Formal vs Informal Learning

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Early years educationalists consider there to be no difference between learning and play for toddlers. I sometimes wonder if there should be for grown-ups.

In higher education we spend a significant amount of time thinking about and developing specifications for the courses we teach. We are encouraged to do this not so much in terms of content (what are we trying to teach our students?), but in terms of aims (what do we want our students to end up being able to do?). Once we have defined our learning outcomes, that then drives things like delivery and assessment.

This is all to the good; it is rational and sensible way of going about designing courses. But it can rather give us the idea that what goes on in the modules that make up our programmes will somehow produce an adequately educated student at the end of the process. I suspect this is a delusion: my hunch is that the formally-articulated part of education is only half the story, and that it won’t work unless there is a healthy dollop of play involved too.

If you think about anyone you know who is good at what they do, they spent a lot of their teenage years playing at what they do now (and indeed, they still do). David Arnold, who wrote the music for the new Dr Who, says that he started composing at age 12, ‘though of course I didn’t call it composing then; I called it mucking about on the piano’. My webmaster, Jonathan, tells tales of borrowing his cousin’s ZX81 at about that same age, then once he’d had to give it back, writing programs for it using pencil and paper on holiday at Butlins. Lucy Green has documented how most professional pop musicians learned their craft by learning to play the music of their heros by ear from endless listening to their favourite records.

And it goes on when people go to college. Undergraduate bull sessions are a vital part of the learning process, where the exploration of the three themes of sex, religion and current controversies in the subject they’re studying allows people to process and internalise their knowledge - and also to figure out where they stand on the big human questions too.

And it is this obsessive, self-directed and time-consuming informal learning that provides the fuel for a formal education. By itself, it is rarely enough to get people to the skill level they’d need to become top of their field, but without it, formal education has nothing to work with. Formal education works best when it gives people the power to structure and organise the experiential knowledge they have gained through their endless hours of play. Formal learning gives leverage, by providing concepts and techniques whereby people can make their obsessions work for them. But if the only knowledge and experience a student has to draw on is that developed in the classroom, there isn’t much to leverage, and there isn’t much, frankly, that they or anyone else are going to care about.

When educators sigh and cavil about the box-ticking and form-filling life that they must lead so much of the time, it is because we fear that defining learning in terms of benchmarks and measurables risks reducing education to a flat adequacy which encourages strategic learners to say, ‘well, I did what you told me too, now give me my degree’. We know that if our students only ever do what we write in our specifications, they’re not going to turn out to be very good at whatever we teach, and they’re not going to end up as very interesting people. They’ll be the student equivalent of jobsworths.

Of course, we can’t force our students to spend their spare time playing. By definition, the power of play comes from the player’s choice to engage in it. But we can make sure we play hard ourselves to set a good example.

Interdisciplinary Learning: Although some disparage "interdisciplinary learning," I have found it is in that context a teacher can find "hooks" so that students will play (and thus learn.)
In addition, giving students choice (although very scary for the teacher) increases the level of their involvement.

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