Earlier this month we posted about informal learning and the evolution of democratic schools around the world. Digging a bit deeper into the concepts of informal learning, I found that this is not a new concept (actually it’s the oldest and most natural way that humans learn) and one that business leaders are beginning to integrate into their employee trainings and continuing education requirements. Jay Cross (see his interview below) is at the forefront of the informal learning movement and explains that we are engaged in informal learning all the time, we just don’t realize it.
Things like learning to walk, to talk, or to ride a bicycle are all things that we learned to do as kids without any formal training or special education. As a adults, when we engage in conversations on Twitter, read interesting blog posts, or watch videos on TED, we’re doing it again–engaging in the informal learning process. We do it when we travel to new places or try a new food. But somehow these informal processes have wiggled their way out of the traditional classroom, university lecture halls, and mandated curriculum.
So how as educators can we reintroduce informal education into our lessons? Put away the text books. Stop with the note taking. Go on a field trip to the tide pools to learn about sea life. Start a school garden to teach kids about food production, photosynthesis, and why eating a rainbow of foods everyday is so important. For older students, have them design their own homework, do an oral presentation using multimedia about a topic of interest, or create a video that explains their own theories on the fall of the Greek Empire.
When we learn things that are interesting to us, we tend to have a much higher retention level. What do you remember from 11th grade history?
Coach: What is your definition of informal learning?
Jay: Learning is that which enables you to participate successfully in life, at work, and in the groups that matter to you. Informal learning is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs.
Formal learning is like riding a bus: the driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. Informal learning is like riding a bike: the rider chooses the destination, the speed, and the route. The rider can take a detour at a moment’s notice to admire the scenery or go to the bathroom. Learning is adaptation. Taking advantage of the double meaning of the word network, to learn is to optimize the quality of one’s networks.
That said, all learning is part formal and part informal; neither exist in pure, unadulterated form. The issue we’re really addressing is whether the learning is mainly formal (imposed) or informal (sought).
Three hallmarks of formal learning are: a curriculum, a schedule and recognition upon completion (even if only a checkmark in an LMS).
Coach: What are examples of offline informal learning?
Jay: Learning to walk, talk, eat, kiss, smooch, run or ride a bicycle.
Coach: And examples of online informal learning?
Jay: Getting an answer from the Help Desk, asking Twitter friends for an answer, looking at a FAQ on a wiki.
Coach: What motivational factors underlie informal learning?
Jay: The primary motivation is needing to learn something in order to do something. There are so many forms of learning, it’s tough to generalize. I might want to learn Italian to foster my relationship with Sophia. I might learn to program Cisco routers in order to get a raise. I might seek an answer to a customer’s question.
Coach: How do you think cognitive processes differ when someone is learning informally as opposed to formally?
Jay: Generally informal learning is demand-driven. I’m more interested because I’ve chosen the subject matter and extent of the learning. It’s likely I’ll reinforce my learning almost immediately and that will make it stick. (Can anybody really remember the content of their high school coursework?)
Coach: Formal and structured learning can potentially promote efficient organization in long-term memory. Would this be an advantage of formal learning over informal?
Jay: Organization in a curriculum isn’t efficient unless it’s the right stuff. Generally, informal learning will take less time and effort to learn an equivalent amount of material.
Coach: Is there more potential for picking up incorrect information or developing inaccurate mental models when learning informally?
Jay: There’s potential for picking up incorrect information from informal learning or formal learning or newspapers or television or one’s brother. Learners need to be able to apply tests of reasonableness. Can the information be substantiated? Do others agree? Has it been vetted by thousands of others? Does it make sense to me?
Coach: Are there advantages to informal collaborative learning as compared to informal individualized learning?
Jay: Learning is social. Most learning is collaborative. Other people are providing the context and the need, even if they’re not in the room. Relative advantages would depend on the nature of what’s being learned. I don’t sense that there are absolutes.
Coach: How can organizations optimize the workplace for informal learning?
Jay: I’ve written books on this, but in short, organizations need to trust their people. People confronted by high expectations tend to live up to them. (And when confronted with low expectations, they tend to sink down to a low level.)
There are hundreds of smaller interventions that nurture informal learning. Examples might be setting up facilities to encourage conversation, providing time and encouragement of reflection, displaying graphics that explain company processes, building a social network infrastructure, setting up ways to share information, and viewing learning as part of every job.
There’s a lengthy summary of this at Internet Time Wiki. That’s the “informal learning page” I set up just for people who are curious about informal learning. You can download book chapters, watch a video, find white papers, etc.
A special thanks to our reader, Bobby Molyneaux, for suggesting the topic for this post!