The Personal with the Collective: JSB on Innovation and Learning

In the book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (2011), authors Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown ask the simple yet complex question: “In the twenty-first century, how do we cultivate the imagination?” (New Culture 20) In this post, I will introduce Brown’s career and works, as well as try to wrestle with this question and its possible answers which include a look into contemporary digital media culture, learning environments, ways of learning in personal and collective models, and the potentials for education and educators to teach a world full of constant change.

John Seely Brown—also known as JSB—has quite a large and extensive resume and list of accomplishments, spanning over more than 50 years of work. He earned his BA in Mathematics and Physics at Brown University in 1962 and his PhD in Computer and Communication Sciences at the University of Michigan in 1970. Since then, JSB was the Chief Scientist for the Xerox Corporation and the director for the companies Palo Alto Research Center for almost two decades. He is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education; a Fellow for both the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and the American Association for the Advancement of Science; a Trustee for the MacArthur Foundation; and also the co-founder of the Institute for Research on Learning. He has served on many public and private boards of directors—including several international boards in Singapore and Barcelona—and has earned seven honorary degrees since 2000 beginning with Brown University. He is the author of over 100 scientific journal articles and papers.

For Brown, innovation is critical to formulating better models, be they business or educationally oriented, which can be seen in the various books he has authored and co-authored over the years. One of his early works is Seeing Differently: Insights on Innovation (Harvard Business Review Press, 1997) which shows the range of implications for innovations in business and technical work. His future works like The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business Review Press, 2000), co-authored with Paul Duguid, Out of the Box: Strategies for Achieving Profits Today and Growth Tomorrow through Web Services (Harvard Business Review Press, 2002), The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion (Basic Books, 2010), and The Only Sustainable Edge: Why Business Strategy Depends on Productive Friction and Dynamic Specialization(Harvard Business Review Press), co-authored with John Hagel III, exemplify his focus on the business end of innovation. With A New Culture of Learning, he begins to open himself up to educational learning through innovation and recognition of the evolving time and spaces of information in the twenty-first century. He also recently provided the foreword to Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (MIT Press, 2012) expanding on his concepts of “collectives” and new pedagogical work and learning.

According to the authors of A New Culture, the foundation for the new culture of learning is based on three principles: 1) that “the old ways of learning are unable to keep up with our rapidly changing world”; 2) “new media forms are making peer-to-peer learning easier and more neutral”; and 3) “peer-to-peer learning is amplified by emerging technologies that shape the collective nature of participation with those new media” (50).

The first principle has developed with the widespread usage of digital technology, especially the Internet, across the world. Development of knowledge is no longer gradual. While traditionally someone had to go to the library, look up content in the Encyclopedia and other books, jot down information in their notebooks, and then compile it into a paper by hand, now they can consult the internet, copy and paste information from millions of different sources, and generate a lengthy document which can be edited anywhere with internet access through apps like Evernote or Google Docs. The authors highlight Wikipedia as an emblematic concept of this evolving notion of change as it is a site oriented around that change. Users across the world and online can “update” or edit entries on anything ranging from historical events, biographical overviews, controversies, reviews, scientific terminology, and philosophical discourses which provides information for anyone with internet access to digest. The concern for many, educators included, is that Wikipedia is not a reliable resource because of its embrace of “constant change” and user-based editing. For the authors, however, they see this as a benefit rather than a concern, pointing out that facts once learned in print or reliable sources like the encyclopedia can also be “erroneous.” Print-based works can easily become outdated and beholden to fewer perspectives than digital or online-based sources which culminate from thousands of usually anonymous writers and editors. They state that the challenge is “to find a way to marry structure”—old ways of doing things and regimented learning—“and freedom to create something altogether new” (49).

The second principle, that of peer-to-peer learning through new media, again centers around the internet as a space of change, but also of engagement. Online, according to the authors, the concept of “students” and “teachers” is broken down and in their place forms the concept of equality through access. The way individuals interact online is through collectives, something akin to the semiotic domains noted by James Paul Gee. These collectives online and the interactions they form, whether through larger initiatives like creating websites or smaller ones like commenting on posts or sending messages, allow for people across the world to come together and share, create, learn, and teach knowledge on a much more “neutral” basis. We are learning for ourselves and culminating information from our peers in ways that move much more quickly than we have been able to previously as a group.

The concern with this concept, of course, comes to the tension between “public” and “private” information and the things we share online. The rhetoric revolves around curtailing access by younger users because of the blurred notion of what is constituted as private content and public content. The fear is that what we share in private can, and sometimes will, become public, viewed by persons or parties beyond our original scope of posting that information. For the authors, however, the very concern over public vs. private in the face of a more “permeable” development like the internet “indicates a need for a new way to think about the differences between them.” They envision an outlook that combines the personal with the collective.

“The personal is the basis for an individual’s notions of who she is (identity) and what she can do (agency),” they write. The personal is more about how we shape our agency and identity, which can be both private and public. As for the concept of “the public,” they write that it implies a “singular,” a large, anonymous group open to everyone. The collectives they discuss are much more focused in scope, constructed around particular interests and issues, with value given towards the shared experience, passion, and discussion of the particular group. Collectives are “contextual and situated,” developed from a group focus and the participation of its individual users. It comes from the choice to interact and to show an individual or personal perspective with the group, an active role (56-57).

Applying this concept to education, they point toward what a lot of our discussions have been based around since the beginning of the course: collaboration and group work. The reason group work is so dreaded, they state, is because current models of teaching through groups “have no way of understanding, measuring, or evaluating collectives,” basing grades on an individual’s contributions, though those contributions might not easily equate to other members. What they emphasize is that groups be evaluated as a collective, a whole, operating, when they perform well, beyond the scope of the personal. Breaking down the individual authority basis and focusing on the group as whole allows, in their minds, for more productive and engaging products and outcomes. Even people who write blogs or create vlogs online are operating as part of a collective by broadcasting their individual perspectives to an audience, who then shape and inform the content created or generated. Ultimately, to post on the internet is to post for other eyes. And for education, they imagine that a classroom can become more engaging and active by acknowledging and operating with the collective mindset.

What the authors ultimately call for is an allowance for creative, innovative, and imaginative outputs and engagement from students within the constraints of the collective. They note that traditional models of teachers talking to students, administering tests, and basing their abilities to learn through digestion of mass information does not encourage range or room to “play,” to actively engage and to operate on student’s knowledge of digital interaction online. What they encourage is active participation with and from students, pursuing knowledge formed from collective work where the individual is allowed to voice their own perspectives and to, importantly, ask more questions. They bring up the concept of “indwelling,” the set of practices used to develop connections between things and form a more habitual understanding of information through the process of asking, rather than answering, questions. They point to the example of the infamous “Why?” game played by children, fueled by a passionate inquiry to know and learn. The series of answers and the series of questions show a passion to understand more, which should be encouraged in learning and is facilitated, as they imagine, now online.

Much like James Paul Gee’s knowledge on how learning works through his engagement with video games, the authors point toward the power of a meritocracy through collective engagement and competition that fosters a want to improve; the power of diverse, interactive perspectives that form new concepts and foster innovative projects; and ultimately play and having fun, allowing for students and learners to engage in projects that they want to participate in and learn more about. What I can ultimately take away from this book is what we’ve been engaging with over and over in class: the concept of developing skills in order for the learners, the students, to take an active role in the process of History, to step away from the textbook as sacrosanct and allow for multiple perspectives, multiple discourses, and a formulation of ideas founded on their abilities to read diversely and critically. While I am hesitant to start encouraging Wikipedia as a bastion for resources, I can acknowledge its role now as a new constantly changing form of information, providing a swath of content across a range of areas, there for the picking and inquiry of its users. It’s a recognition of the developing, in-process power of learning and encouraging diversity and collective engagement as opposed to teaching and fitting things into a mold of how it ought to be or how it’s always been. The traditional can operate with the new and work collectively to forge an innovative solution together.

Brown is currently a visiting scholar at USC and the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge. He is also the Chief of Confusion, “helping people ask the right questions, [and] trying to make a difference through…speaking, writing, [and] teaching” ( To learn more about Brown, you can visit his personal webpage,, and follow him on Twitter @jseelybrown.

John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, 2011.
John Seely Brown,

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