There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that historically we have underplayed the importance of informal learning, whether that’s experiential, on-demand or social. I’m equally convinced that, with the proliferation of great social networking tools and the ever-increasing confidence that learners are displaying when it comes to managing their own learning, informal learning should rightfully play a central role in our future learning architectures.
But I’m also as sure as I can be that we will still have plenty of need for formal learning in the workplaces and colleges of the future; that means a curriculum, professional tuition, formal materials and some form of assessment. Why? To some extent because employers need assurance that critical skills and knowledge are in place. But mainly because employees themselves want to equip themselves with the core competences of their new trades or professions and it is really important to them that there is tangible evidence of their achievements through some form of certification. Perhaps even more importantly, lacking the elaborate mental schemas of expert practitioners, they desperately need structure and support; they don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t know how best to address this.
Therein lies my concern. Experts suffer from the curse of knowledge. Their responses to the demands of their everyday jobs are mostly automatic. They find it really hard to empathise with the difficulties encountered by novices. They find formal, structured learning interventions tiresome and patronising, largely because they no longer need the formality and structure. They cannot remember that once upon a time they too were beginners. They can no longer see the relevance of qualifications, forgetting that qualifications are only important if you don’t have them.
Given that it takes at least ten years to become expert in anything and often longer, most experts are older, and informal learning tends to be most strongly advocated by older, very experienced, expert and independent learners, i.e. those for whom informal learning is the preferred option and all that is needed. And before you say anything, I will happily put myself in this category. I haven’t been on any sort of formal course related to my work for more than twenty years and definitely prefer to manage my own learning. When I was in my 20s and 30s it was a different story. I set out to take advantage of every formal learning opportunity I could. I collected qualifications and professional memberships, because at that age it’s what you do if you’re reasonably ambitious.
Models like 70:20:10 only serve to confuse. As Ben Betts explains in The Ubiquity of Informal Learning, the model implies that we should be putting 70% of our effort into experiential learning and 20% into social. Yet, if the model has any use, it is not as a prescription for future projects but as a way of reflecting, as we look back on our careers, how much we have learned in different ways. Our learning architectures do need to encourage and support the experiential, the on-demand and the non-formal, but we shouldn’t forget that the 10% can be an important catalyst for all other forms of learning, and a lifesaver for novices.
So be cautious of oldies like me if, in their enthusiasm, they over-sell the idea of informal learning. We have forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
P.S. I may be about to break my 20-year fast when it comes to formal learning. I am seriously considering joining one of the new series of free, online courses being offered by Stanford (see post from Stephen Downes). I rather fancy the one on human-computer interaction.