George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

Informal Learning: Facing the Inevitable and Seizing the Advantage

November 21, 2013
Image credit: iStockphoto

Reading recently through Edutopia's resources on informal learning, I found the distinction between formal and informal learning resonating more strongly now than ever.

For a classroom teacher, this difference is an important distinction. Formal learning happens through strategically planned learning experiences -- often direct instruction from teachers. Teacher and school improvement is driven by the notion of improving teaching and schools, which is kind of a circular argument. At best, we'll get better teaching and schools.

Informal learning is the kind of stuff that happens when we let go -- and is thus impossible to control and prescribe.

Experiential learning and constructivism, among other ways of thinking about how students learn, hold that learning is not only available outside the confines of the iconic teacher-student relationship, but is perhaps most powerful there as well. There is nothing (that isn't removable) within the walls of a typical school that makes deep thinking and enduring inquiry impossible, so certainly it's possible that extraordinary learning can happen there. But often, in spite of Herculean effort by teachers and administrators, it does not.

Which is strange, don't you think?

Project-Based Learning as Informal Learning Writ Large

Project-based learning is another "wayward" way to think about how learning happens -- not "doing projects," but learning through the process of project design and management. PBL also works as a vehicle for the planning and learning process itself. Within PBL, the Maker movement, mobile learning and game-based learning (among other trends) are all possible.

In fact, even self-directed learning can occur through the natural skeleton PBL provides. Sociologist Seymour Papert, a perhaps less charismatic precursor to Ken Robinson in terms of editorializing about education, held that that schools were not only screwed together all wrong, but that they were in danger of making themselves obsolete:

I'm saying that it is inconceivable that school as we've known it will continue. Inconceivable. And the reason why it's inconceivable is that little glimmer with my grandson who is used to finding knowledge when he wants to and can get it when he needs it, and can get in touch with other people and teachers, not because they are appointed by the state, but because he can contact them in some network somewhere. These children will not sit quietly in school and listen to a teacher give them predigested knowledge. I think that they will revolt.

Occupy Education?

While there has been no Occupy Education movement in classrooms, the revolt has been more subversive, in the form of disengaged learners who can't or choose not to sustain lasting academic curiosity. That's the kind of curiosity that compels a student to sit with a text, to "roll around in it" (as Sam Anderson described), to ask the right question at the right time for the right reason, to transfer understanding on his or her own, without prompting, or to solve authentic challenges in pursuit of personal and social change.

But perhaps there is hope in informal learning when we see it as the natural departure from pure academia through the rise of countless learning trends crowding the landscape of 21st century learning -- trends that make textbooks look silly, make teachers seem longwinded, and make schools look positively sedentary.

Forbes columnist Jessica Hagy recently explained it better than I can:

Education happens in jail cells. It happens in dark alleys. It happens on the bus and in the shower and in front of the television. Sure, we learn from teachers and mentors and leaders. But we also learn just as much, if not more, from hoodlums and jerks and con artists . . . We learn from books and lectures, but we also learn by eavesdropping and people watching. In school, we learn all the fundamentals: reading, writing, math -- but we're also learning how to dress and talk and get along, and how to wake up early and often. We learn that not all teachers are equally inspiring and that not all guidance counselors know where they're going
. . . But we don’t call all of that learning. We call it life . . . Everyone’s education (in school or in the so-called real world) is a unique collection of facts and lessons, failed tests and hard-won accolades. Our on-the-job experience of being living, thinking people started on our first birthdays. Underemployed. Overemployed. Partly employed. Reluctantly employed. Happily employed. Stay at home CEOs. Nine to five caregivers. Working under the table, at the kitchen table, or on the operating table -- we all do what we can, when we can. Sadly, you know more than you get credit for knowing. And no matter your job title or lack thereof, you can do more than you're paid to do. There is a massive resource of human capital out there, just waiting to be put to work -- maybe for money, maybe for good, maybe for both. Strange, isn't it? That if we want to make a life for ourselves, we have to learn how to use what we already know.

As educators, we can no longer afford to resist the cultural and technological trends that have already fully disrupted how we access information, connect with one another, and publish the events of our lives. But that's the easy part. The challenge? Insisting that public education, as a system, formally recognize and honor -- on equal terms -- these "lesser" forms of learning. Forms that surrender control, value the role of play, decenter schools and programs, and really, truly teach students how to think for themselves.

And then embrace the struggle and disruption that kind of thinking invites.

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