Formal education needs more informal learning

One of the reasons that I’m fascinated with informal learning is that it has not been studied anyway near as much as formal learning (education & training) and my experience with workplace performance has shown how important informal learning is in getting the job done. A ten year study of Japanese education methods by the University of Leicester has revealed, among other things, how important it is to link formal and informal learning as early as possible:

Dr. Jenny Rogers said: Moving between formal and informal situations causes major problems for learners as it demands transformations in the type of knowledge that they have already acquired. These transformations cause problems which are not only common but have proved intractable. They lie at the heart of difficulties with computation, performance and problem-solving that have dogged education, test results and employment over many years.

Our research here at the University of Leicester and nationally shows that these problems arise very early in children’s education and cause difficulties as much for the nursery as for education and employers. Children need to be helped to develop their talk and problem-solving to a far greater extent in informal, implicit situations during the formative years alongside the formal and explicit elements of lessons. This will enhance their flexibility and their ability to understand and deal with wide-ranging written texts as well as formal and real-life problems in the later years.

My own experience shows that some people who function very well in formal learning environments become rather disoriented in an informal environment, such as our series of online workshops on informal learning. In order to be successful learners, people need to be comfortable with their disorientation. According to Marilyn Taylor [PDF see page 51 for a reference to Taylor’s model], disorientation should be a natural state in formal education:

Stage 1 : Disorientation: The learner is presented with an unfamiliar experience or idea which involves new ideas that challenge the student to think critically about his/her beliefs and values. The learner reacts by becoming confused and anxious. Support from the educator at this point is crucial to the learner’s motivation, participation and self-esteem.

I believe that disorientation is an almost constant state in many workplaces today, so we had better prepare learners for it. Incorporating informal learning experiences in an ever widening variety of contexts could help prepare students to be better informal learners throughout their lives. In this study, formal education has been shown to foster dependent learners who have difficulty in the disorienting contexts that often accompany informal learning. If we truly want to foster lifelong learning, we need to create more informal learning opportunities in our entire educational system.

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