Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

22 January 2006

Informal University?

Clark @ 1:20 pm

I had lunch the other day with Jay Cross and we talked, among other things, about our mutual interest in his current campaign for informal learning (he’s got a forthcoming book on the subject). On my subsequent drive from Berkeley to Cal State Monterey Bay (I’ve been teaching a course there), I had a chance to think about the implications.

I wondered what would be covered at the Informal University; not a place where you learn informally (an oxymoron), but where you learn to learn informally. It fits nicely with my thoughts about what the new, wise, curriculum needs to be to cope with the increasing rate of change (where the half-life of information is much less than the length of a career). Just what do we need to know to be good informal (read: self-) learner?

Of course, we need to take a richer view of learning, so in addition to covering learning and meta-learning (learning to learn), we’d cover problem-solving and design, research, sources of data. We’d look at models, and systems-thinking. We’d also discuss tools, when, and how to effectively use them. And we’d talk about values, and wisdom.

I think, moving forward, that the type of curricula I want my kids seeing in school, and at university, will be to provide ways of thinking and attitudes, with less emphasis on core knowledge that will increasingly rapidly be out of date.


  1. Clark,

    You reminded me that in the late sixties I spent a couple of years in an alternative college started by a woman name Jean Worth. She had started the college readiness program for the College of San Mateo (CSM). CSM told Jean they were going to change her program…she said no, they said yes, she said no, they said yes and she founded her own college (eventually accredited and it lasted for 10 years – the average time an alternative college lasted in the 60′s was 5 years). It was in Woodside and called Common College. It was wonderful. You told the staff what you wanted to learn and how…they then figured out how to make it happen. I wanted to learn Geology/Geophysics…they asked me who I would like to work with and I mentioned a professor I enjoyed in a traditional setting. They hired him and we did a 1-year tutorial…HEAVEN…one on one…learning at my pace. I forgot about this experience, but it was wonderful. I think it had some wonderful informal qualities.


    Comment by bill daul — 24 January 2006 @ 3:52 am

  2. Some of the most inspiring programs I’ve seen at university level ask the students to develop their own curricula, find their own adjunct staff who are expert practioners in their fields, and then develop social networks, mentoring relationships, and field experiences. This model seems to foster the most challenging and inspiring environments for learning. But, wait a minute. Does a formal university (with high tuition, geographical limits, hierarchies and red tape) have to be the center of such a program? Universities do offer social crediblitiy, space, structure, and social support. Still, I’m not convinced that a community of committed learners couldn’t do better for ourselves. I am interested in finding others who are interested in forming communities of lifelong learners who are less interested in academic degrees and more interested in learning. Never mind that such ventures like Common College lasted only five years. Think of the impact that the experiences afforded its participants.

    Comment by patricia kambitsch — 18 February 2006 @ 7:10 am

  3. This sounds like a great idea, self-developed curricula, but you do need an oversight role, where someone’s evaluating the overall content, and supporting becoming a self-learner (I still don’t think you can assume that). Yes, universities may and probably will have to change, but I still see a role for that oversight, as well as their role as societal reflection (as diminished as it currently is), etc.

    Comment by Clark — 19 February 2006 @ 1:56 pm

  4. I graduated from Common College (I was the first graduate) and I am finding, 35 years later ,the learning there central to the choices I have made as to who I am (Aikido, Winemaking, Education,etc.).
    At first I thought I wanted to be a school teacher ,.At Common I was sent to different schools to apprentice and I discovered I could not deal with the authority model,i.e.:telling younger people who didn’t want the “plan ” imposed upon them, what to do, in a class of 15 – 35. It has taken me many years to find a model of authority that suits my teaching style and now I’m teaching peer mediation at public elementary schools here in Eugene Oregon
    I celebrate with my friend Bill Daul the experience at self direction assisted by Jean Wirth,Pete Abrahams, and a host of adjunct professors from Common College
    Mark Roberts

    Comment by Mark Roberts — 17 August 2007 @ 9:14 pm

  5. Mark, peer mediation sounds like an interesting choice for elementary education, and a great one. Right now I’m trying to get our elementary school to have a policy about mutual respect (as an anti-bullying move), because they don’t have one! I hadn’t heard about the Common College, and googling it hasn’t worked. I’d love to know more! Thanks for the story.

    Comment by Clark — 18 August 2007 @ 6:33 am

  6. Clark,If you’d like to find info.,”Common College Woodside”,or,”Common College Ed Roberts” will google

    Comment by Mark Roberts — 18 August 2007 @ 11:00 am

  7. also, are you familiar with Alfie Kohn?
    His book” Punished By Rewards” addresses the power of intrinsic motivation to promote cretive learning.
    I think that was the power of Common College and other schools that appeal to that which is intriguing to the student.

    Comment by Mark Roberts — 18 August 2007 @ 11:13 am

  8. Mark, thanks. My blog software doesn’t show me previous comments, so it was only getting your second google phrase that let me see that Bill Daul mentioned Common College when I first posted. I like that they guided your self-directed learning. If they also modeled learning so you learned to learn (and I assume so), it sounds very interesting…

    Re: extrinsic rewards, I recall in grad school hearing that while the initial results of removal of such incentives led to a decrease below baseline of the behavior, it eventually returned. That would be plausible if the culture really valued the behavior that was being rewarded, but not if it didn’t practice what was preached. Still, the issue reminds me of Peter Secretan’s notion of inspiration instead of motivation. It comes back to values, I reckon.

    Comment by Clark — 18 August 2007 @ 2:35 pm

  9. I was at Walden School an alternative school in Portola Valley loosely affiliated with Common College. For us the problem was absolutely no structure. To give teenagers who had not grown up with that idea for schooling, it was hard to find a direction. When you are told you can start any class you want, but you have to make it happen. It was to much for me and most of the other kids. I think at those ages you need to have enough structure to help get you started and keep you focused. My kids are home schooled, because of the lack of alternatives. Unfortunately funding makes it very difficult for alternative education, particularly below college ages where parents don’t expect to have to pay yet.

    Comment by Ben Doniach — 23 December 2007 @ 7:53 am

  10. I am 22, a student, looking for an alternative college. I am interested in art and design. What should I do? In addition, I am somehow also interested in teaching alternative learning at some level.

    Comment by Sandra Berman — 7 January 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  11. Sandra, the Academy of Art does distance art and design courses.

    Comment by Clark — 8 January 2009 @ 11:12 am

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