Reconsidering Teachers’ Roles (III). Douglas Thomas: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change

Notes from the UOC UNESCO Chair in e-Learning VIII International Seminar: Teacher Training: Reconsidering Teachers’ Roles, held in Barcelona, Spain, on October 6-7, 2011. More notes on this event: eLChair11.

Douglas Thomas, Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California, U.S.A
Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change

During the 50s, the literature is about resisting change. During the 80s, the literature is about managing change. By the end of the XXth century it is about to adapting to change. The new model is about embracing change, because has become endemic to the system.

According to a survey, it takes 12 months to train a new employee that will stay in the firm for just three more months. And, actually, most innovations won’t come from in-company trained employees, but just from recently joined employees. Because change is very fast and training is just not taking up with its pace.

The question is, then, how to be able to learn quickly so that one is ahead of change. And, thus, how can a shift be made from teaching to learning, so that learning to learn happens.

What is wrong with the system that we have?

Nowadays, we are basing our model in the efficiency of knowledge transfer, where a certain measurement of how much knowledge was transferred: it has to be defined, assessed, measured, etc. We have a system that honours stable knowledge and knowledge transfer.

It is also a system based in explicit knowledge. The problem is that in a rapidly changing environment, tacit knowledge is much more valuable than explicit knowledge.

Same with context, becoming more important as facts change rapidly, frameworks shift constantly. Thus, context is increasingly more important than content, especially when this content changes meaning because of different and changing contexts. If you understand the context, you will sooner or later get (and understand) the content.

There are huge differences between teaching and learning. It can even happen that people is learning without someone teaching in a traditional sense of the term. And that can be very hard (I am not teaching i.e. I am useless) for the teacher, even if people are actually learning and learning well, that is, goals are accomplished.

So, it is about creating learning communities. A very powerful example: Harry Potter created a new culture of learning. The saga is 4,500 pages long over 10 years of books. In parallel, one can find 150,000 stories written on one fan site along, of which more than 1,500 are 100,000 words or longer. This is a universe in itself. The criticism that the Harry Potter saga was too complex for many junior readers has been beaten by evidence: people have converged in communities to read, write, debate around the saga and learn together about it.

Innovation and creativity. What are the differences between the two? Why do they matter? What are the benefits of each? In a stable environment, innovation works pretty well, when what is expected is to extend the current system. But creativity is needed when it comes to building new things, to challenge the power of “what if”. Creativity helps us in moving from “what” to “where”, and from “where” to “how”. How is about context, not content. Like Wikipedia: the interesting part about an article is not what it says, but how it has developed along time.

In this new context of learning together, collaboratively, we have to move from institution to agency. “Teaching” has to be an agency-like activity, more than an institutional one. And people will learn from a community and people will learn in order to belong to a community.

The new culture of learning can be summed up as follows: “Questions are much more important than answers”. And bounded learning environments, working open and connected is much the way to go forward.


Sigi Jakob: how can we make teachers be less afraid of losing control? Thomas: this is very difficult, but it certainly is an oxymoron, teaching and control. In any case, we have to think about what learning means, not what teaching means.

Arthur Preston: How can we convince education authorities of the importance of changing assessment paradigms? Thoughts? Thomas: we need to work in models of assessment that are not based on efficiency of knowledge transmission. We have to work in new kind of metrics.

More information


UOC UNESCO Chair in Elearning VIII International Seminar: Teacher Training: Reconsidering Teachers' Roles (2011)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2011) “Reconsidering Teachers’ Roles (III). Douglas Thomas: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change” In ICTlogy, #97, October 2011. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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