Bridging the gap, part 2: Teaching and the “formal”/”informal” divide

I wish I had an "Enter" button in school...

I wish I had an “Enter” button in school…

In part one of this series, I briefly examined some assumptions about the differences between formal and informal learning. This led to some good discussion with my advisor and others in which it became apparent that an underrepresented part of the discussion is on the teaching in these situations.  As my advisor pointed out, often the topic of informal learning operates as if learning just happens on its own instead of as a response to some designed or implied instruction. Focusing on the teaching component of informal learning might provide a more complete picture of the situations, the circumstances, the opportunities, and the outcomes. Indeed, there seems to be a need for a theory of informal teaching to account for any learning that occurs.

In this post I attempt to unpack what “formal” and “informal” might mean by looking at some examples of teaching/learning interactions. In the next part of the series I will attempt to break down some key elements of these interactions and look for similarities and differences which might make up this distinction. My goal overall is to explore what it might mean for teaching and learning to adopt these “formal” and “informal” methods.

Formal and informal teaching

Just what does “informal” mean? What is the division between informal and formal, particularly as it relates to teaching? At first blush, the distinction seems to be how the teaching (and learning) is organized and supported; that is, what form underlies the instruction. My initial reaction was to divide teaching into planned/designed instruction (lessons, guides, lectures and so on) and ad-hoc instruction (responding to a question or prompt, for example). I’m not sure this is a sufficient division, though.

An ad-hoc interaction like answering a question certainly requires some design (in terms of discourse , e.g choosing which words to use and to which elements to respond, and so on). A question also exists in some larger contexts like time/place/space, social relationships, topic, shared information and values and on. If I ask a stranger what time the bus will arrive at the stop where we are both waiting, there is a host of factors which make up even that simple interaction. Some of these might be important, some might not. We share a common interest (getting on the correct bus). We have a distant, public social relationship only (we are strangers). I might ask politely (“Excuse me, do you know when the bus arrives?”) or rather bluntly (“What time does the bus get here?”) or any other number of ways which may change the response. Perhaps we share some common affiliation (we could both be students on my college campus, or we could be fans of the same sports team) though these may be unspoken and unknown. Even this simple transaction requires great planning, much of it done unconsciously and conventionally.

Form matters. Also, if you get this reference, you are now officially old.

Form matters. Also, if you get this reference, you are now officially old.

But is this even teaching? I am seeking some information, which the stranger may or may not know. If she answers, my need for information will be met (even if she doesn’t know, I’ll at least know that I’ll need to look elsewhere). I’ve positioned her as someone who can share that information (a “teacher”) and I can gain that knowledge through our interaction (a “learner”). However, this is just a simple exchange of relatively low-level information. Passing that kind of information hardly requires much effort on either side. It begs the question, then, of what scale does “teaching” require? What amount of information exchange, or processing, or depth of interaction is necessary to go from simply telling someone a tidbit of information to sharing knowledge? What is teaching, and what makes it unique and distinct from a simple transmission of information?

This is not a trivial distinction, though I’m unsure if I can adequately cover it here. In particular, with regard to formal and informal teaching it seems especially important to have a good grasp on what teaching is in order to find the boundaries (if they even exist). For now I’ll operate under the assumption that information exchange like the bus stop example does count as a teaching/learning moment, though I will dive into the notion of scales of teaching later as well in order to get at this apparent tension.

The work of institutions and communities

It’s certainly easier to consider more traditional conceptualizations of teaching and see the various “forms” they take. School-based teaching relies on many conventionalized features supported by the institution of school itself: lesson plans based on a standardized set of curricular goals derived and mandated by one or more governing bodies and enforced through administrative and communal structures. While this is a rather sterile and highly generalized description of teaching which ignores all the social variety of actual classroom interactions (where the school is located, what the makeup of the class is like, the age of the teacher and students, the subject matter, the methods of instruction and many, many other features), it seems to describe the “forms” on which the lay understanding of teaching relies. That is, “formal teaching” is a product of a system of regulated and supported interactions backed by the authority of some institution.

Indeed, as my advisor has pointed out, the prevailing notion of formal teaching requires a school setting of some kind, and anything beyond that is “informal” teaching. Perhaps it’s that easy. Simply tying “formal” teaching to some structured activity based within an institution provides a pretty neat and tidy distinction to work with, and the kind of deconstruction I hope to do here is unnecessary. Indeed, I even came to a bit of a binary distinction in my previous post when thinking about power in relation to formal and informal learning; my armchair theorizing led me to divide transgression against each system as crossing a power; in the case of formal learning, the act of transgression invokes the power of the institution, while transgression in informal learning invokes the power of the community. By this I mean that each situation is at the mercy of an entity for things like status, identity, acceptance, censure, punishment. In a formal learning environment like school, the power of the school itself determines what is acceptable (in terms of both what is “right” and “wrong” but also what subjects are worth covering and how), who has authority, even how people are organized (grouping classes by age, for example, or in things like Carnegie units). Failure to behave accordingly leads to some sanction; not meeting content criteria might result in failing a class or being held back a grade, while not conforming to behavioral expectations may result in even more drastic punishments (expulsion, therapy).

In the case of formal learning, the act of transgression invokes the power of the institution, while transgression in informal learning invokes the power of the community.

These sanctions can have serious consequences. Failing a grade means a student is separated from their peers and many of their social ties. It may promote a negative feedback loop where the student thinks they cannot succeed and so they will fall still further behind, potentially leading to dropping out altogether. This in turn has even broader economic impacts (a less employable workforce, particularly as the American economy is more and more reliant on “information” labor). These attitudes can cross generations, so that the children of these students may also fall into the same dangers. Certainly, it is more likely that the children of these students will live in a poorer area and attend a school which is less well funded and less likely to have the support necessary for these students. It can be a dangerous cycle. This is the power of the institution – it is a gatekeeper, a sorter, an enforcer.

Formal teaching.

Formal teaching.

This may seem a harsh assessment. It may appear to draw pretty dramatic outcomes from little Timmy simply not knowing the capitol of Kansas. Of course I want to draw the extreme ends of the territory, as it were, to illustrate the worst cases. The scenario I’ve described also relies pretty heavily on a deficit model of instruction and a punitive mindset of the institution. It assumes that conformance is the only way to “pass” through the system. There are undoubtedly many examples of this model. However, it is also a reality that even highly regulated and formalized institutions like a school operate on many other principles based on other practicalities. There is the phenomenon of “social passing,” where a student will be promoted simply so that they will be kept with their social cohort. There are financial pressures to ensure students succeed at the performance metrics established by governing agencies (witness the scandal in the Atlanta school districts where teachers gave the answers to standardized tests to students so that they would pass and the school would receive additional funding). There is an epidemic of learning disorder diagnoses. Many of these are absolutely legitimate and are genuine interventions that help students. Many others, however, rely on different underlying motives; a district receives only a minuscule amount of additional support for a student diagnosed with a learning disorder like ADD, but receives a much more substantial sum if the student is diagnosed on the Autism spectrum. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to think that some of these diagnoses are made to help ease the financial burden facing a modern school, even if the funds a used in “legitimate” ways like classroom aides or resource teachers.

My focus on punitive methods of control also minimizes other functions of institutional structures which may be less nefarious. Formalized learning goals provide direction and focus. They provide milestones for progress. They can provide a clear sequence of knowledge and skill building. They can promote feelings of accomplishment or mastery, key identity traits. They can highlight areas that need additional work and a method for channeling effort. Yes, all of these are bound up in problematic notions of hegemonic cultural control (what is covered by the test, not just what is correct or not). I’m not sure you can ever get around this in any institution. Perhaps these are sins too large to sweep away, too important to dismiss as innocuous or inconsequential. All institutions are power brokers and choose the winners and losers. Perhaps we can broaden this or provide more opportunities for change or dissent. Regardless, the point I hope to make here is that perhaps there are some good things institutions do, even despite themselves, things like provide opportunities for identity formation and growth, avenues to greater knowledge and self-awareness, even opportunities to challenge the institution itself.

All institutions are power brokers and choose the winners and losers.

What of the “informal” powers (what I earlier called the community)? Community is certainly a broad and protean term, meaning at once many different things. Here I use community to mean groups of people who collaborate and interact in a primarily interest-driven, voluntary, affinity-centered ways. It differs from the notion of the institution in that an institution is largely resistant to change and people interact within and around institutions in many cases without consent or much agency to disengage. A school system, a religion, a banking conglomerate, corporate or non-profit healthcare – these are systems which I must engage with despite my own reservations because they are entrenched into the fabric of everyday living. I could keep cash under my mattress since I want to avoid banks, but it is difficult to convince creditors or pay rent with stacks of cash; it is insecure in that someone could physically take it; indeed, even the very notion of “cash” itself is part of a larger institution (the federally backed monetary system). Likewise, could not send my child to school and instead homeschool her; this might raise questions of credentials or “proper” education in later job applications. I could seek homeopathic or traditional healthcare; a brain hemorrhage or tumor might drive me to “standard” medical care when I will be heavily penalized because I don’t participate in a HMO plan. My participation is often involuntary and forced upon me. Many times it can even be invisible to me (as the example of “cash” demonstrates).

You see hegemonic control structures. I see family fun. Semantics.

You see hegemonic control structures. I see family fun. Semantics.

In contrast, what I’ve here termed “community” is really meant to invoke the notion of systems where I have some greater choice or agency in participating, and I have some say in how they might be run. In my previous post, I used the example of a book club. It could also refer to a recreational sports team (though this, too, is bound into the “institution” of the park district or after school program), a sewing circle, a conversation with a friend, playing tag, or participating in a game design jam. It seems like many of these are simply hobbies or “non-professional” activities. I try to think of other scenarios but most non-recreational activities seem more connected to some institutional practice. Indeed, even the ones I’ve included here are still part of some institution to some degree (a book club as part of commerce more broadly or of literacy, the rec league team and the system of rules of the game and of the league, game design as a commercial practice or tied to the rules of a competition or of the technology itself, and so on). This might be an indicator of some important distinction between formal and informal teaching/learning, that voluntariness is important. I’ll explore this more below.

Regardless, “communities” as I’ve defined them here can inflict many of the same sanctions against a transgressor as institutions. Some may be even more severe. Certainly communities can shun someone, can pressure them to leave (a book club, a neighborhood, a political party). They can ostracize or stigmatize or silence. In some cases they can turn violent. Like institutions, these sanctions can have a profound impact on a person (where they live, who they can and can’t marry, what kind of job they can have, and so on). However, they may have less impact as well; dropping out of a book club may carry very little negative consequences, particularly with very weak ties to any of the other participants. It seems as though institutional consequences are tied to large-scale factors (education, political participation, economic conditions), while “communal” consequences may be tied to large- or small-scale factors. Crossing a community may still affect the type of education you can receive or some other large-scale factor. It may also mean that you simply spend your Thursday evenings doing something different. This may be a far less “serious” consequence. Perhaps this, too, is an important distinction worth exploring further; formal teaching/learning may refer to the scale of the systems in place and the scope of the consequences associated with deviating from the associated norms and values.

It also seems worth noting that communities as I’ve defined them may be more receptive to change, and a participant may have more agency in affecting that change than in an institution. If I disagree with the interpretation of a book or don’t like the selection in my book club, I can (reasonably) dissent. I may challenge the group on their reading, particularly as there is no explicit “correct” reading like there may be in a classroom. Or perhaps I can’t meet on Thursday nights and suggest changing it to Saturdays. We can negotiate the terms of our interactions in ways that may seem incompatible with other institutions (though these are not completely immutable: churches offer worship services beyond the more traditional Sunday morning ones; public schools might offer summer or evening classes; many types of workers are increasingly negotiating telecommuting as part of their work environments). Getting a school to change its class schedule or academic calendar is a completely different scale that changing the time our group meets for our weekly basketball game. Institutions often exhibit significant inertia, whereas communities may have more malleability. How change can/does occur might be another factor worth exploring.

Of course, there are some consequences to negotiating that whole "working from home" perk....

Of course, there are some consequences to negotiating that whole “working from home” perk….

Of course, this may all be a problem with terminology, a semantic hang-up about what “formal” and “informal” actually means and about what an “institution” is. I’ve used the term “institution” to refer to things like schools and churches, consciously designed and explicitly organized entities which have some clear boundaries about where they occur and when one is participating. I’ve also used the term to refer to broader concepts like the economy or politics, concepts which have more ambiguous boundaries and less explicit goals or practices. Indeed, schools and churches (and work and others) seem to imply both an action (learning and teaching, broadly, or worshipping) as well as a “site” (a classroom, a mosque, an office). The economy and politics also imply actions (making and spending goods and services, governing or campaigning) but are less site-specific (I can make goods in all kinds of places and have many ways to spend them; similarly, politics happens in many different domains). Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here, if even that, but the notion of “site” seems like an interesting one to unpack more thoroughly.

Maybe I’m also being too liberal with my use of “formal” and “informal” as well. I’ve used “formal” to refer to institutionalized structures as well as methods of instruction. Perhaps I’m conflating the two, but I don’t necessarily think so. I’m not sure you can untangle the methods for teaching from the contexts. To say that formal teaching simply requires things like lesson plans or curricula or assessment methods doesn’t cover it sufficiently. It’s necessary to think about the things that support that interaction, the reasons for it and so on. Conversely, it also seems problematic to focus on the structures and contexts of the interaction without thinking about the practices of teaching. Reducing formal teaching refer simply to the structures of support for the instruction and control then tying formal teaching to an institution may not be enough to describe it either. Formal teaching could occur in informal settings; an author could give a lecture at a book club meeting, or a parent can teach a child how to follow a recipe. Informal teaching might occur within the confines of an institution; a teacher might respond to an off-topic question, or come up with an idea spontaneously or in response to some discussion in her classroom.

To say that formal teaching simply requires things like lesson plans or curricula or assessment methods doesn’t cover it sufficiently. It’s necessary to think about the things that support that interaction, the reasons for it and so on.

There are a few ways to go about this. Perhaps the distinction between formal and informal requires both the structures and the practices; perhaps the distinction between the two is not so great after all; indeed, perhaps there is no distinction between them and it’s a false assumption that there is such a thing as a formal and informal teaching or learning, at least not as it’s been commonly described. Since formal and informal teaching can occur within and outside of institutions, there must be some other factors at play. For now, it might be useful to explore a few examples and to look at different aspects of the teaching/learning interaction to explore if this is the case. Indeed, the more I think about it the more I wonder whether there really is any kind of “formal” teaching at all, or whether all teaching takes on some kind of formal structure.

In the next post, I will look at more specific features of instruction and learning and try to identify any themes which stretch across what may or may not be “formal” or “informal” about them. My hope is to identify some kind of criteria for thinking more critically about those divisions and to identify some way of analyzing different learning/teaching moments.

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