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

8 September 2009

Driving formal & informal from the same place

Clark @ 8:01 AM

There’s been such a division between formal and informal; the fight for resources, mindspace, and the ability for people to get their mind around making informal concrete.  However, I’ve been preparing a presentation from another way of looking at it, and I want to suggest that, at core, both are being driven from the same point: how humans learn.

I was looking at the history of society, and it’s getting more and more complex. Organizationally, we started from a village, to a city, and started getting hierarchical.  Businesses are now retreating from that point of view, and trying to get flatter, and more networked.

Organizational learning, however, seems to have done almost the opposite. From networks of apprenticeship through most of history, through the dialectical approach of the Greeks that started imposing a hierarchy, to classrooms which really treat each person as an independent node, the same, and autonomous with no connections.

Certainly, we’re trying to improve our pedagogy (to more of an andragogy), by looking at how people really learn.  In natural settings, we learn by being engaged in meaningful tasks, where there’re resources to assist us, and others to help us learn. We’re developed in communities of practice, with our learning distributed across time and across resources.

That’s what we’re trying to support through informal approaches to learning. We’re going beyond just making people ready for what we can anticipate, and supporting them in working together to go beyond what’s known, and be able to problem-solve, to innovate, to create new products, services, and solutions.  We provide resources, and communication channels, and meaning representation tools.

And that’s what we should be shooting for in our formal learning, too. Not an artificial event, but presented with meaningful activity, that learners get as important, with resources to support, and ideally, collaboration to help disambiguate and co-create understanding.  The task may be artificial, the resources structured for success, but there’s much less gap between what they do for learning and what they do in practice.

In both cases, the learning is facilitated. Don’t assume self-learning skills, but support both task-oriented behaviors, and the development of self-monitoring, self learning.

The goal is to remove the artificial divide between formal and informal, and recognize the continuum of developing skills from foundational abilities into new areas, developing learners from novices to experts in both domains, and in learning..

This is the perspective that drives the vision of moving the learning organization role from ‘training’ to learning facilitator. Across all organizational knowledge activities, you may still design and develop, but you nurture as much, or more.  So, nurture your understanding, and your learners.  The outcome should be better learning for all.


  1. Clark, very thought-provoking post. Interesting how we’re going back to old-school paradigms, perhaps most notably catalyzed by the democratization of content, but resulting in dramatic shifts in PR, Marketing, and Learning. The locus of control has real impacts on the viable systems and practices for these disciplines.

    I’ve been giving a lot of mindshare lately to the convergence of formal and informal learning and I wonder if the critical success factor is in looking differently at where the entry point is for formal learning.

    Imagine, for example, that I have an application that will follow me as I browse and allow me to tell it on the front end what I’m browsing for (“How to Implement SEO Tactics,” for example)…and while I’m surfing, every time I come up on a great resource, I can tag it as part of that chain. Social bookmarking, of course, can facilitate this, but in addition, I want to be able to quickly add relevant assessments, document how I applied the learning at a specific phase, or augment the learning with some offline tricks or content. So, I come up on a great chain, I think of learning–only problem is, it’s still linear and from a single perspective, so I publish this in the social mindspace and others come along and add their suggestions, links, tricks, assessments, etc.

    We end up with a social learning tree, full of little chunks of learning. It’s still informal in terms of overall design and cohesiveness, but it’s structured in terms of the focus and the journey(s).

    Oh, and to add icing to the cake, let’s throw in some peer-to-peer certification. Instead of the cathedral being the certifying entity, let’s let the bazaar “vote up” the experts. Anyone for a little anarchy? Seriously, this latter idea has always intrigued me, but a simple implementation of it is not, IMHO, workable in an unethical society…too much fraud out there to open certification like that…although we do have a sort of informal metric of expertise related to online popularity. ;-) Joe

    Comment by Joe Fournier — 8 September 2009 @ 10:15 AM

  2. Great post Clark and an excellent reminder that whatever way we look at learning, it’s all about the learner who must be the central focus. When we change the focus so that the learner and the facilitator are partners in the learning process, then we open up a far broader perspective for creating enriching and sustaining learning environments (versus “training” events that are sometimes disjointed). In the web 2.0 and learning 2.0 world, the imperative (for organizations and individuals) is for engagement, collaboration, sharing, and co-creation. This is true partnership within the flattened, non-hierarchical world. 3D immersive learning environments such as Second Life are solidly built on these principles where space and presence also contribute to the richness of the learning, retention and application.

    Comment by Philip J. Power — 8 September 2009 @ 10:46 AM

  3. Joe, that up-front registration of intent is a huge opportunity, and I reckon extraordinarily difficult to make happen. I’ve often thought of having individuals open a ‘trouble ticket’ when they start problem-solving (read: searching), and they’re not let off the hook until the register where they found the answer or what they learned. But I reckon people avoid that extra overhead unless it’s a ‘forcing function’, or there’s serious WIIFM. Would love to be wrong!

    Phillip, couldn’t agree more on the partnering in the learning process, with both partners working to the success of the learning.

    Thanks for the contributions.

    Comment by Clark — 8 September 2009 @ 4:12 PM

  4. Joe’s suggestion seems like a technology mediated infusion of formality in independant skill pursuit. I agree with Clark, I think that in the current state of tech, this would be tough to pull off. But a human mediated infusion of formality, even by the learner or with some progressive scaffolds (concrete or living) could be well within reach. I’m guessing there are many great examples of ‘flexible learning journey guides.’

    This hits on a couple of the issues I see with informal learning. These are focus and motivation (volition). Most people, myself included, can sometimes (or all the time) have trouble setting goals for things that they don’t know or skills that they don’t possess. This is compounded by the fact that once you wade into that self directed journey you will invariably discover more than you expected, further fragmenting your original goals. It can be easy to get lost without good meta-learning skills and tough to finish without strong volition and / or discipline. External assistance is invaluable to folks that have these challenges (everyone to some degree.)

    Task progression guides and self-guided tools might be the trick to help in some areas of informal learning (minor formal infusion to help with focus and motivation.)

    The mention of task based and peer assisted learning is also pretty keen. I’m sure it already happens organically in most orgs. Aware of any studies of structured OJT or structured off the job learning?

    Comment by steve — 9 September 2009 @ 7:20 PM

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