A New Culture of Learning and the Church


April 4, 2013 by cbbeard

Today I woke up in a brand new world.  Whether you realize it or not, so did you.  And guess what?  Tomorrow it will be different than today.

A changing world is not a new concept by any means.   It was Greek philosopher Heraclitus that famously said that a man cannot step in the same river twice because both the river and the man have changed before the next step.  He made that statement about 2500 years ago.  But change is faster than ever; in my 35 years on this earth, I can say with little doubt that the last 10 years of my life the world I live in changed more than the first 25 years.

I think one of the greatest symbols for the juggernaut of change is the phone in my pocket.  Eighteen years ago when I graduated high school, I had a cell phone my parents got me for emergency use only.  It came in a bag and we paid $20 for 20 minutes of talk time a month.  Ten years ago or so, I sent my first text message on my flip phone.  Today, my phone is a camera, GPS, mobile wifi hotspot, and a ton of other things that I probably will never learn how to use.

This environment of change has led to a new culture of learning.

In their book A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) show that the juggernaut of change perhaps best symbolized by speed and intensity of technological advances requires a new kind of learning.  Early in my life, the world was still static enough that the old model of learning was still effective; the teacher-student relationship in which one person would impart explicit knowledge to another in a way that was measurable was the tried and true method that had worked for decades.  Certainly learning took place everywhere, but the “important” learning took place in an institutionalized way.

But the static world in which I began my education has developed into a frenzied environment of change.  It’s a world where information is freely available and people are connected globally more than we could have imagined 25 years ago.  The contemporary environment has given birth to a new culture of learning.  Thomas and Brown wrote:

This new type of learning is a cultural phenomenon that underlies a large number of people’s experiences and affects them in myriad ways. It takes place without books, without teachers, and without classrooms, and it requires environments that are bounded yet provide complete freedom of action within those boundaries.  (Chapter 1, para. 3)

Simply put, the new culture of learning is less institutionalized and more environment and community-based.  Knowledge is no longer the exclusive property of and dispensed by experts and professionals, but is available to the general public.  Thomas and Brown explained:

Learning should be viewed in terms of an environment—combined with the rich resources provided by the digital information network—where the context in which learning happens, the boundaries that define it, and the students, teachers, and information within it all coexist and shape each other in a mutually reinforcing way. (Chapter 2, para. 3)

This has huge implications for the church.

Most churches have used the “old” model of learning as their primary paradigm for many years, with mixed results.   The role of logic within the philosophy of modernity that sprang forth from the Enlightenment placed a great deal of importance on institutional learning; indeed, that is how our current public education system came into being.  The church followed suit with lecture-style sermons teaching apologetics and the development of “Sunday School” and “Vacation Bible School.”  The mission of “making disciples” came to be a matter of education; our job was to teach people what the Bible said and then they would be equipped to serve the Lord.  Our methods of evangelism also followed suit.  We came up with various ways to teach people how to share the message of Christ, often in one-size-fits-all presentations and programs.

That doesn’t work anymore.  I do not mean to be critical of the church of the past, the very church which nurtured me to faith in Jesus. But if the culture of learning has changed (as I believe it has) then our culture of teaching must also adapt as well.  The old model worked in the old culture, but the world is no longer static, and therefore neither is our mission field.

Thomas and Brown made a distinction between “explicit” knowledge, which is “content that is easily identified, articulated, transferred, and testable” (Chapter 6, para. 1) and “tacit” knowledge which is the “component of knowing that is assumed, unsaid, and understood as a product of experience and interaction” (Chapter 6, para. 2).  In the static world, people would thrive on explicit knowledge; it was the primary way of “knowing.”  But in today’s world, “we learn by doing, watching, and experiencing” (Chapter 6, para. 8).

What does this mean for the church?  It means that while there is still a place for explicit learning (since the truth of God certainly has static characteristics) the church must teach others in a way that will be effective.   That means we must spend less time in the Sunday School classroom and more time doing, watching, and experiencing what God’s word means in the life of a Christ-follower.  That means that as we make disciples, we don’t simply impart knowledge upon them as the “expert” of the matter, but that as a community of faith we live and grow together, bringing people into our lives who do not know Jesus, and articulating the Gospel to them not just through explicit teaching, but through a tacit understanding that can only be obtained by interaction and experience.

Hmmm…kind of sounds like something Jesus would do, doesn’t it?

What do you think?  Do you think people learn different than they used to?  What do you think the best way to learn to be a disciple of Jesus is?  How else can we make disciples in the changing world?

Thomas, D. and Brown, J.S. (2011). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace.

2 thoughts on “A New Culture of Learning and the Church

  1. Janice Trammell says:

    I have loved the classes I have attended where there is a lot of give and take conversation. I learn so much more from listening to others discuss the topic than to have a “talking head” at the front of the classroom who provides no time for discussion and feedback.

    • cbbeard says:

      I’m with you Janice!

      I also remember doing some work around the house one time and my wife said “how in the world did you know how to do that?” I didn’t really know, other than when I was a kid, my dad had me “help” him when he did work around the house. He never sat me down and taught me about home repair, but I learned nonetheless!

      Thanks for the feedback!

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