I like to tell people that the key to being and/or sounding smart is to hang out with smart people. And, one of the names that would quickly comes to mind if asked to recommend who to hang out with is John Seely Brown, aka JSB. JSB, - who’s been a friend for over 25 years, - was chief scientist at Xerox and director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) until June of 2000. He is now the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge and a visiting scholar at USC. But, as noted in his personal website, his chief occupation is Chief of Confusion,“helping people ask the right questions, trying to make a difference through my work- speaking, writing, teaching.”
Transform our learning paradigms for the digital age is one of the main topics JSB has long been exploring, most recently in Cultivating the Entrepreneurial Learner in the 21st Century, - an article based on a presentation of the same title. Entrepreneurial learners aren’t necessarily entrepreneurs, but like entrepreneurs, they are “constantly looking for new ways, new resources, new peers and potential mentors to learn new things.”
Why is it so important to foster a more entrepreneurial style of learning? Our educational system has long been based on the assumption that learning is mostly about acquiring knowledge as well as critical skills to enable us to apply whatever we learned in school throughout our careers, say 30 - 40 years.
This was generally the case during the industrial age of the past two centuries, when according to experts like Carlota Perez, we had a major technology revolution every 50 - 60 years, when new technologies emerged from the labs into the marketplace, disrupting existing industries and jobs. These relatively short periods of creative destruction were then followed by several decades of institutional recomposition, when the now well accepted technologies and economic paradigms became the norm, leading to fairly stable jobs, industries and business models. What you learned in school would generally serve you well through most of your career.
However this is far from the case in our 21st century digital economy. Not only are we now living in a world of constant and rapid change, but the very nature of innovations is quite different. In the past, we’ve tended to associate major innovations with technological and scientific breakthroughs coming out of R&D labs, like the transistor, penicillin, DNA sequencing, TCP/IP protocols, and so on. These breakthroughs are typically made by researchers working on new theories, technologies, algorithms and inventions that will hopefully, over time, find their way from the lab to the marketplace.
Such lab-based breakthroughs are at one end of the innovation spectrum. At the other end are market-facing innovations, which we generally associate with entrepreneurs, startups, and established companies working to develop new products, services, business models and companies. Market-facing innovations are mostly recombinant in nature, that is, rather than being focused on creating a breakthrough new idea they’re based on recombining old ideas in new ways. Recominant innovations are all about the creation of new products, markets and industries based on novel combinations of existing technologies.
This kind of innovation is all around us in the digital economy. The Internet has become the most prolific innovation platform the world has ever seen, even more so now with the advent of smart mobile devices, cloud-based services, and the myriads of apps built on them. The Internet enables us to relatively quickly integrate new and legacy technologies to create applications where the whole is far bigger that the sum of the individual parts.
“How do we prepare students for the 21st century workscape?” asks JSB. “I’d like to suggest that we need to build learning environments that foster entrepreneurial learners. We need to teach students to want to constantly learn new types of things, because that is the world that we are moving into - a world of constant and rapid change. The key for me is getting students to play with knowledge. Learning systems today primarily push information to students. However, the Internet now allows students to pull information and resources to them in the moment. Entrepreneurial learners will not only pull information from the web but also use it to connect and collaborate with other students and mentors across the world… ”
“How do we help students transition from a push style of learning to being comfortable with pulling information on demand when encountering novel problems that they don’t know how to solve? How do we create a type of life-long learning that fosters entrepreneurial learners with the network technology that exists today?”
The key, according to JSB is to think of learning as a blend of Homo Sapiens, or man who knows, and Homo Faber, - man who makes. Entrepreneurial learners are fundamentally makers and tinkerers, a critical set of skills that we’ve underplayed in the past because it’s not been part of the formal educational system. He succinctly defines this fusion of knowing and making as “where knowledge meets practice.”
In addition to being good makers and tinkerers, entrepreneurial learners must also be strong critical thinkers. “When I build a piece of software,… does it work or not? I’m not just talking functionally, but also socially and contextually. Does what I’m doing resonate with others in my practice? Does it capture the essence of what I’m trying to do or say? This sense of, ‘I’m building something, does it work?’ also applies to poetry. Does this poem hunt or not? If not, I need to keep tinkering with it…”
“We’ve always thought about Homo Faber, or “man as maker,” as maker of things like goods or content, but the game has just changed. Now, in the networked age and with the tools we have at our disposal, we can also make contexts. It used to be that context was stable and we would create content within it. If we can start to create contexts however, then we have a whole new dimension for creating meaning.” Recombinant innovations, remixes and mashups are all examples of creating new contexts.
Beyond Homo Sapiens and Homo Faber, an entrepreneurial learner must exhibit an important third dimension, - Homo Ludens or man who plays. This is a very important concept. Thinks of what it takes to be a great athlete, say a baseball player. If you’re a hitter, you cannot be afraid of striking out or hitting into a double play with the game on the line. If you’re a pitcher, you cannot be afraid to serve up a home-run ball or blow a save.
Conquering the fear of failure is a critical part of the learning that’s necessary to become good in your profession, whether you’re an athlete, writer, or entrepreneur. Play implies a “kind of permission to fail, fail, fail again and get it right,” the courage to play with something until an epiphany moment when everything just falls into place. “Brilliant teachers are brilliant in being able to create epiphanies for kids.”
Examples of entrepreneurial learning can be found all around us. In the paper, JSB discusses several such concrete examples, including:
Curiosity On-Demand. Smartphones are curiosity amplifier devices. “If you’re doing something and you get stuck or become curious about a topic, you can look up the information you need and explore it in the moment… The information you pull into action is learned in situ, made personal and contextualized.”
The Open Source Movement. This is an excellent example of a participatory learning platform, where people work together to develop and maintain open source software. “[T]he culture of the open source movement is based on looking around, seeing what other people have done, tearing some parts apart, repurposing those pieces, adding new pieces to construct something new and way beyond what the other person may have ever had in mind… In fact, you become a better member of the community through useful additions and working in the distinctive style and sensibilities of that group. In the open source movement, social capital matters. This is most obviously seen in the fact that in order to participate you need to not only be able to code, but code in a way that can be understood by others. You write code to be read. Otherwise people can’t use it, comment on it, modify it, or learn from it.”
Pro-Amateur Communities. Amateur astronomers are an example of such a community. It’s their passion to watch the nigh sky. “Now, more advanced and available technology has given rise to what we call the pro-amateur class. These are more than casual stargazers. They have day jobs, but spend their free time in the evening monitoring the stars with other amateurs over the Internet. In recent years, an interesting relationship has emerged. All of a sudden, the professional astronomers found a reason to interact with the pro-amateurs. The reason? The global network of pro-amateurs has the ability to diligently monitor the sky 24/7 with a speed and consistency previously unattainable by professionals.”
To John Seely Brown, these various examples , - and many others, - illustrate why entrepreneurial learners are essentially 21st century digital tinkerers. “Think about the three different epistemologies - knowing, making, and playing - and how they may be blended together in terms of tinkering… In fact, tinkering is catalytic to many kids as a way of understanding a problem and the moves that are possible… It really is the case that if you become skilled at tinkering, you begin to get a gut feeling for how systems work. You get a sense for what can be pushed around, 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 - an embodied immersion - and you start to develop an instinct that is deeply situated.”