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Posts tagged ‘John Seely Brown’


John Seely Brown at PLP Live and #ECOO12

JSB by Joi Ito

I am one happy and excited guy!  I get to meet John Seely Brown (JSB) in person this fall – TWICE!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to ask for autographs or drool at the feet of my heroes.

But, you see, JSB has been a key figure in my academic and educational life since the mid-eighties. He has gained a more popular presence in the last few years – particularly with his publication of the Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big things in Motion and more recently A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change.

In Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning (1989), JSB (with Allan Collins & Paul Duguid) suggested that what students pick up “is a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching”. This paper caused me to think much more deeply about ‘instruction’ versus ‘construction’ – about setting the conditions for learning – about designing environments that were authentic, complex and rich rather than contrived, simplistic and reductionist.

It made me reflect deeply about kids before they get to school and how they manage to ‘steal that which they need to know’ from the larger gestalt of the complex worlds in which they lived. Later on, JSB & Paul Duguid wrote Stolen Knowledge (1996) which reinforced and supplemented my thinking about this. They started that paper with a quotation I particularly loved:

“A very great musician came and stayed in [our] house. He made one big mistake . . . [he] determined to teach me music, and consequently no learning took place. Nevertheless, I did casually pick up from him a certain amount of stolen knowledge. [Rabindrath Tagore quoted in Bandyopadhyay, 1989: 45]

Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production in a Digital Age also resonates with my socio-constructionist heart and beliefs. Many of you know I am a fan of Seymour Papert’s deep thinking about tinkering and ‘hard fun’ and his creation of Logo and Lego Logo robotics. I wonder have John Seely Brown and Seymour shared thoughts and conversations in the past. I will be able to have these, and other, conversations with him at either PLP Live 2012: Inspire. Collaborate. Shift. or ECOO12: Learning in the NOW Century!

THAT is why I am so excited.

Ok. He is also an avid motorcyclist and, judging from my occasional emails with him, a heck of a personable guy!


Intentional Serendipity – Unpacked!

PART 1 – Intentional serendipity ≠ engineered serendipity :-)

I am giggling at the interest in the term Intentional Serendipity. I even tried to get it included in my job title – Manager of Intentional Serendipity.  I have used it for several conferences as the tagline on my nametag! That sure started many a conversation.

However, as with any term tossed out there without due diligence of explanation and context as in a previous post, the meaning will be constructed by the perspectives of the reader! “The reader writes the story,” as they say.

Dean Shareski, in “Pursuing Intentional Serendipity,” gives some insightful examples that are relatively consistent with my perspectives on this seemingly conflicted construct. Alan Levine, in “There is No Such Thing As Serendipity,” takes a close look at ‘serendipity’ and provides some excellent thoughts and references about its nature.

Alan suggests that “It can’t be serendipity and intentional, because serendipity is accidental…  serendipity is not intentional, nor is it a thing we can pursue– it is a force generated as a secondary (or many-ary) results of our actions of sharing, helping, contributing. It is when we create a potential opportunity for the unexpected to happen…”

…Intentional serendipity relies on the vigilance of the learner…

Strangely enough, I never considered ‘intentional serendipity’ to be the same as ‘engineered serendipity.’  So I am glad this discussion has erupted because it affords some unpacking of the term!  For me, it is not about the ‘intention’ to create serendipity.  I am not speaking of constructing ‘chance’ events or encounters.  I have been thinking more of a learner’s stance – one with an ‘intention’ to learn.  If you hold an attuned intention to learn, then you will have sentinels at the watch for all that goes by. You will be ‘at the ready’ to opportunistically grasp anything that is useful to your learning. So you are not constructing events. Rather you are vigilant so that you do not miss events relevant to your intention. Intentional serendipity relies on the vigilance of the learner within the learning space.  The intentional learner may set the conditions of that learning space to optimize opportunities – opportunities conducive to the task at hand. It may be by turning on all the knowledge flows – twitter, text, skype, etc. Or it may be by selecting a place of silence for reflection and inner workings of the mind and heart.

Of course, this requires some skill and attention. :-)

PART 11 – The relationship of ‘intentional serendipity’ to ‘intentional learning’ theory

Learning to be intentional…

The notion of ‘intentional serendipity’ arose out of my studies with Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter who developed ‘intentional learning’ theory.  They briefly describe Intentional Learning as the voluntary direction of mental effort, or, the wilful allocation of spare mental capacity. That is, cognitive capacity that is not already engaged by the ongoing task may be turned back into the task. This is characterized by activities, behaviours and displays of skills many of which may be described as metacognitive. Metacognition is usually considered to consist of both knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition.  Intentional Learners are assertive in their approach to learning. They set goals – both task and cognitive goals.  They choose to, and are able to, apply any unused mental effort to increase their proficiency on the task or to generalize that which is being learned to other tasks or other domains. They consider, not only the task at hand, but also the larger spectrum in which such learning is embedded. The student considers the knowledge explicitly and separate from the present task. There is consideration for when and where that knowledge can be used in the future. They negotiate meaning with their peers. They ask questions. They seek answers and construct solutions.

…become expert at being expert

Intentional learners are learning to become expert at becoming expert. That is to say, not only are they learning declarative, subject matter and procedural functionality, they are acquiring valuable metacognitive knowledge as well.

Intentional learning differs from metacognition

Intentional Learning theory differs from metacognitive theory in that there is an explicit recognition of other aspects of self.  Intentional Learners are developing, not only well-developed metacognitive skills, but also attitudes (an affective stance), motivations, and social behaviours that are focused on, and conducive to, advancing one’s own knowledge and the knowledge of others. Bereiter & Scardamalia suggest that to generate a useful educational theory one cannot concentrate solely on the knowledge aspect  of intentional cognition, but must also come to understand and include other aspects as well. These include motivation, affect, allocation-of-resources, and ecology.

Intentional learners and the ZPD

Intentional Learning is a frame of mind that is characterized by a student’s ability to be in control of their own Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is central to being in charge of one’s own learning. The ZPD may be defined as the zone in which we can accomplish a task with the assistance, or accompaniment, of a more knowledgeable other – a task that we could not handle alone. (ZPD – Who’s In Charge Here?)

“…learning is a process of enculturation…”

IL is a frame of mind that thrives in a classroom culture focused on students’ taking charge of their own learning. Many agree that the cultural surround affects learning.  Newman et al say, “In the Vygotskian approach to instruction, changes in the whole interactional system, not just in the student, are thus considered in the analysis of cognitive change.” John Seely Brown et al suggest that “learning is … a process of enculturation.” What people learn is often “a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.” This implies that the belief structures, the personal interactivity, the nature of the activities and the atmosphere of a learning community are critical determinants of what is learned. This is not to say that explicit teaching is not an appropriate technique. Rather, it is but one of the components of a culture conducive to the development and support of IL.

…student in control…

If we want students to be in charge of their own learning, then it necessitates that we create environments where this is most likely to occur.  Any tools and techniques, therefore, that are to be used within an environment designed to promote and support ‘mindfulness’ or IL should be considered within this context of shifting the control of the learning over to the student.


…it is not the serendipity that is intentional, it is the learner’s frame of mind.

So I am not speaking of constructing serendipity. I mean that we need to empower learners to be intentional and to create a cultural surround that is conducive to supporting those intentions. It is not the serendipity that is intentional. It is the learner’s frame of mind.


Intentional Serendipity


For some ten to fifteen years, I have called my computer ‘Intentional Serendipity’. I did this somewhat flippantly at the time because I had recognized how many wonderful events seemed to serendipitously occur in my professional and personal life. (In fact, my spouse has suggested that I have a well-placed horseshoe that brings me good luck!)

Whether it was in my teaching, or researching, writing, holidays, or adventures- I always seemed to have ‘good luck’ with the ways things unfolded and turned out. Of course, I knew it wasn’t really luck.


It appeared to be related to my willingness to be open and flexible to opportunities as they arose. Although I might have made plans to pursue things in a certain way, those plans were rarely etched in stone. I was on the lookout for chance events, signals, ideas that might lead us in a better direction. I believe we should maintain an opportunistic vigilance.

…maintain an opportunistic vigilance.

So often, if our plans are made in a top-down fashion, we are bound and determined to follow them. Not me. For most things. I see planning as important – but, I view the ability to change those plans rapidly as circumstances dictate, to be even more important.

The Power of “Why?”

The trick, I think, is to know ‘why’ you are making the plans. Understand the ‘why’ deeply to your core. The plans are actually the ‘how’ and ‘what’. The ‘why’ becomes your ‘intention’. The ‘how’ and ‘what’ are the ways in which your intentions are achieved. These can be flexible…and you should always keep your eyes open to changing them to better achieve your intentions.

We, leaders at the YMCA of Greater Toronto, have been asked by our CEO, Medhat Mahdy, to always start with “Why” when we are developing a new project or initiative. It is a request I honour and respect.

The Power of Pull

So after all of this time believing in the intentionality of serendipitous occurrences, whose book do I pick up but John Seely Brown‘s “The Power of Pull”1.

John Seely Brown

Image via Wikipedia

Interestingly, I have been reading J.S. Brown’s work since the eighties because he is a cognitive scientist who worked at Xerox PARC. In fact, JSB was the “Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)—a position he held for nearly two decades. While head of PARC, Brown expanded the role of corporate research to include such topics as organizational learning, knowledge management, complex adaptive systems, and nano/mems technologies. He was a cofounder of the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL). His personal research interests include the management of radical innovation, digital youth culture, digital media, and new forms of communication and learning.2” So as a teacher and student of ‘learning’, I worked with his extended family of colleagues at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (now OISE/UT) – including Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter.

The Power of Pull is worth the read. One of the points the authors emphasize is the role of serendipity in moving organizations to capitalize on the connections across the organization. They speak of how we can ‘shape’ serendipitous encounters; how we can organize environments so that beneficial communications and connections are more likely to occur; how we can ‘pull’ information, resources and ideas from the ‘edge’ to the ‘core’.

…we must accommodate the rapidity of ‘knowledge flows’ that stream over us.

So I believe in ‘intentional serendipity’. It is not luck. It is a way of being in the world that suggests we must accommodate the rapidity of

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

‘knowledge flows’ that stream over us.

After all, it was rather serendipitous that I discovered The Power of Pull. I had shaped the possibility that it would be discovered by me – through Twitter, blogs, conversation, and, yes, Amazon bots!

1Actually, the Power of Pull is authored by John Seely Brown, Lang Davidson and John Hagel III


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