Cultivating Learning

water lilies - Version 2

Photo courtesy of Susan Huber

By now I must seem a sucker for the agrarian metaphor.  It’s not that I can’t connect with other metaphors.  It is just that authors keep throwing the rural at me.  Char Booth (2011) with the gleaning.   Gosling and Mintzberg (2003) with the edge. And now Douglas Thomas and John Seeley Brown (2011) with cultivating.   They have me at hello when they plant ideas so firmly in my home turf.

Thomas and Brown (2011) liken the new culture of learning to cultivation.

A farmer…takes the nearly unlimited resources of sunlight, wind, water, earth, and biology and consolidates them into the bounded and structured environment of a garden or farm.  We see the new culture of learning as a similar kind of process—but cultivating minds instead of plants (p. 20).

In the new culture of learning, according to Thomas and Brown, educators delineate a “bounded and structured environment” in which students harness the seemingly unlimited resources of a “massive information network” to explore, share, synthesize, create, reflect, re-think, collaborate and refine (2011, p. 19).

I am so relieved to have this lovely metaphor to cling too.  We all begin to worry and wonder:  Where is the place for teachers and librarians when people of all ages have access to the moon and the stars………even if it is only the Wikipedia entry for moon and stars that that they reach for from the top of the Google results list?   Ah, here it is, Thomas and Brown assure us.   Educators can continue to play a vital role in guiding and framing student inquiry and discovery in this great wide morphing world of information and access.

Lovely metaphors are often only that but Thomas and Brown’s vivid examples gave this one real substance.  In particular, I found Doug Thomas’ experience with his Massively Multiplayer Online Games class quite moving.  Thomas set the boundaries and the structure of his course but, in short order, students ran away with his class, spurred on by their own boundless enthusiasm and zest for learning.  Thomas became somewhat sidelined….merely an astonished observer, fretting that his core concepts had been forgotten in all the gaming mania.  But the breadth and depth of each student’s understandings were fully revealed in their culminating final essays.  Thomas had planted an idea, fertilized and fed it with carefully selected concepts and readings, and nurtured it within a framework in which students could blossom.  Sure, they busted down his framework a bit but that is only because teachers often have surprisingly small imaginations when it comes to the potential of their students.

It is a good tale.  Real.  Instructive.  Hopeful.

Today I was at a strategic planning meeting, part of a team envisioning a new culture of learning for our school.  There was a lot of worried talk about our shifting landscape, assaulted by various threats — economic, demographic, global.  Our school, like every other, is fully situated in a “world of constant change” and we’re feeling it.  But, in the face of all that, one team member spoke up about the importance of bringing a strong sense of optimism to our deliberations.   I was thankful that Thomas and Brown had given me ample reason to be hopeful that we can create a “bounded and structured environment” in which our students can blossom, maybe far beyond what we can even imagine.


Booth, C. (2011). Reflective teaching, effective learning: Instructional literacy for library educators. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Craig, Christopher. (2009, June 15). Project 50 #33 – Watering Can [photograph]. Retrieved from

Gosling, J., & Mintzberg, H. (2003). The five minds of a manager. Harvard Business Review, 81(11), 54-63.

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


About tellthetruthruth

I'm a 12 Thinger.
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One Response to Cultivating Learning

  1. michael says:

    I am so glad you can use the text in your workplace – for inspiration, as evidence of the shift and as a support for making decisions!

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