In their book, A New Culture of Learning, Thomas and Brown explore the concept of education as it applies to the twenty first century. In a world of constant change and ready access to information and new forms of interaction, the authors explain, there are new demands being placed on education which can be met by the very technologies creating those demands. It is quite a wonderful picture that they paint and the book is a great read.
Within their argument for this new world of learning, Thomas and Brown describe the concept of ‘indwelling‘. They write that “The concept is a certain familiarity that forms through the process of prolonged inquiry on particular topics or from repeated use of skills and techniques. [Michael] Polanyi has referred to it as ‘indwelling’.
Indwelling is a familiarity with ideas, practices, and processes that are so engrained they become second nature. Not unlike the notion of inquiry, indwelling is also an adaptive process, meaning that the practices that become second nature have flexibility; they are responsive to changes in the environment and situation. They become an embodied set of practices that are both constantly changing and evolving yet also central to the definition of inquiry.” (p.84)
“The more we engage with the process of asking questions,” they continue (p.85), “the more we tend to engage with the tacit dimension of knowledge. Indwelling is the set of practices we use and develop to find and make connections among the tacit dimensions of things. It is the set of experiences from which we are able to develop our hunches and sense of intuition.
When we think about engaging the passions of the learner, we need to think about her sense of indwelling, because that is her greatest source of inspiration, but it is also the largest reservoir she has of tacit knowledge. The basketball player who knows how to shoot a jump shot has not only a greater motivation to learn about biomechanics because it might improve his game, but he also has a vast stockpile of tacit information that can help inform him of what might be good questions to ask about how to shoot a basketball effectively. It is not just that the basketball player cares more. He actually knows things and make connections on a tacit level because for him, these are places where indwelling happens.
Traditional notions of learning can do little, if anything, with either this passion or this tacit knowledge because they are precisely the things that cannot be made explicit through answers. They can, however, be explored at a very deep and sophisticated level by asking the right questions.
With just a small shift, from answering questions to asking them, inquiry emerges as a tool for harnessing not only the passion of students but also the stockpile of tacit knowledge that comes from a lifetime of experience doing the things that have become second nature to them.” (p.85)
Thomas and Brown use massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) as a test case for understanding how learning (and education) might work in a century of ready access to ever-changing knowledge.
These games, among other qualities, develop what the authors refer to as “a sense of collective indwelling – the feeling and belief that group members share a tacit understanding of one another, their environment, and the practices necessary to complete their task. Collective indwelling evolves out of the fusion of the information network and petri dish elements of learning, and it is almost entirely tacit. It both resides in and provokes the imagination. It is at once personal and collective. Though individual performance is vitally important – each and every player must execute the jobs flawlessly or the team doesn’t succeed – it is inherently tied to the group itself. There is no way for a single [-p.114] player (or even a small handful of players) to succeed alone. The team relies on everyone to understand that their success as individuals creates something that amounts to more than the sum of its parts.” (p.113-114)
Why online games as a model for learning?
The authors’ argument for adopting these games as a model of learning is well explored in the book, but largely summed up by the following statement: “As we have seen, tacit learning functions most effectively when students discover their own learning objectives. Games, which allow learners to play, explore, and experience, also allow them to discover what is important to them, what it is they actually want to learn – and that keeps them playing. When people stop learning in a game, they lose interest and quit. When understood properly, therefore, games may in fact be one of the best models for learning and knowing in the twenty-first century. Why? Because if a game is good, you never play it the same way twice.” (p.111)
“Games have grown up,” they declare, “and playing with them is no longer reserved for children. In fact, the ability to play may be the single most important skill to develop for the twenty-first century. In this context, play involves what we think of as a questing disposition. Questing is an activity that is central to most large-scale online games, and it presumes a number of things. Chief among them is that the world provides multiple resources and avenues for solving problems and that solutions are invented as much as they are implemented. The key to questing is not typical problem solving. It is innovation.” (p.114)
They explain further: “As we have seen, the things that are learned through MMOs are fed back into the collective through a variety of sources and gradually become adopted throughout their standard practices. What begins as experimentation is replicated, tested, and incorporated into the stockpile of information that constitutes the knowledge economy surrounding the game.
This type of innovation is also a fusion of the two elements of learning, a pulling together of resources and experimenting with them to see what fits. Through questing one finds what works and what [-p.115] doesn’t for a particular problem, but either way one also gets a feel for each object or item one encounters. At the explicit level, solutions succeed or fail. But at the tacit level, players gain information about the item at hand regardless of success or failure. That tacit knowledge is a key component of indwelling. Without it, players cannot understand the collective or their place in it. Each one develops a personal relationship with the world that, in turn, becomes shared and modified as he or she interacts with others.
Once players start to interact, they also develop a shared sense of imagination that is the means for, and the object of, collective indwelling. The environment that is World of Warcraft is made up of the acts of shared imagination among its inhabitants. And what makes that world particularly interesting and challenging is both constant change and the fact that the actions of the players in the world, as a collective, are driving that change.” (pp.114-115)
Inquiry and intuition
It is the process of ‘inquiry’ that Thomas and Brown see such games encouraging. According to them, the style of learning they call inquiry “creates a motivation to learn and provides a set of constraints that make the learning meaningful.
Inquiry is an extremely powerful technique for learning because it produces stockpiles of experiences. Things that result in dead ends for one particular question may wind up being unexpectedly useful later on – even, perhaps, for a completely different question. The process forces us to explore the various ways in which information that we already possess can open up new sets of questions. Asking questions is not an act of demonstrating whether knowledge has been transferred. It is, instead, an act of imagination.
Inquiry is the process by which we ask not ‘What is it that we know?’ but ‘What are the things that we don’t know and what questions can we ask about them?’ The possibilities of that exercise are almost limitless, but they are bounded by two important considerations. The first is the structure of the institution itself. Whether it is the workplace, the classroom, an Internet message forum, or some other venue, the norms and rules of the space dictate the boundaries of what can and should be the subject of inquiry. But perhaps even more important is the nature of the tacit dimension of knowledge.
Tacit understanding plays a key role in shaping the process of inquiry. And because it embodies more than we can say, it relates most deeply to the associations and connections among various pieces of knowledge. We run into difficulties when we want to [-p.84] follow these kinds of associations at the explicit level precisely because they cannot be named or articulated. But we can, and often do, speak of them as gut feelings, intuition, or hunches.
‘It just seemed like the right answer’ is rarely a sufficient explanation for choosing one response over another on a test. But hunches and gut feelings are not only acceptable when formulating questions for inquiry, they are, in many ways, preferable. Saying ‘It seemed like an interesting question to me’ or ‘We figured we would try it and see’ makes perfect sense in this context. That’s because the process of inquiry results in useful information regardless of the outcome. In fact, you can sometimes learn more from taking the wrong approach than you can from taking the right one. When you focus on continually asking better questions, you rely on the tacit and use your imagination to delve deeper and deeper into the process of inquiry.” (pp.83-84)
Ref: Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, Ky. : CreateSpace?