Thursday, April 2, 2009

John Seeley Brown at IU

A sunny spring day welcomed John Seely Brown to the Indiana University campus. According to, storms were on their way, but the gray skies stayed away. While TB and I didn't have to navigate wet conditions to get to the talk, I'm not sure it was worth the two hours I set aside for it.

First, the room may have been ideal for a luncheon, but it was not adequate for a talk with a large attendance. After a number of people congregated along the fringes of the room, someone got the bright idea to bring in extra chairs. This still did not accommodate everyone. Fortunately, TB got a chair, but I had to stand for most of the talk.

John Seely Brown may be considered an educational "rock star," but he isn't a very inspirational speaker. He spent most of the time talking to the group of males sitting in chairs near the podium. (The women in the group obviously were not worthy enough of his words of wisdom.) There were also times when he was hard to hear, turned away from the group, gave rambling responses to questions, and mumbled unintelligible comments. One of Brown's main points was that educators should move away from the "sage on the stage" approach to teaching. Ironically, however, Brown lectured to the group for more than an hour. Stated another way, he was the "sage on the stage" he was arguing against.

In general, Brown's talk was tired and seemed somewhat out-of-date. Most of his talking points were presented in the article "Minds on Fire" he co-wrote in early 2008 with Richard Adler. If you have the opportunity to attend a presentation given by Brown, it might be time better spent to simply read the Minds article. Another "old" idea was the concept of play and fun in learning. Brown presented play (or as he calls it, homo ludens) as if it was new and revolutionary. He has obviously missed the wealth of information that is presented in much of the literature.

Other ideas mentioned in Brown's presentation:
  • It's not a digital gap but a participation gap. (Hmmm...wonder what the individuals without computer and internet access would say about this? But, when you think about it, you can't participate if you don't have access. Referring to the digital gap by another name doesn't make it magically go away.)
  • Play as an epiphany - Free your mind and the learning will come.
  • Tinkering is the key to mastering a world in flux. (Much of the literature on women and computers suggest that males are typically tinkerers and females are not. If tinkering is the key, and females don't tinker, is the assumption that they won't master this world in flux? That's not a very optimistic statement. Shouldn't we be working toward learning environments that are friendly to all students, not just those who are male?)
  • Pushing toward the acquisition of 21st century learning skills is wrong. Instead, according to Brown, educators should be working toward creating a 21st century disposition in our students. What is a 21st century disposition, you might ask? Brown defines it as just being open to the idea of learning from others.
Many individuals in the audience appeared to be wowed by Brown's presentation. Maybe I've read too much at this point in my doctoral career, but none of the concepts Brown mentioned seemed new or particularly revolutionary to me. Guess I'm not cut out to be a groupie, at least not for this rock star.