July 30, 2012

Formal and Informal and Lifelong Learning

We always include in our workshops for faculty on writing a discussion on informal and formal writing assignments. Reading a post by Jared Stein recently, I started thinking about adding the element of lifelong learning.

I agree with Stein that lifelong and continual learning is critical to success. He also feels that we are "moving from an era of 'universal schooling' to an era of 'lifelong learning.'"

That means that learning not only happens continually, but it occurs anywhere, not just in classrooms or in online spaces controlled by schools.

It is also important to lifelong learning that the learning is self-selected for the learner's needs, not because of the needs or limitations of the school's offerings.

That's why the Internet -without any help or interference from schools and educators - became such an important learning resource.

Classrooms are chock full of formal writing, and informal writing often doesn't carry much "weight" with teachers - and therefore not much weight with students. So, not surprisingly, formal educational  experiences like the typical course taken for credit and paid for by tax dollars or tuition are valued over informal learning experiences. That has always been true, still is true, but may not be true in the next decade or two.

When we discuss in/formal writing, we start with the easy modes. Everyone in the group agrees that the research paper is formal. Most teachers agree that student notes are informal. Someone always brings up text messages, twitter, Facebook and social media as informal. They probably also blame all that informality for the poor quality of the formal writing (and possibly for the decline of civilization).

But it's not a black and white topic.  That email to a friend asking if we are still on for a Friday movie seems clearly informal. But the cover email that has your reume attached for the job you really want at the company that only accepts electronic applications is definitely formal.

Perhaps, my students' lecture notes are informal in structure, not required and ungraded, but the lab notes for anatomy lab are very structured, required and a significant part of the course grade.

Our discussions always lead us to a series of similar conclusions, including observations like:
  • formal isn't formal just because of a grade or weight (though formal tends to be graded)
  • informal writing is often the best way to move towards formal writing
  • informal writing is often more "real world" and is more often done outside the classroom for personal reasons
  • informal writing often has a structure
  • the higher stakes nature of formal assignments allows less room for experimentation and risk-taking by students
  • teacher comments and intervention is important in the writing process and far less important (to students) when a formal graded paper is returned
How many of those conclusions are also true of lifelong learning experiences?

How might we compare the research a student does before buying a big-screen TV to the research they do on an author? Do they even consider the TV consumer research to be"research" in the same sense as the author assignment?  That's one reason why we prefer the term information literacy for assignments rather than research, which still makes students think about something that leads to a "research paper" rather than a well reasoned conclusion.

Are lifelong learners more likely to take risks with informal learning - such as when taking a free online course from a university or any provider? I would say that is an absolute "Yes."

Since I see the future of learning as being less formalized and less likely to be provided by traditional educational institutions, thinking about these distinctions is increasingly important. That may be especially true for formal institutions of learning who have the most to lose in this paradigm shift.

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