Learning to formalize informal learning

When we don't already know how to formalize informal learning, there's a lot to learn. We can welcome the challenge if the process of learning is informal enough to engage us. We can dread learning how to formalize informal learning if the process is too formal.

Whenever we're formalizing informal learning, it's a formal requirement that we welcome useful mistakes. Without productive errors, we won't know how we can get our understanding or practice wrong. We may assume incorrectly that there can never be too much of a good thing or we may fall short of enough effort to succeed. When making mistakes like these help to develop our competencies, we can take our setbacks in stride. When we have learned from our mistakes, we feel like we've really taught ourselves what we know. What we learned then appears to be something that can be learned, but not taught to us, because we have to learn it for ourselves. Our own mistakes became our teachers instead of relying formal instruction, requirements, testing or practice drills. The formal requirement to encourage useful mistakes invites us to engage in a bounty of informal learning.

When you're learning to formalize informal learning, you haven't really begun until you find out for yourself that you have over formalized the learning, formalized formal learning instead or relied too much on informal learning emerging on its own.

Whenever we're formalizing informal learning, it's also a formal requirement that scatter what needs to be learned amidst many different places, people or contexts. Without going on a search for new ideas, skills and strategies, we won't enjoy a sense of adventure. We may rely excessively on authorities to give us the answers and then act helpless when we're expected to act on our own. When we discover what we need to know by looking for it on our own, we end up with more curiosity than before. We then entertain more questions, open ourselves to more possibilities and explore more avenues that intrigue us. Our own inquiries become our teachers instead of formal presentations that involve no discoveries at all. The formal requirement to scatter what needs to be learned results in lots of informal explorations and satisfying realizations.

When you're learning to formalize informal learning, don't take it from this write up. Look for people who are doing it successfully, how they differ from those who are not and what facets of their situations facilitate their sense to formalize informal learning effectively.

Formalizing informal learning also requires us to walk learners through scenarios up to the point where they have unlearned their misconceptions. Without providing assistance to expose false premises, to reveal partial understandings and to challenge half truths, we may go off on misguided adventures. We may start out overconfidently, get shot down and then lose our confidence in a hurry. When we've been guided to through the of labyrinth of misunderstandings, we become well oriented to take it from there. We can proceed with a sense of the pitfalls to watch for, the tempting conclusions to avoid and the misleading signs to read with suspicion. We remain confident as we journey forward into unknown territory. We achieve early successes that become good habits with continued advances.

When you're learning to formalize informal learning, you may assume nothing can go wrong until you fall for any these pitfalls and get quickly discouraged:
  • Providing bad examples of conduct, speech or thought processes (hypocrites, incompetents, egomaniacs, etc) for learners to emulate and imitate
  • Leaving the learners with too many choices which undermines their abilities to make up their minds and to choose wisely
  • Giving the learners too much to figure out on their own rather than an open framework to fill in creatively
  • Bombarding the learners too much content in hopes it will be stimulating, rather than killing their appetite for further self exploration
Knowing to beware of these pitfalls, an adventure lies before you. How can you formalize informal learning in ways that produce the results you want with the people you're serving? How can they pick up the ball and run with it informally after the formal handoff from you? How can you set them up to find out for themselves what needs to be realized by them, not told to them?

As you may have already been realizing as you read this, formal learning poses the opposite requirements from those of formalized informal learning:
  • Instead of encouraging useful mistakes, formal learning penalizes mistakes. Formal learning presumes that mistakes are made from a lack of paying attention, insufficient studying, or poor academic skills. There's nothing useful about mistakes in developing comprehension and competencies. Mistakes are only useful to identify who deserves bad grades, remedial assignments and identification as a deficient learner.
  • Instead of scattering what needs to be learned, formal learning delivers required content in centralized locations like classrooms and books. Formal learning opposes adventurous exploration as opportunities to lose focus, get distracted and become unproductive. Time spent looking for answers is viewed by advocates of formal learning as time taken away from covering as much material as possible in the given time.
  • Instead of assisting students in unlearning their misconceptions, formal learning assumes errors will get obliterated by providing more content. Unlearning could only cause learners to understand less, become more easily confused and appear poorly informed. Expertise is comprised of knowing more than others so they can be properly informed, corrected and advanced through the requirements.

I've been thinking since I wrote everything above earlier today, that there is a fourth requirement when we're formalizing informal learning. It's been called "giving an incomplete", "giving an open specification for what is expected but not how to achieve it" or providing the framework for the learners to in-fill in their own ways". You can take it from there and figure out this one on your own. That way I'll be giving you an example of fulfilling this requirement and setting up your own informal learning. By the way, that may be yet another formal requirement: providing an example worth imitating........


  1. Tom, you're talking about institutionalizing informal learning, not formalizing it. No need to deal in seeming paradoxes in order to do the right thing. Happy New Year!


  2. Serendipitous New Year to you, Jay!