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You are here You are here: Home Study Informal Learning
  Informal Learning  
Introduction

complex world 230

Informal learning is semi-structured and occurs in a variety of places, such as learning at home, work, and through daily interactions and shared relationships among members of society.  For many learners this includes language acquisition, cultural norms and manners.  Informal learning for young people is an ongoing process that also occurs in a variety of places, such as out of school time, as well as in youth programs and at community centers.

In the context of corporate training and education, the term Informal Learning is widely used to describe the many forms of learning that takes place independently from instructor-led programs:

   ■ books
   ■ self-study programs
   ■ performance support materials and systems   

■ coaching
■ communities of practice
■ expert directories

Informal Knowledge

Informal learning can be characterized as follows:

  • It often takes place outside educationalestablishments standing out from normal life and professional practice;
  • It does not necessarily follow a specified curriculum and is not often professionally organized but rather originates accidentally, sporadically, in association with certain occasions, from changing practical requirements;
  • It is not necessarily planned pedagogically conscious, systematically according to subjects, test and qualification-oriented, but rather unconsciously incidental, holisticallyproblem-related, and related to situationmanagement and fitness for life;
  • It is experienced directly in its "natural" function of everyday life.

Informal knowledge is information that has not been externalized or captured and exists only inside someone’s head. To get at the knowledge, you must locate and talk to that person.

Examples of such informal knowledge transfer include instant messaging, a spontaneous meeting on the Internet, a phone call to someone who has information you need, a live one-time-only sales meeting introducing a new product, a chat-room in real time, a chance meeting by the water cooler, a scheduled Web-based meeting with a real-time agenda, a tech walking you through a repair process, or a meeting with your assigned mentor or manager.

Experience indicates that almost all real learning for performance is informal, and the people from whom we learn informally are usually present in real time. We all need that kind of access to an expert who can answer our questions and with whom we can play with the learning, practice, make mistakes, and practice some more. It can take place over the telephone or through the Internet, as well as in person. Informal access is not built into the formal learning process, the chances of getting past knowing to doing will be difficult at best.

Our vision of ‘whole life learning’ embraces the ideas of ‘life-long learning’, ‘life-wide-learning’ and ‘personal wellbeing’

Informal Learning: Untapped

Informal Learning: The Untapped Resource Of Enterprise Training Departments

Informal learning is the realization that we need not force senior staff and self-directed work professionals into training straightjackets and classrooms hoping to be able to enahnce their innate desire for learning and improving their skills and ability to use them in real world applications.

Formal training is good for novices, for those who are about to start understanding a new field, its territory, vocabulary and language. When you are at the beginning the things you absolutely need to know are pretty much the same for everyone joining in like you.

spectrum_of_learning

But as you progress in your process of learning, your interests, doubts, questions and desire to explore related directions will rapidly diverge from the ones of your former novice mates.

You can't really pre-package know-how, expertise and skills into trainging classes that are supposed to help people learn how to do manage, communicate and interact within their organizations. The needs are too diverse, and the speed at which individuals learn what they are interested in varies a great deal.

Why, then large organizations spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to traing their staff in very traditional, highly pre-packaged, formal training programs?

The answer is lack of information: they themselves rely on old, outdated assumptions and research on what really works when it comes to organizational training and to this day, have not yet realized that their contribution to the overall institutional growth, is often smaller than 1%.

Formal learning inside large organizations does not produce very effective results nonetheless it is, in some cases, the only solution adopted.

"The best learning happens in real life, with real problems and real people, and not in the classrooms."

Many of you have known all this all along the way. Most learning takes place naturally, its informal, you grab it by working with other people and talking to them and 80% of more of what you know about how to do your jobs you have learned from informal learning.

Nonetheless the above, large organizations ironically spend the largest part of their internal development budgets on formal learning even though this is proven to be less effective, more expensive and less liked than other forms of learning.

If you look at the larger picture of improving worker performance inside an organization and at the many possible ways in which to modify, affect and change workers' behaviour, you will see that formal training accounts for only 10% of those change effective tools and approaches.

More interesting is the fact that within that 10% of training, 80% of the learning taking place is indeed informal. It is generated by people asking to each other how to do something, or by you going and observing a more senior colleague performing the task, or by reading about it from doing your own research online, or better yet from a mix of all those.

In reality, your training department is only doing 20% of the real training work needed, and sad to say only 20% of what is taught inside training departmern courses and workshops is actually successully transferred to the real job.

So if you now take 20% of 20% of 10%, you end up with less than 1% of behavioural change attributable to your organization expenditure in "formal learning".

According to Jay Cross, a renowned world expert on organizational learning, who has spent most of his 2005 doing active research on this subject, companies have not yet started to realize the importance of supporting and facilitating informal learning activities, which, according to his research, would amount to 80% of all that is learned inside a large organization.

Jay's research endeavour has not been driven by academic reasons. Being Jay Cross a business man, his interest was rather focused on going beyond words, theories and theoretical new ideas and fully into the pragmatical field of people's performance. His research is also going to be published as physical, printed book from Pfeiffer, which will be published in the late fall of this year.

If you look at the history of evolution, both in the fields of governance and in the one of learning, you may see a clearly distinct pattern which repeats itself: organization of governance or learning has evolved from chaotic and unorganized, spontaneous behaviour, to directed, top-down, hierarchical approaches and finally into distributed, peer-to-peer, networked and self-directed informal approaches.

Call it "tacit work", "improv wisdom", informal learning is already all around you even if you have not yet started paying attention to it in a conscious way.

Not only.

According to McKinsey (The Next Revolution in Interactions), tacit work is in much greater demand, it is growing at a faster rate and it is paid more than other types of work.

In fact if you think of it yourself of how much work in your organization is really clearly structured, executive implementation of a clearly defined set of steps and how much is instead discretionary decision-making, empirical evaluation of alternative solutions or assessment of new resources based on exchanges with colleagues, you can see how large and critical is the knowledge and skill space that is not born out of the trainging department classrooms.

A lot of training programs are designed to provide basic, start-up skills that are only good for novices. The problem though is that there is no room for shooting beyond that level. If you have some high performers, individuals that want to go beyond the basic knowledge, it is much harder to design courses that offer them the true opportunity to learn according to their true abilities.

This is the real issue.

But hasn't informal learning been around for ages? Isn't this available to anyone when they need it?

While informal learning has indeed been around since humankind has started to organize and communicate with her peers, the key factor that comples us today to face this issue with different eyes is the speed of change at which things are happening now. As Jay Cross says it "we are at an inflection point", one in which the amount of stuff that goes on in our lives, professional and not, is just short of amazing.

Here is one figure that says it all: In the twenty-first century there will be as much change and happenings as in the equivalent of 20,000 20th century-like years pulled together into one. Source: KurzweilAI.net

This is why, when the pace of change is fast, being able to adapt, to inform oneself effectively in order to make smart decisions becomes of the uttermost importance. Change is a driver for learning. The more and the faster the change, the greater the need for proportionally faster and more effective learning.

And this is why in fast and chaotic times like these, those that will survive and succeed will be indeed those that are best at learning, not those that have most physical assets, resources, money or property.

What are the key differences between "formal" and "informal" learning?

The degree formality is one of the factors that makes most of the difference. In Jay's view "formal learning" is like riding a bus, while "informal learning" could be paralleled to driving a car or riding a bycicle.

But what are the pros and cons of each?

Well, going with a bus is great as long as the bus is going where you need to go and you have got time to leave the driving to someone else. Like with many courses, seminars and workshops, bus riding is very useful when you need to take several other people along the way. It does take some time to lay out a new bus route and so it is only common sense to use the bus for those journeys where the trip needs to be done more than once.

bus_novice_learner

Informal learning is instead like driving a car or riding a bycicle.  It is worth the extra expense (gasoline, dedicated equipment, etc.) because it allows custom learning. Informal learning is achieved by asking, searching, observing, talking to others.

bicycle_senior_learner

Riding a bike is like driving a car, but with the added possibility to stop more easily and to help others, to coach and enjoy with a small group the beautiful view offered by a side, impervious road, to experiment and try out unmapped trails, to sit down and rejoyce with fellow bikers about the ride and the discoveries that came with it.

Informal learning may include reflecting, mentoring, storytelling, nurturing, modelling, connecting, giving feedback to others, as well as learning for longer perspectives and higher purposes.

That's why informal learning open the doors to a more customizable, personal learning experience, that can provide much greater rewards to those expert, senior knowledge workers, for which bus riding is nothing but lost time.

old_and_new_learning

How can you support, facilitate and encourage greater informal learning activities in your company?

What Jay Cross has found to be largely missing inside organizations is an appropriate balance between formal training infrastructures and informal learning ones. If you look around yourself, it seems that informal learning is completely ignored in most organizations and that no tools, facilities or appropriate working environments are made available to further support and facilitate independent and self-driven informal learning activities by high performers inside the organization.

This is why the best cure in this direction is to to encourage your organization to start questioning more the validity of providing learning opportunities and facilities that satisfy only a very small percentage of its workforce while greatly handicapping the high performance workers and self-directed learners within it.

What Jay Cross advocates is what he calls "Free-range learning": putting the learners in the driver seat.

But again, what are the tools that you or your organization can use to favour greater informal learning? Here are some that you can start leveraging now:

1) Visualization

visualization_diagram

Stop focusing on using only text-based communications in training and learning activities. Invest in improving resources and tools that enable knowledge workers to communicate more rapidly and effectively. Provide information design, data visualization and visual communication resources, including knowledgebases, examples and audio-visual presentations allowing individual learners to improve their visual communication skills through more informal learning approaches.

2) Conversations

dinner_conversation

Conversations virtual or physical are once again at the center of our work universes. Like in old times when the marketplace was the center of the conversations that allowed business to thrive, today again, thanks again to the virtual village created by the Internet, conversations are the main vehicle to learn, dicover, promote and market just about anything. Jay Cross says that conversations are "the stemcells of intellectual capital" and I could not agree more with him.

3) Connections, Connections, Connections

networkmap

Establishing virtual, human and physical connections (instant messaging, blogs, wikis, etc.) and making sure that these are also understood, analyzed and supported as best as it is possible to facilitate informal learning behaviours is also of critical importance.

Bottom line is that you and I need to learn how to get better at getting better. The pace of change has getting too fast for us to handle everything with one set of tools only. We need to focus more on how we learn and provide greater opportunities for informal, self-directed learning opportunities.

Great, effective learning takes place when you start treating organizations and professionals within it as a living thing, and not just as numbers that need to be trained according to one, predefined set of terms and information bits. Individuals are not just input boxes. They all need environments in which they can carry out rich and effective communications, build social networks and in which they can find the tools mand resources they need to investigate, learn and understand the things in which they are interested the most.

Teachers

from: Wisdom of Yoga

"As rivers in their flowing reach their home in the ocean and cast off their names and forms, even so one who knows is delivered from name and form and reaches the Supreme beyond the Most High." - Mundaka Upanishad

Each one of us is a river. Our life flows a unique course as we wind and search our ways through life. Eventually we shall reach the eternal ocean of existence and consciously merge with God. Until that moment we wind on.

As we journey towards the unknown shore it is of great value to have a teacher, a guide, from whom to take guidance and council. A genuine spiritual teacher has reached that great sea and has turned around to help other individuals find their own way to Truth.

As we journey towards infinity we look upon ourselves and the world, and our minds are besieged by an endless stream of questions concerning the meaning of life, death, the physical realm, the realm of spirit and energy, the solar system, the universe and our lives.

We can spend a lifetime bouncing from one question to the next and yet never truly understand our own lives and the significance of our existence.

The journey is long and challenging, yet even the longest journey begins with a first step. In order to travel we must embark. We must commit to movement, to action, although many of us fear movement and changes.

In any journey it is helpful to have a guide, someone who can help us in times of difficulty. Often, we do not venture forth due to fear. A good guide, a teacher, quells our fear and gives us confidence during our journey. An old Indian adage says: "When the student is ready, the teacher appears."

Sri Chinmoy has a beautiful poem that talks about this journey. You have a multitude of questions, But there is only one answer: The road is right in front of you, And the guide is waiting for you. How can it be that to a multitude of questions there is only one answer? Perhaps we are offered a clue to this mystery in the Isha Upanishad: "In the heart of all things, of whatever is in the universe, dwells the Lord. He alone is reality." To truly know something, we must probe to its very heart. That is how we will find the answers to our questions.

The poet William Blake wrote: To see a world in a grain of sand And a Heaven in a wild flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

The road to knowledge and understanding is right in front of us. Whatever question we pursue wholeheartedly will bring us to the ultimate truth of life. Inactivity will not bring us towards our goal. Only when we begin to move do we discover the answer. The road, the path we must take, is directly in front of us: it is in an awareness of our lives, thoughts, actions and circumstances that we can discover the essence of life.

There are no valid excuses as to why we cannot begin our journey towards Truth. Jesus spoke of "each man taking up his cross and following me." This means accepting our lives, circumstances and situations; taking responsibility and beginning our journey towards understanding. By beginning, we are sure to succeed if we continue until our goal is won.

Having a good guide will prove essential in this quest. Jesus said: "I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but he shall find for himself the light of life." -John 8:12 Notice in this passage that Jesus says, ". . . he shall find for himself. . ." The seeker will find.

Just because one decides to have a guide does not take away the responsibility of the seeker to tread the path towards Truth. Having taken the help of a guide does not diminish our achievement, rather, it only hastens it.

To have a genuine spiritual teacher is a great blessing. The Buddha, speaking 500 years before the birth of Jesus, said: "He who takes refuge in the Buddha, the Law and the Order; he who with clear understanding sees. . . having gone to that refuge, a man is delivered from all suffering." -XIV: 189-192 These words are quite similar to those of Jesus: "Come to me, all who labor and carry burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and meek in my heart, and you will find rest for your souls." -Matthew 11: 28-29.

Lao Tzu describes the state of a true spiritual teacher, one who firmly resides in the realm of Truth: "He who, conscious of his own light, is content to be obscure, he shall be the whole world's model; his virtue will never fail. He reverts to the Absolute."

The Qur'an speaks of teachers and the guidance they offer: "Muhammad is only a messenger; and many a messenger has gone before him." A spiritual teacher is truly a messenger-he or she stands as an intermediary between God and humanity, relaying man's aspiration and longing to God and God's Compassion and Blessings to man.

The concept of a spiritual teacher being a messenger helps convey the humility genuine teachers possess. Humility abounds in a true teacher.

The road to understanding, to true knowledge, is right in front of us and a guide is waiting to help us. All we must do is take that first step, begin our journey, and all will be shown to us.

The first step undoubtedly requires great courage, but that courage is intensified if we have a guide to help us in our journey. The degree of our sincerity and determination will bring us a teacher of equal sincerity and understanding.

As has been said, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears."

When the student is ready the teacher is everywhere. - Ancient Sufi quote

Teaching/Learning Quotations

"By learning you will teach, by teaching you will learn."

"By learning you will teach; by teaching you will understand."
- Latin Proverb

Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.
- Chinese Proverb

If you would thoroughly know anything, teach it to others.
- Tryon Edwards

We learn by teaching.
- James Howel

To teach is to learn twice.
- Joseph Joubert

When one teaches, two learn.
- Robert Half

"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest."

"Acquire new knowledge whilst thinking over the old, and you may become a teacher of others."
- Confucius

"He who dares to teach must never cease to learn."

"Wise men learn by other men's mistakes, fools by their own."

“Teachers teach more by what they are than by what they say.”

“To learn and never be filled, is wisdom; to teach and never be weary, is love.”
- Anonymous

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
- Alvin Toffler

A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence stops.
- Henry Adams

Those who educate children well are more to be honored than parents, for these only gave life, those the art of living well.
- Aristotle

Whatever you want to teach, be brief.
- Horace

"I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers."

"The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind."
- Kahlil Gibran

Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.
- Plato

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.
- William A. Ward

Knowledge exists to be imparted.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.
- Thomas Carruthers

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.
- Mark Van Doren

A man should first direct himself in the way he should go. Only then should he instruct others.
- Buddha

Never try to teach a pig to sing....it wastes your time and annoys the pig.
- Anonymous

“Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance. In teaching we rely on the "naturals," the ones who somehow know how to teach.”
- Peter F. Drucker

You teach what you have to learn. It is not necessary to have achieved perfection to speak of perfection. It is not necessary to have achieved mastery to speak of mastery.
- God from Conversations with God (Book 3) through Neale Donald Walsch

Cooperative Learning

One of the most exciting developments in modern education goes by the name of cooperative (or collaborative) learning and has children working in pairs or small groups.

An impressive collection of studies has shown that participation in well-functioning cooperative groups leads students to feel more positive about themselves, about each other, and about the subject they're studying.

Students also learn more effectively on a variety of measures when they can learn with each other instead of against each other or apart from each other.

Cooperative learning works with kindergartners and graduate students, with students who struggle to understand and students who pick things up instantly; it works for math and science, language skills and social studies, fine arts and foreign languages.

Alfie Kohn from Punished By Rewards

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