So there I was, thinking I had finally got it sorted out. Put simply, (and that’s part of the problem!), formal learning, non-formal learning and informal learning are different from each other and I could give some definitions to support that idea. Yes, everything depends on the context and the aims of the learner. In the family (informal); in a youth project (non-formal); in school (formal). Where I was beginning to get confused was in the whole question of whether you could distinguish specific methodologies which applied to one form of learning provision. Still, I thought, I work in non-formal education, and we don’t lecture people, we give “inputs”â€¦
Then I read the report called “Informality and Formality in Learning” and it shook up my world. By giving me a much more differentiated view of what we are trying to do. What Helen Colley and her colleagues from the Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Leeds make quite clear to me is that we are too anxious to separate the different forms of learning into little boxes. The temptation is obvious: if we put them in boxes then we can easily say one form of learning is better than the other; then we can put up arguments for more resources and funding and recognition.
It is difficult, if not dangerous, to try to summarise the report in this small space and the authors are very careful in framing their conclusions.
Nevertheless, it seems useful to highlight some of the points which made me put my thoughts into question, in the hope that you might go and have a closer look:
- One of the major findings of the research was that it may well be more sensible to see attributes of informality and formality as present in all learning situations. Attributes can be looked at in four clusters: process; location and setting; purposes; and content.
- Those attributes and their interrelationships influence the nature and effectiveness of learning. Changing the balance between formal and informal attributes changes the nature of the learning.
- All forms of learning have the potential to be either emancipatory or oppressive. This depends partly upon the balance and interrelationships between attributes of in/formality. However, the wider contexts in which that learning takes place are crucial in determining its emancipatory potential.
So, we need to look very carefully at the aims of the learning we are encouraging, look at the context and reflect more on the balance between the different attributes present in our planning. The report can help us to analyse what we do and be more explicit about what we are combining â€” and the authors are currently busy designing an analytical tool to give us further assistance. If we go deeper into this analysis, it helps to see that, for example, when we add attributes of formal learning to non-formal learning (such as certification) we change the nature of the learning.
Even though I have read the report a few times and thought about it a lot, I’m still not completely clear about all of the consequences of looking at different attributes of learning in this way. But it sure is liberating to break open the box I had constructed for myself! Discussing these ideas with a friend as I wrote the draft of this article, we thought it could be helpful to think of learning as a stream. A stream whose flow also depends on the conditions surrounding it. Maybe we can find some nice ways to extend the metaphor in the futureâ€¦ Or, like Bob Dylan, just sit here and watch the river flow.