The “White Water World”

John Seely Brown, co-author of “A New Culture of Learning” – a must-read for anyone curious about modern education and the future of learning – recently delivered a 15-minute commencement address at Arizona State University. What follows are some of his thoughts and quotes that resonated with me, chief among them an analogy that compared the students’ generation with that of their parents and their grandparents.


Regarding the mobilization of global connectivity to effect progress and innovation:

The tools you have been exposed to, the knowledge and skills your have picked up through hard work and play, the networks you have woven for yourselves empower you to do amazing things IF, that is, you are willing to exercise your imagination; and to invoke the social networks you have built to enroll others in the future you are forging for yourselves, for your families, for Arizona and for the world.

The idea of an entrepreneurial learner as one who is active and networked:

You are transitioning from being a student to being an entrepreneurial learner – a learner who is skilled at learning with and from your interactions with the world and with others.

Regarding changes from the world of the students’ grandparents to that of their parents:

For my parents, the typical career trajectory was like a steamship. They set course, fired up the engines, and powered ahead. Useful, in the industrial age, but probably not today.


For your parents, sitting here today – and for me – our career trajectories have been navigated more like a sailboat.


… and eventually regarding the students’ lives and career trajectories:

But for you all, today… the environment is radically different! You are living in a white water world.



JSB takes the analogy from a steamship to a sailboat to a whitewater kayaker. My takeway: today’s world requires constant sensing and immediate response to rapid change – an active relationship rather than a “steady as she goes” steamship. Maneuverability and interactivity with the water and the conditions increase as his analogy evolves from steamship to kayak. JSB’s analogies are effective – I won’t be forgetting them any time soon.

Here’s his full commencement address. Enjoy!