George Lucas Educational Foundation

John Seely Brown on Motivating Learners (Big Thinkers Series)

Innovative thinker John Seely Brown, known for his ideas for merging digital culture and education, shares lessons educators can learn from surfers, gamers, and artists on how passion and competitive hunger can drive intrinsic motivation.
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John Seely Brown on Motivating Learners (Transcript)

John: Probably the most important thing for kids growing up today is the love of embracing change.

I mean, the catch for preparing students for the 21st century workforce is "How do you get kids that have curiosity and a questing disposition?" We have called it in the past "the gaming disposition." If you look at the disposition of hardcore gamers such as World of Warcraft, massive multi-player games, the surprising thing that you find, contrary to what people think, is these kids, first of all, are incredibly bottom-line-oriented. They want to be measured, because they want to see how much they're improving. And in fact the most common mantra of a real gamer is "If I ain't learning, it ain't fun." And how do they constantly keep learning is because basically they are embracing change, leveling-up, doing higher-order tasks, or the game itself is changing, or they change the game in terms of the strategies they want to experiment with and so on and so forth. And in fact if you think of this questing disposition you end up embracing change, not running from change.

Coming from that gaming disposition I became very intrigued when I landed here in Maui. It turns out that my neighbor turns out to be a 20-year-old kid moderately world-famous in the surfing world named Dusty Payne. And what got interesting to us is that Maui has never produced a world-class champion before. They basically come from Oahu, from the North Shore and so on and so forth. But all of a sudden four kids make it big, big time here in Maui. You say "What happened?”

And it turns out that if you kind of meet these kids they have all come together very much like a guild in World of Warcraft, and what they do is they compete with each other and they collaborate with each other incredibly intensely. They think up a new move, they dash down the hill, they try it out, they take their video cameras with them. They're videoing each other. They dash back up here. They start kind of analyzing what worked, what didn't work, build new ideas, dash down the hill again, try it out. And then what they start doing is they start looking at, of course, all the other people surfing around the world, which they get from YouTube. They have all this kind of stuff. They start picking up new moves like that. That's a kind of interesting way that digital media has enhanced the ability of these surfing kids to pick up all kinds of new tricks. And I can actually show you how a particular move now on a surfboard takes about 48 hours to propagate around the world before all the key surfers of the top edge are trying it out themselves, okay? And of course any time something changes they're the first to try it out and to appropriate it, so these kids live for picking up something new. They live for trying out something new. And some of this stuff, by the way, is moderately dangerous. So these are high-cost mistakes, but the passion that they have to do this is really awesome. Well, guess what. The passion that I see in the World of Warcraft of the high-end high performers is also awesome, but it doesn't stop there. If you look at the artists, if you look at the musicians, if you look at the dancers, if you look at athletics in general and to the extreme edge what you have is kids that are turned on. And when they get really turned on in the right context there's almost no stopping them.

Any interest that any kid has, I am sure there's already existing out there a passionate community of interest group or a community of practice that you can try to join. And in fact going back to Jean Lave's classic work in situated learning, maybe the learning has to do with learning how to join, or you learn to join, and once you join now you marinate in that, and learning isn't something you do consciously. It is something you absorb. And so there's something that most serious learning often happens through an osmosis process that once I dwell in the set of the experiences things are getting integrated in my head not necessarily consciously, because there's a tremendous amount of tacit knowledge that I'm kind of being exposed to in these kind of communities. And I just start to integrate, assimilate, let things gel, and it's not particularly conscious.

What makes these ideas so relevant now is in a world of rapid change any particular skill that I've learned is apt to have a moderately short shelf-life. So what I really need to do is to know how to create context for myself that I keep scaffolding and learning and accelerating what I know to increase my own performance. And so there's a sense of what I'm doing becomes a platform for doing something new, learning something new and becoming even better and actually moving potentially into quite a different type of field. So it's kind of like suddenly now I'm looking at trajectories through life space as opposed to fixed points.

I think the construct that has been most overlooked now on the 21st century and maybe in the 20th century as well is the power and importance of play. That is to say, how do I take an idea and how do I kind of play with it, how do I tinker with it, how do I come to make it personal, how do I come to own it, how do I dwell in the idea itself? And this plays out, for example, in poetry. How do I find that magic combination of now that phrase or that line in a poem says exactly what I mean deep inside me? Likewise, how do I work with engineering systems and kind of see how things couple together? How do I tinker with these devices, things as simple as radios and stuff like that or microphones on cameras to kind of really understand what's the way that these systems really work? And how do I kind of learn that by experimenting with the stuff myself? Because you've got to learn that not everything works. In fact most things don't work. And if the first thing that happens when something doesn't work is it frightens you, then you're not going to be very willing to embrace change. But if you realize that when things don't work, which is almost always, you can get in there and figure out how to tinker with these things and just absorb what happens, very often when you're tinkering it doesn't make pure logic sense. It's something you begin to feel in your hands as much as your mind. Tinkering brings thought and action together in some very powerful, magical ways.

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  • Producer: Stephen Brown
  • Director of Photography / Editor: Drea Cooper
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Executive Producer: David Markus

This video was originally produced by Mobile Digital Arts for the New Learning Institute, from the Pearson Foundation.

Big Thinkers Video Series

Some of the most compelling visionaries in the world -- from Sir Ken Robinson to Jane Goodall to Martin Scorsese -- are focusing their attention on how to improve education. From innovative classroom concepts to suggestions on how to foster creativity and collaboration, they share their valuable insights for teaching and learning and illuminate new solutions to old problems.

Get inspired by their big ideas.

More Edutopia Coverage on John Seely Brown and the Importance of Play:

Find more information on John Seely Brown's website, or follow John Seely Brown on Twitter.

Visit the Big Thinkers series page to see more videos.

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

I have been pushing for digital media in the classroom since the mid 1990's when I developed the Health Occupations Cluster at the Career Center at Ector County ISD in Odessa, Texas. I would like for someone in Edutopia to do a story on the development of Virtual Science University. No one has ever done a story on my innovative ideas?

Teresa's picture
Kdgn Teacher in Kansas

AWESOME! I am an early childhood major and kdgn. teacher, we have been saying that play is crucial to learning for years! Soo is the relavance of the topic and the interest of the child! Nice to see it here!

Debra Clarke's picture
Debra Clarke
Community College Professor

Excellent. Being a higher ed Health Science professor looking for innovative methods to engage students; this methodology is fresh, on point and a great way to promote integration of digital media into the classroom.

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