What’s New about “A New Culture of Learning”

INF 530 Assessment item 4 – A Scholarly Book Review of  Thomas, D. & Brown, J.S. (2011). A new culture of learning. Lexington,Ky. Createspace?.

A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change’ by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) presents a theoretical framework that defines learning in the 21st Century. Through aligned real world examples to support key ideas, the authors present an argument for redefining societal views on learning and the influence of context on learning effectiveness. Thomas and Brown (2011) have dedicated the book to parents of children growing up in the 21st century in the hope of illuminating the varying learning styles of the next generation, highlighting that learning is no longer confined to formal education and classroom experiences. They deliver a book that outlines a new culture of learning grounded in the question “ what happens to learning when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the twenty first century, where technology is constantly creating and responding to change” (Thomas & Brown, 2011, p 17). This review will anaylse three key attributes of learning that Thomas and Brown (2011) outline as underpinning this new phenomenon of life-long learning in the 21st century; learning through play, questioning and imagination, learning within a collective and tacit learning through inquiry. The review will also consider our current learning environments, how ‘new’ is this new culture of learning and what defines it as new.

Thomas and Seely (2011) advocate that expanding digital, networked infrastructure and unlimited resources are creating change at such a rapid rate that current education approaches cannot keep pace with the evolving technology and information. The impact of change and the need to realign models of education and learning to support 21st century environments is supported in a range of literature (Bellanca & Brandt, 2010; Resnick, 2002; Trilling & Fadel, 2009). New technologies have enabled society to become continually connected. Facilitating this connection in learning environments through a new culture of learning encourages teachers to transform their classrooms, shifting the expectations of teacher as expert and content deliverer to a focus on the teacher learning alongside their students (Garcia, 2014; Thomas & Seely, 2011). In support of this the new culture of learning focuses on learning instead of teaching, classrooms are replaced by connected learning environments and learning will occur by engaging with instead of about the world (Thomas & Seely, 2011).

Thomas and Seely (2011) propose that learning within the new culture is effective when there is interplay between accessing this network in a structured environment. Having unlimited access to resources and opportunities to create within this bounded environment is supported by the vast array of technology tools we have access to. Technologies can support students to be investigators and producers of their own knowledge (Bellanca & Brandt, 2011). Thomas and Seely (2011) advocate that the at the foundation of this new culture of learning is utilising technologies to embrace these changes, motivating, challenging and engaging learners, and promoting play and questioning to cultivate the imagination.

Children use play to make sense of their world and navigate new experiences and information (Thomas & Seely, 2011). Thomas and Seely (2011) suggest that whilst historically children have grown and become capable of making sense of their stable environment, the ever-changing nature of today’s world puts play as a central strategy for embracing these continual changes. Similarly James Paul Gee (2008) advocates that through play children gain many skills and academic content, developing as the learner solves problems and achieves challenges (cited Ito et.al, 2010). Likening learning to online gaming environments Thomas and Seely (2011) propose that online gamers, demonstrate key character traits; self reflection and evaluation of personal improvements; understanding diversity and teamwork; creating and thriving on change; enjoyment of learning and transferring new knowledge into actions; explore innovative strategies and push boundaries within their environment. These traits align with skills most in demand in the 21st century outlined by Trilling and Fadel (2009) as; Critical thinking and problem solving; Communication and collaboration; Creativity and innovation. Trilling and Fadel (2009) imply these skills facilitate the growth of self-reliant life-long learners who ask important questions, critically review information, collaborate to learn and create new knowledge and innovations. Establishing a learning environment that promotes the key features of games; learner as decision maker, challenges for learners, learning through trail and error, provision for immediate feedback and opportunities for exploration and experimentation (Paraskeva, Mysirlaki & Papagianni, 2010) would create a space that promotes experimentation, play and questioning, facilitating imagination (Thomas & Seely, 2011).

Play is the tool for cultivating the imagination in this new culture of learning suggested by Thomas and Seely (2011) and they imply that to facilitate authentic 21st century learning, the learner must learn through inquiry as opposed to instruction. In a world of constant change focusing on explicit knowledge is no longer effective and learners in our digital world learn by watching, doing, creating and making tacit connections (Thomas & Seely, 2011). Inquiry based learning where teachers are facilitators and students create knowledge through experiences (Roblyer & Doering, 2013) has been proven to engage learners, deepen understanding, capture student interests and facilitate ownership of learning (Chu, Tse & Chow, 2011;Trilling & Fadel, 2009). Inquiry learning facilitates learning in a bounded environment where questions are more important than answers and learning is continuous. Inquiry learning can be supported and enhanced by teachers and the availability of digital learning tools (Trilling & Fadel, 2009).

Increasing access to these digital learning tools creates environments that facilitate and support connected learning. Connected learning creates connections across the learner’s informal and formal learning opportunities and promotes engagement through authentic and personalised learning opportunities (Ito et.al, 2013). Thomas and Seely (2011) suggest that in this new learning culture no one assumes a role of authority within a learning relationship, mentors provide a structure for the learning and relationships are fluid according to interests and learning needs. These fluid relationships combine to form a collective, defined as “a collection of people, skills, and talent that produces a result greater than the sum of its parts” (Thomas & Seely, 2011, p52). These collectives are a medium for participation, self-directed learning and facilitate peer-to-peer tutoring.

Our ability to consume, create, produce and distribute information using digital tools is constantly evolving. The affordances of these digital media environments and opportunities for connected learning support deeper learning and knowledge creation through combining and sharing ideas within learning collectives that are no longer bound by physical location (Castelijns, Vermeulen & Kools, 2013; Thomas & Seely, 2011). Ito et.al (2010) supports this concept of learning collectives where interest-driven network sites are driven by specialized interests and facilitate peer-to-peer learning as a driver of the learning. Thomas and Seely (2011) refer directly to this research which describes the way young people are participating with new digital media; hanging out, messing around and geeking out (Ito et.al, 2010).

Whilst Thomas and Seely (2011) dedicate their book to parents of children growing up in the twenty first century it has relevance for anyone reflecting on the skills of digital life-long learning. This book does not provide a step-by-step guide on how to create this new culture within formal education settings, but will initiate conversations around why theoretical frameworks of learning need to evolve simultaneously with our changing contexts. Both Thomas and Seely are well respected in the area of learning and have authority and experiences to support their ideas. Douglas Thomas is an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is the founding editor of Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media and his research focuses on technology and culture. John Seely Brown is a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California and the cofounder of the Institute for Research on Learning. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Education (newcultureoflearning.com, n.d.).

Thomas and Seely (2011) could have extended the book through ideas and strategies of how this culture of learning could be integrated into formal education settings to enhance schooling and learning for all students. Addressing how this culture can impact formal learning environments, how teachers initiate and build this culture and how this framework of learning can enhance current education environments would broaden the audience of this book. Thomas and Seely (2011) provide real world examples of the new culture of learning and the attributes of learning they refer to are supported in additional unconnected studies, the validity of the book would have been higher had the authors linked additional research to support their key ideas within the book.

Technology is a catalyst for change (Norman & Sphorer, 2006) and change is occurring at an unprecedented rate (Thomas & Seely, 2011) nonetheless the question must be considered: How ‘new’ is this new culture of learning? Many of the key ideas suggested by Thomas & Seely (2011) are not necessarily new but the technologies we are using to access and support the learning are. The attributes of effective learning outlined by Thomas & Seely (2011) align with other research on learning effectiveness but can they be considered ‘new’ attributes? Learner centered education defined five years earlier by Norman & Sphorer (2006) as a teaching pedagogy that has been developing for over 100 years supports many of the attributes of learning outlined by Thomas & Seely (2011). Learner centered education engages learners in creating knowledge through problem solving and sustains intrinsic motivation by embracing social and cultural issues (Norman & Sphorer, 2006). Play based, peer-to-peer and collaborative learning aren’t new terms in the 21st century, perhaps what is new is the valuing the effectiveness of these attributes within learning environments.

The learning attributes outlined by Thomas & Seely (2011) may not be considered ‘new’, however the tools and technologies we are using to carry out the ideas are. Technology is enabling these ideas that have been around for the past century to enhance and deepen learning through our connected digital environment (Norman & Sophrer, 2006). Whilst we question the use of the term ‘new’ for learning attributes outlined by Thomas & Seely (2011), new technologies are facilitating new context and culture through new experiences and products from the learning.

Thomas and Seely (2011) through ‘A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change’ have presented a comprehensive framework to view learning within the fluid society of the 21st century. They presented contexts and attributes of learning they believe define effective learning in today’s society. Their detailed discussion about learning aligns with external research and is supported with ‘real world’ scenarios. Overall Thomas and Seely (2011) provide a detailed account of how new technologies and rapid rate of change in our society are a stimulus for how we learn in a digitally connected world. They have presented a thorough argument for the need to reassess learning models in the 21st century and consider how learning is enhanced, supported and facilitated in our evolving digital society.


 Bellanca, J., & Brandt, R. (2010). 21st century skills. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Castelijns, J., Vermeulen, M., & Kools, Q. (2013). Collective learning in primary schools and teacher education institutes. Journal of Educational Change, 14(3), 373-402. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10833-013-9209-6

Chu, S., Tse, S., & Chow, K. (2011). Using collaborative teaching and inquiry project-based learning to help primary school students develop information literacy and information skills. Library & Information Science Research, 33(2), 132-143. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.lisr.2010.07.017. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0740818811000028)

Garcia, A. (2014). Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. Retrieved from http://dmlhub.net/wp-content/uploads/files/teaching-in-the-CL-classroom.pdf

Ito, M., Baumer, M. Bittanti,d. boyd, R. Cody, B. Herr-Stephenson, H. Horst, et.al. (2010). Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from https://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/free_download/9780262013369_Hanging_Out.pdf

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watkins, S.C. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. Retrieved from http://dmlhub.net/publications/connected-learning-agenda-for-research-and-design/

Newcultureoflearning.com – A New Culture of Learning: About Us. (n.d.). [website] Retrieved from http://newcultureoflearning.com/about.html

Norman, D., & Spohrer, J. (1996). Learner-centered education. Communications of the ACM, 39(4), 24-27. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.csu.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=iih&AN=12571798&site=ehost-live

Paraskeva, F., Mysirlaki, S., & Papagianni, A. (2010). Multiplayer online games as educational tools: Facing new challenges in learning. Computers & Education, 54(2), 498-505. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.09.001. Retrieved from doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.09.001

Resnick, M. (2002). Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age. In The Global Information Technology Report: Readiness for the Networked World, edited by G. Kirkman. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://llk.media.mit.edu/papers/mres-wef.pdf

Roblyer, M. D., & Doering, A. H. (2013). Integrating educational technology into teaching. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon Publishers.

Thomas, D. & Brown, J.S. (2011). A new culture of learning. Lexington,Ky. Createspace?.

Trilling, B., & Fadel, C. (2009). 21st century skills. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Retrieved from http://www.csuau.eblib.com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=468884







I am a Primary School teacher in regional NSW. I have been teaching for 16 years and have worked in a variety of school settings including small rural one teacher schools, special education schools and am currently an Assistant Principal in a K-6 primary school with a student population of 330.


  1. Hey there Rachel – good to read your review as I also reviewed this book. As you were coming at it from a slightly different angle to me, it was great to hear your thoughts as they highlighted other key aspects of the book which were worthy of consideration. Although you addressed different criteria for analysis, it sounds like you share some of the same gripes with the book as I do….this is also nice to hear. Anyway – thanks for sharing ! Nice one! : )

  2. I would agree with you in that not a lot of these ideas are “new”. Nevertheless, I love their idea that play is about sense-making and responding to the world. Play is valuable, and not some vague experience, but a structured imaginative process, not just a vague floating “waste of time. Teaching students to “play’ I think starts with teaching the teachers how to play – not many of us get to do that any more. not many of us are brave enough to take risks any more. Yet, like so much of teaching, it’s in the modelling and empathy that we give our students a sense of authenticity to what we are expounding.

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