Overcoming Bipolar Thinking

by Jay Cross on December 24, 2010

Learning is a continuum of degrees of formality • BY JAY CROSS

In the five years since the publication of Informal Learning, I’ve become the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning. I didn’t invent the concept. Informal learning is older than civilization. My contribution has been pointing out that overemphasis on formal learning in organizations is dysfunctional, uneconomic, bad business, and not a whole lot of fun.

Formal learning is characterized by a curriculum, i.e., content chosen by someone other than the learner. Delivered in courses or workshops or semesters or degree programs, episodes of formal learning always come to an end, although learning never does. Completion of a formal learning experience is generally celebrated by awarding a grade, certificate, degree, checkmark in an LMS or other symbol.

Often, formal learning is delivered to many people at once. It’s like riding a bus. The bus follows the same route to the same destination, regardless of the needs or desires of the passengers. It’s efficient. By contrast, informal learning is like riding a bicycle. The rider chooses his or her destination and changes the route at will. People who set their own direction are more likely to get where they want to go and enjoy the journey.

The analogy breaks down because you can ride a bus or a bike, but not both at once. Learning, however, is not either-or. It is always part formal — common language, shared context, fundamentals — and informal — social, learning outside the classroom. The learner accepts or rejects what’s presented formally.

Learning is a continuum of degrees of formality. The challenge is choosing among shades of gray. People who tell me informal or formal learning is bad oversimplify reality; I call their thinking bipolar.

Permit me to answer the critics of informal learning, usually people who confuse learning and schooling.

Question: How do we know that informal learning works?
Answer: How did you learn to walk, to talk, to kiss a sweetheart or to be productive in society?

Question: Isn’t informal learning an erosion of discipline and control?
Answer: Informal means unbounded, not haphazard. It’s a better way to work. If you have high expectations of people, they live up to them. Management control is largely fiction anyway.

Question: What’s the ROI? We’re not going to do this without proof.
Answer: Hold on. Informal learning is already the primary way your people learn their jobs. By paying attention, you make what’s already going on more productive.

Question: Where is the evidence that 80 percent of job learning is informal?
Answer: Multiple reputable studies have come up with the 80 percent figure. Of course, this varies by job. More importantly, the studies predate the Web. In our world of social networks and collaboration software, I’m confident the number for informal has risen much higher than 80 percent.

Formal learning is ideal for novices. People without a framework and vocabulary for dealing with an area that is foreign to them can learn a lot from formal courses and workshops. Imagine trying to master mathematics or chemistry by hanging out around the water cooler. Better to dip into the wisdom of the ages.

Formal learning doesn’t work so well for accomplished practitioners. Once people have a mental tapestry for how things work, they are looking to fill in holes in their knowledge. They want to learn what they need to know to get something done. ‘laking a course to learn one small item is a waste of lime and an insult to a practitioner’s prior learning.

By the way, this is what’s behind the “informal learning paradox,” the fact that corporations invest most heavily in formal learning while workers learn mostly through informal means. Corporate training focuses on novices. It’s school. Schools neglect alumni, and training departments neglect the experienced people, those who generate the profits.

Once upon a time, people were paid to follow instructions. We thought we could train them to do their jobs. Now, work is more like improv theater. Workers have to solve problems on the fly. They confront situations no one has encountered before. They must perform on the spot. And the only way they can keep up is by learning for themselves. Learning has become the work.

Instructional designers used to design programs. Today they need to invest in building learning environments that enable workers to take learning into their own hands.

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