Informal learning is important. It accounts for how we learned much of what we know: experience. However, it should not and will not replace formal learning. As more emphasis is being put on constructivist methods and social learning, it is important not to deemphasize the role that formal learning plays.
Some tasks are best taught through formal learning. These tasks have low complexity, require low autonomy, are standardized, are highly specific or routine, or may be time sensitive. For example, Flora McDora created a slideshare to emphasize this point. You can view it here: Informal v Formal Learning. Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) also state that when dealing with new information, learners need to be specifically shown what to do. On his Informal Learning Blog, Jay Cross posits that novices learn more through formal instruction and that formal learning is best for explicit knowledge. This may be attributed to cognitive load theory. A trial-and-error approach without any form of guidance can result in a heavy load on working memory. This is particularly true for novice learners who may lack the proper schemas to integrate the new knowledge with prior knowledge (Kirschner, et all, 2006). In fact, novice learners may not have the prior knowledge to integrate new knowledge with. Mayer (2004) addresses this further with the assertion that guided discovery is necessary to activate knowledge to make sense of new knowledge and to integrate new knowledge with prior knowledge. He further suggests that left to their own devices, learners may never encounter the objective material.
Sometimes, the need for formal learning is based on practicality. People need to perform a certain way every time and there is no room for mistake. Period. Think about an assembly line making brakes for your car or a new surgical procedure. Do you want the guy making your brakes or the doctor performing your surgery to have learned in a formal environment or through experimenting and trial-and-error. In his blog, The Pursuing Performance Blog, Guy Wallace provides a witty look into The Research Evidence Against Informal Learning.
He asks, “IF informal learning DOES account for 80% or more of “how kids learn about sex” – does that make IT the approach to actively support?” (para. 3). While the shock value of the statement is what caught my eye, it certainly resonates with the theme of practicality.
It is also important to note that informal learning should not be considered a replacement for formal learning. Formal and informal learning are complementary (Cofer, 2000). They work together. Clark (2007) points out that a lot of informal learning would fail to occur without formal learning programs. In this vein, I would like to leave you with a quote from Cross (2010), “When you dig down into the details, you’ll find that all learning is part formal and part informal. The only thing worth discussing is the degree of formality or informality, for it’s never either/or.” (para. 13).
Clark, D. R. (2007). Formal and informal learning. Retrieved February 9, 2010 from http://www.knowledgejump.com/learning/informal.html
Cofer, D. (2000). Informal workplace learning. Practice Application Brief. NO 10. U.S. Department of Education: Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.
Cross, J. (2010). Where did the 80% come from? Informal Learning Blog. Retrieved Febraury 9, 2010 from http://www.informl.com/where-did-the-80-come-from
Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.
Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning?: The case for guided methods of instruction. The American Psychologist, 59(1), 14-19.
McDora, F. (2009). Formal v informal learning. Retrieved February 9, 2010 from http://www.slideshare.net/theexplorer/informal-v-formal-learning
Wallace, G. (2007). The research evidence against informal learning. Retrieved February 9, 2010 from http://pursuingperformanceblog.blogspot.com/2007/05/research-evidence-against-informal.html
Guest Blogger: Carmen Weaver is the project manager for the TLINC grant at the University of Memphis. She also teaches technology integration to undergraduate education majors at the University. Carmen has a background in Computer Information Systems as well as Secondary Education. She is a doctoral student in Instructional Design and Technology.