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April 18, 2005

Informal vs Formal Learning, and the transition between them

Jay Cross is talking about informal learning again on his blog.

Jay has a definition for us:

Formal learning is the authorized, official, scheduled, approved courses and workshops offered in school and by training departments. It's structured.
Informal learning is everything else that changes your behavior that's not the result of formal learning or your genetic inheritance. [...] Its's unstructured

(See the comments for more discussion on the structured vs unstructured part).

I'm really interested in informal learning and loosely structured activity, yet in my practical experience in education, structure and schedule is incredibly important, especially when it comes to dealing with students (who generally are of the opinion that if its not part of the assessment, its not important. Quite rightly, perhaps).

So how do I reconcile this? Well, Jay has a heuristic which, while simple, is very satisfying:

Novices learn best through formal learning, for it provides the structure, signposts, and scaffolding a newby lacks. Old hands learn best informally, because they already have foundation knowledge, familiarity, and a framework for understanding.

So, in any topic there is a scale of diminishing returns as learners gain experience, and move from needing structure, to needing choices.

This is especially interesting, as it provides guidance on why systems like LAMS are interesting to me, as well as my own ideas for learning in social networks, even though they seem to be completely opposite in their approach. According to the heuristic, they aim, not a different audiences as such, but at different stages of development. They are both, in their own ways, "right".

Perhaps there is a Vygotsky-esque 'zone of proximal development' where we can facilitate learners from structured, formal learning, into being able to realize the benefits of unstructured, informal learning?

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