Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is there room for disagreement?

In the midst of the furore that has resulted from Saul Carliner's article on the longevity of instructor-led learning (which, incidentally, I think is best addressed by Stephen Downes), I find myself being corrected by Donald Clark in respect of my understanding of informal learning. I was a little puzzled because the comment didn't read like Donald Clark's usual stuff - far too polite ;o). Turns out that this is an altogether different Donald Clark!

What I said, in a comment on Tony Karrer's post, was:

The assumption seems to be made that informal learning = social media.

This is not the case. Let me say emphatically that informal learning has constituted the bulk of workplace learning for years. According to which research you read, something between 70%-85% of what people learn, they learn by asking the bloke at the next desk. Okay, he might not really be at the next desk. He might in fact be on the other end of the phone, working for the helpdesk. He might be your husband (who is often my first port of call when I have a software question). He might be an ex-colleague. He might work two floors down. He might be the author of a helpful article you read in a magazine.

And yes, he might be a she. I used 'he' in the generic sense for ease of expression.

This all qualifies as informal learning.

In fact, reading someone's doctoral thesis also constitutes informal learning if it isn't a prescribed part of an accredited programme you are following.

Informal simply means that the learner is in charge of what, when, how, how fast, how often, how much, by which route, etc. Formal means that someone else has made those decisions and the learner has to comply.
Clark responded with:

Karyn's comment that informal learning is "something between 70%-85% of what people learn" and "Informal simply means that the learner is in charge of what, when, how, how fast, how often, how much, by which route, etc." is not really true.

The studies generally make only two distinctions when discussing learning in the workplace: 1) formal learning is directed by learning professionals and 2) informal learning is basically everything else.

Informal learning (at least in the studies) is composed of what the learner themselves choose to learn and the learning that is directed by their managers or an experienced coworker. Thus we basically have three types of learning:
1. Formal is structured by trainers, instructors, etc. and accounts for 15-30% of what people learn.

2. Non-Formal is structured by managers or coworkers and accounts for the part of the remaining 70%-85%.

3. Informal is structured by the learners themselves and is also included in the remaining 70%-85%.
I confess, I had never even heard of 'non-formal' learning. Nor do I see a reason to draw a line between it and informal learning. In fact, I contend that the whole notion of informal learning defies the drawing of firm lines at all.

I would say that my definition lines up rather more closely with what Jay Cross has to say on the subject. However, if I am wrong, I am happy to be corrected. What do you think?

Since my readership is not particularly wide, please consider directing your own readers here to contribute to the discussion. I would like to capture as wide a range of perspectives as possible, since this is an area I am writing about in my dissertation.


Cammy Bean said...

Michael Hanley has been writing some great posts on informal learning of late. Start with this one and then go browse the rest. He defines informal vs. non-formal vs. formal in one of his posts.


Chad Estes said...

Ever had a thought about movement based learning. I am fascinated by the work of Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais - he dedicated his life to movement based learning.

Here is some food for thought:

The parallels between Erickson & Feldenkrais:

Would love to hear your thoughts.


Zoe said...

A couple of points...

Clark says "Informal learning (at least in the studies) is composed of what the learner themselves choose to learn and the learning that is directed by their managers or an experienced coworker."

So, what about a learner who chooses to learn by undertaking formal learning? This morning, I needed to learn some mySQL commands, so I found a tutorial online. A formal tutorial, designed by an instructor. Right there, the distinction fails.

Underneath that, Clark's distinction frames the formal learner as passive - the formal learner doesn't want to learn new skills, they're doing so because the boss told them to. Creating definitions based on learner motivation in this field is perilous, as it gives an odd moral high-ground to informal that is a) irrelevant and b) not universally reflected in the experience of learners.

I've never heard of 'non-formal' either. Sounds like an attempt at term-coinage. That's fine if the term is needed, but in this case... nah.

Clark said...

Karyn, it kind of depends on what the original survey resulting in the 80/20 number used as the definition. However, in my mind there're formal classes that are defined and structure, whether you choose or they're recommended, then there are formally designed resources (job aids, media files [read: podcasts, etc], etc), finally there are conversations you have with others and the use of search tools to find information that isn't formally structured. The grey area is the formal stuff you find on your own, rather than what your org has hired or created for you. Is that formal or informal?

Regardless, the org has a responsibility, seems to me, to populate the formal appropriately, and facilitate the informal (blocking the firewall, how sad).

Norman Lamont said...

Seems to me from a practical point of view, if you're trying to implement new practices or platforms in a company to support what isn't done by courses, then the simple distinction of what's prescribed vs what's sought out is good enough to work with and easy enough for others to understand. I've found people take it more seriously if you talk about 'on the job' learning. (Well, some people don't!). And no it doesn't equate to social networking at all.

The upsycho said...

@Cammy. An interesting and well-written post, but I disagree. I find it unhelpful to try to create siloes and clearcut boundaries within an initiative which arose out of the need to dispense with exactly that.

Now to tackle @Chad's recommended reading...

Andy said...

To be honest, this seems like a lot of hot air. Instructor led training will survive, maybe because people like it (doesn't matter about effectiveness - people satisfice). Informal learning happens too. Lots of it. You can't make it happen more - because if you do it stops being informal. So eLearning you can do when you want isn't informal - or is it?

And that's the problem. We seem to get caught up in definitions and theories which are great and interesting and stuff - but at the end of the day my job is to remove barriers to learning. It could be removing barriers to formal learning, it could be mental barriers, psychological barriers, network barriers, social ones, cultural ones. I can't motivate you to learn per se. I can just bring you water and let you see for yourself how good the water looks and doesn't it smell nice.

I suspect what I'm trying to say is definitions aren't that important - its whether people can access what they need that is.

The upsycho said...

@Andy Well yes... and no.

In terms of practice, you are absolutely right - definitions are often unhelpful. What we want is for people to be able to learn... so that they can do their jobs confidently and competently, to the benefit of both the organisation and the individual.


If, as in my case, you are trying to address the issue of informal learning in an academic treatise, you need to be sure that you and your reader have a shared understanding of what this is. You also need to demonstrate that you have a solid understanding of the subject matter. Unfortunately, this means definitions of a sort.

The upsycho said...

@Chad Most of the first article strikes me as being common sense. The sort of thing that sports coaches refer to as muscle memory, and the sort of area addressed by occupational therapists. I have some experience (as a recipient rather than a practitioner) of both of these areas.

The second starts to draw tenuous links from this kinaesthetic area to something more psychological/cognitive. At this point it loses me, primarily because I am a doubter on the subject of NLP. I seem to be earning myself a reputation as a cynic, which saddens me because I am anything but cynical, but for me the theories underpinning NLP hold about as much water as the theories underpinning learning styles, on which my stance as a non-believer are well documented.

I have to say that I am not altogether convinced that NLP is even ethical (supposing for a moment that it is real, after all).

I once attended a course where we learned huge wadges of stuff by rote by associating sections of it with dance/mime movements. If I had kept practising the dance and reciting the associated script, I would no doubt still remember it today. But I have massive issue with the idea of rote learning... in most cases, that is (I don't have any problem with - for example - learning the alphabet and times tables by rote, because they both constitute handy material to be able to access via instant recall).

I don't know whether I have answered your question or not...