Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Informal learning

I'm responding to a post at lizit who wanted answers to her question where does informal learning take place. I've been puzzling over informal learning for a bit, because the key question for me is "what is it?" which I have to answer before I can answer where does it take place. The traditional and obvious definition that formal learning is learned in classes (physical or virtual) with teachers, and that informal learning takes place elsewhere doesn't do the job any more as it becomes increasingly obvious that formal learning has a lot of informal components in it. In fact for me the issue is really that I can't find a use for the dichotomy at the moment. I think that one of the key dimensions of the split is that formal learning is under the control of the teacher, and informal is under the control of the learner. But I think we recognise that even formal learning is under the control of the learner, viz my favourite saying about learning. (But I'm not sure if the literature will support me in this.)

And there is an older and slightly less subtle version, that I first read in a book by Eric Midwinter, though I can't remember which one. A primary school teacher in Liverpool gives her class an assignment to write about the police. Little Johnny's assignment consists of four words: "Livpool plice is bastids". The teacher is concerned about little Johnny's world view so she contacts the police who arrange a day out at the local police station. The kids all have a great time trying on helmets, sitting in the cells, blowing whistles, turning the sirens on, using the radio, patting the dogs and so on. A few days later the teacher asks the class to write another assignment about the police. Little Johnny's assignment now has five words in it: "Livpool plice is cunning bastids". Whatever we try to teach, people will take their own lessons from it.

Colley et al (Colley, H., Hodkinson, P. & Malcolm, J. (2003) Understanding informality and formality in learning. Adults Learning, 15(3), 7-9.) try to unpick the issues surrounding informal learning, and find themselves saying things like attributes of both formal and informal learning are present in all forms. They move from this to an attempt to conceptualise the relationship between formal and informal learning, and arrive at a series of criteria which, they posit, may determine the relationship:
- process - where learning processes are incidental to the activity they are more informal
- location and setting - synergy between practice and setting may enhance learning, and is a feature of both formal and informal learning (I think that's what they're saying, but I don't understand it)
- purpose - and in particular whose purpose lies behind the learning
- content - an established syllabus or something new, etc

Whatever you think of this attempt at conceptualising a complex relationship, the answer to Liz's question for them would be "everywhere". but that doesn't really help.

Moving on a bit, part of the difficulty for me lies in the fact that I'm working on a different dimension - that of control - at the moment, and the spectrum of formal to informal seems to cut across that in ways which are not too helpful. So I move on to a couple of anecdotes about learning which may help to understand what it looks like to me.

The first is cooking. I've used this example often as a way of getting new students to think about when they learn. Most of us did not learn to cook in formal settings, or at least not exclusively. I didn't do food tech at school, although my children did. But my children also learned by observing and listening to me and helping me. (And my wife, though they noticed early on that she does the boring drudge cooking and I tend to do the exciting meals for occasions and guests.) They learned by catching the odd TV programme, by noticing recipes in magazines, by eating things in restaurants or at other people's houses and then trying them for themselves, by experimenting with different flavours and vegetables and so on. Most of that was informal learning.

I've done a lot of learning myself on a squash court. Back in the days when I was younger, thinner and fitter I played a lot of squash. I remember one incident in particular. After I'd been playing for some years I found myself playing regularly a guy with whom I was very evenly matched - roughly the same size weight and speed, roughly the same level of skill, roughly the same level of court cunning. But for the first few games he beat me every time. I noticed after a while that he beat me because he tried harder. He would keep running when it looked hopeless, go for balls that I would give up on. So I started trying harder and found that I won more games as a result. I learned a lot about myself. (It's also significant that this learning happened when I was ready for it - I'd been playing similar people for years, but hadn't put two and two together before.)

So there are two anecdotes about location to fulfil my obligation to lizit. But maybe there is an issue here about definition. The literature appears to be veering towards saying that formal learning always entails informal learning. But does informal learning always entail formal learning? I cannot see what kind of formality was present on the squash court or, some of the time at least, in my kitchen.


lizit said...

Your conclusions resonate with me. I've been reading Cole, M. (2005). The exam first, the lesson afterwards: an exploration and celebration of the nature of informal learning. Work Based Learning in Primary Care, 3(4), 325-338. Given the journal, there is contextualisation in a work environment, but the article starts by recapping the story of Ogier P-- as found in Sartre's Nausea. He is the guy who has set himself the task of reading every book in the library in alphabetical order. The observations drawn are that this is a learner-directed task with no accreditation process (apart from possibly the learner achieving his goal), but the issues are whether there is any learning and whether the formal setting, a library, creates a formal learning experience as against an informal one. Basically the argument of the article is that information acquisition is one thing, but for it to become learning it requires application by reflection and/or action which then leads to the information in the repository becoming knowledge which is usable and can be shared.
Several of the definitions of informal learning seem to have this element of transformation either of information into knowledge or of lifestyle (using the expression loosely) through use of learned content.
Cole also draws attention to an interest switch in Wenger's perspective between his early work and more recent work on Communities of Practice. In the early work, CoP's were observed as developing organically and later work had examined how to foster CoPs. The question this raises for me is whether the formal content in the informal is when a positive aspect has been observed and that is then focused on leading to a formalisation of the informal to a greater or lesser extent. I guess this may be inevitable - a fair bit of theory about child development and education (at all ages) is based on observation and out of this developing theories. What concerns me more is when the informal is deliberately formalised - but that is a conversation for another day.
So like you I see plenty of evidence of informal learning of all sorts in formal contexts and processes, but the formal in the informal does not appear to be their naturally, but is rather implanted or grafted.

Rob said...

Re the issue about information acquisition becoming knowledge, we might conceptualise it (regardless, I think, of the formal/informal context) with Bateson's levels of learning, or Engestrom's levels of activity and the move from learning to expansive learning. The Engestrom thing is what I'm looking at at the moment, with particular emphasis on wildfire activity, which of course lends itself to the informal end of the spectrum.