Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Off-piste learning

We love to learn but are not so enthusiastic about being taught. That's the jist of an article I've just read on the news site e-Taalim, Bus routes and bike paths - Jay Cross on informal learning. Cross writes about the importance of informal learning and that most of what we learn in life takes place almost unconsciously. We learn best from discussions, trial and error and simply watching and applying. We are constantly testing and adapting our behaviour, methods and opinions.

Skiing on the rocks by C_Dave, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  C_Dave 

As I have written before, we have been lead to believe that learning takes place in a classroom setting with a predetermined syllabus and an expert who will lead us all to our learning objectives. Cross likens this to a bus trip whereas informal learning is more like riding a bike:

"Formal learning is like riding a bus. The driver decides where the bus is going; the passengers are along for the ride. On the opposite end, informal learning is like riding a bike: the rider chooses the destination, the speed, and the route. The rider can take a detour at a moment’s notice to admire the scenery or go to the bathroom.
Informal learning happens outside of the bus and the classroom. There’s no curriculum and no certificate of completion. It goes on all the time. Informal learning includes things like trying and failing, asking a colleague, reading a book, or watching television. Informal learning is how we learn about life. It’s how we make sense of things.
Formal learning–riding the bus–is great for novices. It’s efficient to have help getting the lay of the land and getting to the destination. Training departments are very talented at setting up bus routes."

What often goes on in formal settings is that the more ambitious learning soon tire of the slow pace of learning and go "off-piste" - often to the annoyance of the teacher who naturally wants to keep the group together. I've been on many training courses (and led them too) where  participants simply go off on their own, either moving on to more challenging tasks or simply switching off and dealing with e-mail or other work until the course becomes interesting again. It's a similar situation on charter tours where the more adventurous tourists tend to wander off on their own rather than sticking with the group.

People who wander away from the formal structure are often seen as being uninterested but the truth is often that they have lost interested in the formal process and prefer to find their own way. We need to find ways of providing a course environment which includes elements of structured learning but with plenty scope for own investigation and initiative.

For more thoughts on this topic read Jay Cross' Informal Learning Blog .

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