Bridging the gap, part 1: Formal and informal learning environments


I attended a great presentation the other day by Michael Levine from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center about gaming education reform.  The concept of “bridging” formal and informal learning environments came up several times during the discussion, and it’s been rattling around in my head ever since. I thought I’d knock out a few thoughts about the subject in an un-researched, seat-of-the-pants method (like the irresponsible academic I am). So, well, ramble ho.

Formal and informal learning environments

School seems to be the obvious example of a formal learning environment. Schools have classrooms with set expectations, learning outcomes, models for instruction, methods for assessment, a culturally propagated power structure, an institutional framework which perpetuates these structures and so on. School is, in this way, a formalized system of instruction and assessment. Of course, school is also a site where lots of informal learning happens (kids trading Pokemon cards in the lunchroom, or sharing stories in the hallways, or recommending and debating their favorite games and so on). Schools can be “sites” for both; I refer to schools mostly for the former. Formal learning environments mean, in most cases, the structures of the classroom.

Learning. To break hearts.

School is not the only site for formal education, certainly. Workshops, football practices, play rehearsals – these are also “formally” structured environments for learning. School gets the bulk of the attention since it is so ubiquitous, but these other spaces are worth considering as well.  Some of these are likely very effective learning spaces; the success of a football team, for example, is a result of the talents of the team members but also of the preparation they do (like learning plays and concepts of an offensive or defensive system and so on). I want to be careful not to damn all formalized learning spaces because of the sins of its most prominent member.

Informal learning environments are less structured, often ad-hoc, and seem mostly driven by the learner’s interests. Asking a friend how to complete a level, using a blog for tips on how to take better snapshots, a book club—these are the kinds of things I think constitute informal learning spaces. They usually take the form of just-in-time information, where they solve problems someone is currently facing (though not always). They also seem to be organized around an affinity for some topic (hobbies, personal development, even things like home repair).  They also seem to have less structured in how someone gets involved, how information is shared, and how these environments are organized. Friends likely share many unrelated informal learning moments; they are “participants” because of their friendship which likely transcends a single interaction or topic. A book club might follow some recommended book list or set of topics, or they may simply share books they like.

I'd seriously be lost without you, Lifehacker.

I’d seriously be lost without you, Lifehacker.

What about environments that share some qualities of each? A cooking show is an example. People come to the show out of some self-interest (they want to learn to cook something); their participation is voluntary and ad-hoc. A cooking show follows some very specific structures, however; they usually have a specific and standardized organization (an introduction/overview, preparation, cooking instructions, a recap). They often have internal structures (specific to a particular show) as well as to a genre (specific to most cooking shows). There are direct outcomes (cooked foods) but little assessment (the viewer’s own opinion of their cooking, or a loved one’s etc.). A cooking show is both a formalized environment (it has specific structures and direct outcomes) but participation is voluntary and assessment is at a viewer’s discretion.

Protip: You can  cut the amount of butter in Barefoot Contessa's recipes in half and they are still delicious.

Protip: You can cut the amount of butter in Barefoot Contessa’s recipes in half and they are still delicious.

So there are some problematic boundary issues at play when defining formal and informal learning environments.  It might be useful to think of these environments as a spectrum, with clear examples at the ends and a jumbled middle full of events which share properties of both. This is useful when thinking about what “bridging” actually means, which I’ll turn to next. I’m only pointing this out here to a) cover my ass from criticism and b) because, well, it seems like it’s necessary to recognize that these boundaries are fluid and depend on *what* features we’re looking at in any analysis. Also, it points to a greater need to think about specific criteria or qualities of both environments (which sounds like research, or, in other words, *work* and I say boo to that).

Bridging the gap, widening the chasm

The idea of “bridging” formal and informal learning environments relies on a couple of important assumptions. First, that these environments are exclusive and that they serve different purposes. Second, that there is some benefit in bringing these environments together. Third, that formal environments are in trouble and that informal environments hold some answer (at least the talk I attended was framed this way and the conversations I’ve had about this suggest it). It’s important to think about these assumptions and why someone might believe them before jumping into *how* bridging might work.

Jim Gee argues pretty convincingly that schools are in some serious trouble. They are under the pressures of standardized testing based on problematic models of learning. No doubt there are many innovative and dedicated teachers. Nevertheless, the institution of public school in America as a whole does a poor job of identifying important concepts, engaging students, and using effective methods for teaching and reflection. It’s little wonder that so many students simply “tune out,” even if they aren’t dropping out (our graduation rate has steadily increased, but evidence points to real problems with conceptual learning and student engagement [And yes, these studies themselves have lots of problems. I don’t care, for now.]).

At the same time, young people participate voraciously in all kinds of informal learning practices. 12-year-olds freakin’ LOVE Minecraft (it is seriously techno-crack to this age group). They build, share, make tutorials, follow wikis, write guides, play together, watch others play. Most of these practices require other, related learning (think of making a YouTube video; I need to know what I’m going to capture but also how to capture it, how to edit and render that video, how to organize it effectively, how to upload it, how to share it and so on). Making a YouTube walkthrough of a Minecraft project actually involves a really rich set of expressive practices based on deep knowledge across a number of systems and technologies, which in turn requires a great amount of learning and practice. In effect, a kid is engaging in really robust learning voluntarily through almost exclusively informal learning.

I'd be so, so rich if I had invented this.

I’d be so, so rich if I had invented this.

So here’s one problem which drives some of the assumptions about bridging these environments: kids love learning, just not in school. Schools are places we’ve specifically designed for learning and kids hate it. Videogames are chiefly seen as recreational but engage kids in really deep, cross-disciplinary learning. This in turn informs the second assumption: bringing the passion and motivations kids have for something like a videogame into a setting like school will help them learn more deeply and use that learning more productively.

It’s not a bad idea, really. Learning happens best when we care about it, and we care about things when we see some value in it (even if that value is in relaxation or entertainment). Part of the problem I’ve been dancing around is the idea of motivation. Games are often pretty good at capturing the intrinsic motivations of players to get them to care about the extrinsic motivations (I want to feel powerful [intrinsic motivation] so I play a game which lets me be a superhero fighting dangerous villains [extrinsic motivation]). Good games weave these motivations together very tightly so that my desires match the desires the game fosters; this is related-to-but-separate-from Gee’s notion of the “projective identity,” which I’ll mention but not expand on much here.  The point is that much of the causal reason kids engage so deeply with games is that they care about what they’re doing, and games give them both the structure and the context for doing it in meaningful ways.

Not *my* Shepard, so I don't care.

Not *my* Shepard, so I don’t care.

School generally does not connect the ideas or concepts to things students actually care about. Worse still, schools may not have the right topics at all. This could (and really, really should) turn into an entire post, but for brevity’s sake I’ll simply suggest here that if a function of school is to prepare students for the “larger” world they are going to one day enter, then how do schools adequately prepare them for the realities of class conflicts, income inequality, labor relations, sexual discrimination or a host of other problems often deemed “too political” for schools? What responsibilities does school have for teaching students skills to manage these problems or affect real change? Even more directly, are schools part of the problem in the first place, and where then will citizens learn about these problems and how to deal with them? It’s a meaty topic that I am ill-equipped to answer. I bring it up to highlight some of the unspoken problems about formal learning environments that we must confront if we’re really going to change how students engage in school.

Which gets at the first assumption about formal and informal learning environments. What purpose do these different environments serve, and are they exclusive to each other? There are some fundamental issues of power at play here; a “formal” learning environment means that someone has decided what is worth learning and how to learn it and what counts as learning it. It relies on hegemony, it can exclude as easily as it can include, it positions some content or process as “good” and others as “bad.” Again, this is a huge issue which I won’t deal with much here. It does, however, suggest that there may be some fundamental difference which makes formal and informal exclusive in essence. One purpose of formal education, I might argue, is to promote some norm and punish dissent.

Informal learning promotes some ideology as well but likely provides more opportunity to resist or change that view. I speak in generics here; there are inseparable pressures at work even in an informal environment.  Think of the book club again. Many book clubs are likely composed of rather homogenic members, in class or race or ideology. Dissent is possible; a member who disagrees with an interpretation can voice their opinion. They may even persuade others. They could simply stop going to the club at all. The book club, however, acts as far more than just a space to analyze a book; they are spaces for socialization and communal bonding. Dissent may earn the dissenter scorn from their peers; quitting the club may mean exclusion from other social events as well. Learning is always tied inextricably to social practice, and is bound to these realities in any environment. Informal learning environments allow fluid membership, it is true, but even here there are social penalties for resistance. The difference between formal and informal environments may be in terms of degree rather than kind; resistance of formal structures invokes the power of the institution, while resistance of informal structures invokes the power of the community.

Also, they're all dead, so whatevs.

Also, they’re all dead, so whatevs.

All of this is a long way to say that formal and informal learning environments do serve different functions. I suppose a better question might be whether they can coexist, and what happens when they do. I’ll turn to this in the next post in the series. Spoiler alert: I’m a believer, but it turns out to be pretty messy.

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