The ancients stole all our good ideas


As it turns out, the words we use to describe the modern web–aggregative (think Quora), contextual (think Twitter), subjective (think Tumblr), distributed (think Wikipedia)–are the very words anthropologist and sociologists use to describe the pre-literate societies. 

Knowledge in literate societies is: Knowledge in pre-literate societies is:
analytic aggregative
abstract contextual
objective subjective
centralized distributed

I first heard this suggestion in Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail and Learning 2.0 by John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler, and a splendid presentation, Gutenberg, MacLuhan, Jobs (2nd podcast after the jump) by Dr. Bill Rankin on Abilene Christian University’s Connected Online series (these folks are doing some terrific stuff.)

I first saw these ideas in play this year during my nine-month, around-the-world trip with Think Global School (TGS) this past school year. TGS is a mobile, global high school. It has no building to call home. Instead, it takes an international body of students and faculty to live and study in three different international cities each year–Stockholm, sydney and bejing in year one. An iPhone, iPad and MacBook Pro are the bricks (TGS runs a 3:1 program) and a custom-built, ELGG-based web platform nicknamed Spot are the bricks and mortar of this school.

At the Apple Distinguished Edcuators Canada 2011 Summer Institute In Vancouver earlier this month I gave a short presentation on some of the lessons learned in my globetrotting. The most exciting discovery, or observation really, for me was that leading-edge education starts to look a lot like really old education, something I find reassuring. As mark Twain quipped, the ancients stole all our good ideas. And I want them back.

Learning at TGS was a social–not a solo–activity. We spent half (or a lot more if you count the 24/7 informal teaching that went on) of our teaching time in non-conventional settings like this (we had booked space in an office building, but the day was so nice we moved to a nearby churchyard):


We found that for the students, school became a habit of mind, not a place. We could at any moment say “game on” and the students would switch to learning mode whether we were in residence, on a plane or hiking the Great Wall of China. And they did learn: when we benchmarked the students’ performance with the ISA/ACER test we found they were competitive with the best schools out there. Admittedly, a single test isn’t definitive, but enough was lining up here to make me believe this actually works.


  1. Reply
    Tom Fullerton July 18, 2011

    Thanks for sharing. Interesting read and links!Wondering if I’ve hit the right one here. Googled to find the “presentation, Gutenberg, MacLuhan, Jobs by Dr. Bill Rankin” as link was broken.Cheers,Tom

  2. Reply
    Tom Fullerton July 18, 2011
  3. Reply
    Brad Ovenell-Carter July 18, 2011

    Thanks. And thanks for the heads up on the broken link. All fixed.

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