6 September 2012

Reaction to two comments on 'about formal and informal learning'

This blog post is a reaction to comments by Jay and Nick to my original post on formal and informal learning. Thank you for your reactions, as they helped me to refine and extend my thinking on the issue. I knew I was getting into murky waters and your reactions pay testimony to that. You raise a lot of issues in your reactions and consequently there is a lot to be said in response to that. However,  I will focus on two items only, not to wiggle my way of of a thorny issue, but because there's only so much you can do in short post. Your other remarks do not go unnoticed, however, I hope to tackle the most important aspects of your reactions. To be sure, I certainly do not want to create another shouting match, as that doesn't solve anything. And that is of course what I try and tried to do. Let me explain.

First, I too have worked with, thought about and written about the formal-informal distinction, and at some point of time my reaction was to give up on it as something not particularly useful:  better ignore it and avoid not very fruitful discussions by saying something like there are all sort of shades of grey. However, that solution turned out to be unsatisfactory as many people persist in using the distinction as if it were a clear one (including myself, I noticed myself). Apparently, we want to express a difference but are unable to do so with clarity. The distinction has to do with learning at schools and similar, and learning outside of them.

Second, I realised that there is a difference between a concept that is defined as a continuous variable - the shades of grey (the wavelength of light; intelligence before the theory of multiple intelligencies) and a concept that has a variety of dimensions (colour, which is characterised by wavelength but also by saturation; intelligence if indeed there are multiple intelligencies). The formal-informal distinction is one of the second kind, not of the first kind. For instance, if formal learning is school-like learning, then what if there is a course but no curriculum, assessments but no diploma, teachers but no tuition fee? You can vary on all these dimensions and more. This is not a contrived example, note that xMOOCs are almost defined by these duplets. In discussions about xMOOCs, bundling courses to form a kind of curriculum, certificates as pseudo diplomas and even small fees are raised as possible innovations. To give these discussions proper credit, a linear continuum won't do.

Third, I realised that people started to amalgamate accounts of how we learn (learning theories) with the formal-informal distinction. Nick's idea that we only learn informally is an example of this (I do agree that at school people learn very little of what they are supposed to learn there, certainly in view of the enormous amounts of money that go into educational systems; I also do not know how to solve this, but we cannot afford to let them not learn the little that do learn). So I realised that the formal-informal distinction needed to be decoupled from our accounts of how we learn.

These are the reasons I came up with the idea to define formal learning as learning with a social contract. This way, theories of how we learn are definitionally independent of the way we organise our learning, the learning environments we create, the interventions we plan. And this allows us to ask such questions as How does formal learning (defined my way) fare in the face of current learning theories?, and What forms of informal learning should we consider in the face of existing learning theories?, and indeed, Are all forms of informal learning under all circumstances more efficient and effective than formal learning?.

With this proposed solution, the problems are not over of course, because we now need to distinguish learning theories, identify their claims, derive what consequences they have for learning environments and interventions, etc; only then  we can try to answer these and similar questions. To give an indication of the problems ahead, Siemens and Downes claim Connectivism to be a (novel) learning theory (even an epistemology), but is it? Personally, I am interested in networked learning, something like Connectivism but without the claim that it is a learning theory, let alone an epistemology. Can you have formal networked learning? All sorts of people seem to think so as they are happy to discuss the creation of personal learning networks for their pupils. Should all professional learning be a form of networked learning? No, I guess, but what lines are there to draw?

Finally, a few words on definitions to further contextualise what I try to do. Definitions come in two kinds, depending on what you try to achieve. You may either try to capture as precisely as you can the common way of using a particular concept (often called real definitions). Or you may deliberately deviate from existing usage and try to improve discourse (stipulative definitions). The former is impossible if common discourse is vague and ambiguous, as is the case with the formal-informal distinction. The latter is doomed to fail if your stipulation does not improve on common usage. I have tried to avoid both pitfalls by framing a definition that captures at least a large part of common usage, as well as one that offers significant benefits for our discourse on learning. But the verdict is of course out on whether I am right or wrong on this.