how to hear critique, be creatively interactive with what you hear, and then to apply it to your work so your project is better next time is key.


Where, exactly, do we teach our students how to be critiqued, how to fail and accept failure as the basis for the next success, how to "go back to the drawing board" (in this case literally) in order to use what you have learned through the first process to, on a second try, make the really wonderful building or community or space capsule. Or novel, for that matter. Or business. This is not a matter of fields but of disposition. The key is the capacity to unlearn and relearn, ever more imaginatively.


At the bottom of JSB's website is a quote from Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM: "If you want to succeed, double your failure rate."


I like that. In fact, the Duke Magazine is celebrating its 25th anniversary by projecting 25 years into the future. They have asked me to write a futuristic essay on what learning will be like 25 years from now. Since, like JSB, I believe in Toffler's idea that literacy in the 21st century is the ability to "learn, unlearn, and relearn," I am proposing that, in my imagined future, every student pick one course a semester from a digital hat. It might be Algebraic Geometry or The Long Poem. Grades would be collaborative as would learning, so it is my job, as a fellow student in the course, to make sure you do well at Algebraic Geometry or The Long Poem. It would shake up our concept of learning if one quarter of our educational lives was spent in the deep end, with our fellow students there to help us learn to swim.


Such a wild card form of learning would also require faculty members to rethink their discipline.  What should their major would look like, what would it need to look like, if students had to take one-quarter fewer courses in order to participate in the Digital Hat? And it would require faculty members to rethink their teaching methods if one-quarter of their students, even in advanced courses, were there by chance and unprepared. How do you explain the most specialized subject matter to someone without even a baseline of training? Imagine, too, what would be required for the Digital Hat student to figure out how she could contribute when she has no actual, specialized "prerequisite" knowledge to offer? Maybe the Digital Hat student doesn't know Algebraic Geometry but is, perhaps, a darn good writer and he could be the person who leads the writing of a final essay? Or maybe she's a cracker jack manager and, because of her skills at creating a sense of team work and inspiring excellence, the whole class learns more and completes a far more interesting project?


My little experiment will never happen so I don't have to worry about its practical consequences, but I guarantee not all my readers are going to think I am a great educator when I propose this modest experiment. Still, it is fascinating to think about what it would mean if education were not about achieving an "A" in every course but about how to cope when thrown into situations where ingenuity, imagination, collaboration, and learning-to-fail were key. There are many ways to contribute to learning, in other words, but so far most of what we do in education follows one, linear path as if knowledge were always straight and, certainly, narrow. It isn't and life isn't.


It's more a mattering of tinkering, as JSB says. Check out John Seely Brown's video and look at his entire website. It is inspiring!

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Special thanks to Joichi Ito for publishing this wonderful photograph of JSB in the Flickr community. Please click on the image for more of Joi's photostream and full documentation.


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