Adapting to “a new culture of learning”

Thomas and Brown rightly states that 20th century teacher-centred and classroom-based learning environments do not adequately facilitate 21st century learning.

In the relative stability of the 20th century, education slowly and orderly adapted to changes in society and information was relatively scarce. This has been replaced by an environment characterised by constant connectivity to an expanding networked infrastructure; seamless access to ubiquitous information and new social and participatory media formats. These profound changes were brought about by converging developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs). An information society, characterised by accelerated continual change evolved. In the information society learning is no longer only formal, static and discrete, but also informal, continuous and fluid – not bound to teaching or classroom.

The fundamental shifts necessary for the world of education to adapt to the needs of the information society (and stay relevant) includes a change from teaching-based (passive) education to learning-based education:

  • with the emphasis no longer on teaching about the world, but learning through interacting with the world;
  • learning no longer viewed as an individual activity, but as social – happening in collectives, or communities of shared interest, and through peer-to-peer collaboration;
  • education does not react to change, but embraces change;
  • students do not prove successful information transfer, but ask questions and embrace what they do not know;
  • students do not learn from teachers (in classrooms only), but teachers act as mentors while students learn from the network of information sources that is the information society.

Thomas and Brown proposes “a new culture of learning” that cultivates learning in the 21st century information society. This type of learning requires unlimited access to a network of resources, as well as a structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to question, build and experiment within the boundaries of this environment (Thomas and Brown, 2011, p.19). Much like in the case of “games” and their “rules”, passion and imagination are harnessed to work within the constraints posed by the boundaries of the learning environments. They see play, questioning and the cultivation of imagination as the bedrocks of their “new culture of learning” (p.20), rather than the traditional educational metrics of efficiency, outcomes and answers (p. 118).

Thomas and Brown are not alone in their fundamental understanding of the shifts that are needed in education, see for example this blog post and this essay about the Connected learning movement, which proposes a different, but fundamentally related model for the reformation of education.

How does Thomas and Brown’s new culture of learning reflect my own experiences as an educator and learner in the past two or three years?

As an adult learner, my experience of 21st century learning is similar to this “new culture of learning”. I am convinced that learning has broken through the walls of formal, classroom education for ever. As learners, we are in control of our own self-directed learning. Learning is social and active and ongoing. Learning does not only happen out of textbooks or from a teacher. Experts and specialists as well as communities of interests, peers, social communities and various new forms of information production are all valuable sources of information and catalysts for learning.

As an educator in a school, I fully agree that learning should be learner-directed and –centred and not be bound to content, classroom and teacher. I am also convinced that younger learners need carefully constructed environments in which to learn. I am unsure of how they can safely and responsibly benefit from external collectives and communities of interest. I believe our students need much guidance in developing digital and information literacies and in traversing the information networks.

I have seen significant movement towards collaboration and peer-based learning in our school, but the general experience is still very different from “a new culture of learning”subject-based and result-oriented teaching is still very prevalent as we are primarily focused on preparing students to produce grades that will ensure entry into tertiary educational institutions.

The transformation of traditional education has begun, much remains to be done.



TEDX Talks. (2012, September 12). A new culture of learning, Douglas Thomas at TEDxUFM [Video file]. Retrieved from

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace.