Cultivating the Entrepreneurial Learner in the 21st Century: A deep dive with John Seely Brown

Deloitte Centre for The Edge’s co chairman, John Seely Brown, recently gave a keynote in March 2012 at the DML conference in San Francisco. In his deep dive exploration, John explores the landscape of the entrepreneurial learner and the changing conditions that are creating its emergence. In addition to being rich in detail and packed with anecdotes, one of the things that I appreciated was that he asked lots of questions about this new landscape means, rather than presuming to know the answers. In turn, practicing exactly what he is preaching. Here are a few highlights I took away from the talk:

On the Entrepreneurial Learner:

“I became interested in this more around the notion of rethinking what does it mean to be a entrepreneurial learner? This does not mean how to become an  entrepreneur. This really means, how do you constantly look around you all the time for new ways, new resources to learn new things? “

On Knowledge Flows:

“It used to be, not too long ago…that you could count on picking up a set of skills, and basically hold those for life. Today, that no longer works. You’re constantly reinventing, augmenting those skills. And in fact, I think it’s fair to say that we are now moving from a 20th century notion of looking at how you pick up a set of fixed assets that are authoritative, transferred to you in delivery models, often called schooling, that have wonderful scalable efficiency because we could talk to 100 people or 100,000 people basically simultaneously. How do we move from that  transfer model to the model of how do you participate in the ever-moving flows of  activities, knowledge, and so on and so forth? How do you move from being like a steam ship that sets course and keeps going for a long time, to what you might call whitewater kayaking? You have to be in the flow, and you have to be able to pick things up in the moment. You have to feel it within your body, you have to be a part of that, you have to be in it, not just above it and learning about it. We want to argue that in this new world of flows, participating in these knowledge flows is an active sport, and the whole catch is, how do you participate in these flows, and how do you actually [participate] in these flows of constant change?

On World of Warcraft and its learning ecologies:

Something that I know a little bit more about — I grew up with this — is World ofWarcraft. It’s very interesting to me to notice that — I didn’t check last night, but a couple of nights ago — there were over 14,000 new ideas created in one night on
better ways to play some of the new high-end raids in World of Warcraft. Knowledge production and knowledge dissemination is happening at an unbelievable rate. In fact, if you think about the social life around the edge of the game, I’m not arguing
that the World of Warcraft as a game is all that important, I’m arguing that the social life around the edge of the game, the learning ecologies, the knowledge ecologies being created on the fly as emergent properties of playing this game better and
better, created by the kids themselves, is something we ought to understand because the social dynamics of that is very very important.

On the Harry Potter WorldWide Movement:

I’m very fond of hinking about the Harry Potter World Wide  Movement in terms of the fan fiction networks and fan fiction dot com, etc. The numbers there, and people in the audience know a hell of a lot more about this than  I do, but it’s very interesting to see that because of the networked age, now there are  over 6,000 communities of interest that have been created around Harry Potter.  There are thousands of discussion forums. There are, in some ways, 386,000 stories  that have now been written, but perhaps more surprising to me, is there are the  equivalent to at least, I would say, a hundred, maybe more, equivalent of 400 page novels, have been written by kids joining this Harry Potter movement. Writing is back. Writing is here in a major way, and we have the tools and social networking to incite and to incent people to do amazing pieces of work. I keep being blown away by people telling me, oh no, no, no. These kids don’t read, they don’t write. And I just say well, pardon me. Let me take you to some of these fan sites and look at some ofthe stories, look at some of the books actually being written. In fact, I think actually that the most recent data is about a thousand, you’d probably know. A thousand books of more than 400 pages per book, have now been written in this fandom.

On Collectives

Perhaps now, we belong to learn, that sense of belonging is a sense of personal agency. We now belong to  learn in order to make things actually happen. So I want to kind of just allude to these notions of collectives, as a whole new form that we all use in this room as a major source of this learning. Collectives are made up of folks who share an individual’s personal interests, gardening, astronomy, seen it all on Facebook groups, etc. But curiously, unlike communities of practices, they make no demands on its users, no tests, no lectures, yet learning happens all the time. Collectives are focused on enabling individual agency.  They are a site for both play and  imagination where the personal can  mesh with the collective, transforming and enriching both. So when I go to a collective, I learn something but I’m expected to contribute something,  maybe just as a question that I ask. They have almost unlimited scale via social networks and at their core rest notions of peer and master mentoring. We have already invented amazing techniques that scale, if you kind of  understand this. Sounds cool. On the other hand, in this world of constant change, all these techniques we’re talking about including some aspects of the collectives and the way that the personal and the collective interact, we still might be just pouring you might call it new wine in old bottles. In a constantly changing world, sometimes we must be prepared to craft new bottles as well. It’s all too easy to try to use old frames to understand the world today, but if our initial thesis is right, we have to find new ways to regrind our lenses.

On Tinkering:

Now the reason I bring up tinkering in particular is, in a world of constant change, if you don’t feel comfortable tinkering, you’re going to feel an amazing state of anxiety, because they used to say, as you saw us here a moment ago, things
don’t always work. And if you feel you have to run and get a manual and figure out how to read exactly what you should be doing and you made a mistake somewhere, then you can’t help but be a little bit pissed off. If, on the other hand, you feel
completely at home just saying, well let me kind of play around with the situation a little bit and see if we could kind of make it work, and then you make it work, not only have you learned something new, but you feel like you are now in control of things.
And so this sense of play in a world of constant change, through the lens of tinkering, becomes very powerful. But tinkering could be more than just that. It really is the case if you get skilled at tinkering you begin to get a gut feeling for how systems work. You get a sense for what can be pushed around. You get the sense of what the pushbacks are all about. You start to develop an almost intimate familiarity with the system itself and with the material at hand. It is a form of being embodied, you’re embodied, a kind of a form of embodied immersion and you start to develop an instinct, and of course, is deeply situated. So this is kind of a deep structure type of tinkering that I think we’re looking at that leads to this re-framing that is completely aligned with this sense of the epiphany stuff, and how do you kind of play with really radically changing the context, which starts.

His last line – a question actually – struck a chord with me:

“Let us ask, is it  possible, we’re getting in a position to take the one-room school house, and make it the global one-room school house through these networks of imagination and new forms of mentorship?


What excites me is that this school house JSB is describing is that for many people it is right in front of us. We don’t have to look very far. We are living in it. And when you are equipped with an entrepreneurial learning mindset, you can begin to take advantage of it. The challenge is to find ways of creating conditions like this in spaces that perhaps are a little bit behind.

We have the ability now to listen in on perspectives from leading thinkers across the world, reflect on them, and in a short space of time, apply them in our own situational context. The lag time is shortening and so our ability to tinker and test

Here are a few tips and open questions to help you get into the learning mindset.

1. Learn how to learn:

How do you like to learn?
How can you equip myself with a variety of tools so I can learn quicker?
Have you identified what I want to learn?
How can you tinker and test things that you have come across and play with them in the real world?

2. Surround yourself with entrepreneurial learners.

What learning ecologies can you find and surround yourself in?
How will my learning accelerate when you are people who share a learning mindset?
How do I find communities where I will discover new things to learn that I don’t know even know I want to learn right now?

3. Ask Questions

How can I cultivate a questioning disposition rather than thinking I have all the answers?
How does questioning help my learning?
How can ask a bigger and diverse set of questions when I encounter something I don’t understand?



DML Conference ( Conference)- Big digital media and learning conference in SF

A New Culture of Learning’(Book) -JSB’s book on the new cultural learner. He expands upon numerous things in this talk

“Tinkering as a metaphor for knowledge production” (Video) – A brilliant 5 minute clip from JSB about what tinkering means.

John Seely Brown- ‘Chief of Confusion’ (Homepage)


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