The Importance Of Informal Education: What It Is And Why It Matters

I attended a week-long conference for educators last year at Harvard Graduate School of Education. One of the speakers asked the audience what kinds of things they had learned that were not from formal classes or schooling. The audience offered a wide variety of topics from investing to woodworking. I briefly considered mentioning my own hobby of fire breathing… but didn’t want to throw the topic off with people wanting to know why the heck I would take up such an activity.

The instructor asked where each person learned their craft. For quite a few, the answer was YouTube. Some learned from friends. And of course, many read books or visited websites. In my case, I hired a professional circus performer because I knew the consequences of a mistake in lighting a big breath of liquid paraffin into a massive burst of flames just inches in front of my face could be quite painful, if not fatal. But the most interesting part about this discussion was the idea that, more than anything else, Informal Education teaches us our learning doesn’t stop when school ends.

Long ago, I read a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Neil Postman & Charles Wingartner). I thought that schools needed a solid dose of this concept. However, not in the common interpretation of “let the kids learn whatever they want to learn” as much as making learning applicable to something of interest to the student. As well, I appreciated the chapter that bestowed upon the teachers the daunting task of helping students develop a strong “BS Detector”. This idea has never been more important than now in the Age of (Mis) Information.

Formal schooling serves a very important function in providing a foundation upon which to build our own inquiries. You will have a hard time getting the information you need to pursue your interest if you do not know how to read and write. You won’t be able to make sufficient estimates or question internet memes that contain questionable statistics if you don’t know math. History, myth, and literature teach us about humanity through time… what we did, why we did it, and whether the climate is becoming ripe for us to repeat atrocities we thought would never come to bear again.

Children need education. And yes, they do need at least some memorization. But as the foundation is being laid, they also need something very different: They need to be encouraged to tackle problems with no clear answer. Even better: Diving into problems that no one immediately knows how to approach with certainty. This is because at the highest level of innovation they will constantly find themselves in the state of “no one has done this before”.

My youngest daughter, Gwen, is working as a Physicist for the summer at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. They have shut down the Large Hadron Collider and a large team of Particle Physicists are working on a massive upgrade. Gwen is an undergrad at Cornell University and was accepted into a small program to spend the spring semester of her junior year at CERN. This internship was then extended into the summer as she continued her research work. Gwen is the one undergrad on her entire team who are almost entirely PhDs. She was given an assignment to program custom circuit boards for the CMS detector. The upgrade she is working on will go into effect in 7 years.

When Gwen was handed the assignment, she was told that no one knew how to do what she was being asked to do. She would have to figure it out and then report back to the team. They could provide feedback and suggestions… but she was going to have to forge her own path. Meanwhile, the other team members were doing the same with their own assignments. This is because what they are trying to accomplish at CERN has never been done before on any machine, let alone the largest and most complex machine ever created by mankind.

When I talked to Gwen about this, she said that it was a little intimidating at first. Because as a student in school or college, you know you have a teacher, with answers, whom you can turn to if you are truly stumped. In this endeavor, however, everyone is in a constant state of trying to “figure it out”. Since there have been many people in the past who have used coding to accomplish goals that can be related to her project, Gwen spends quite a bit of time reading and researching what others have done.  Then, building off of these resources, she combines approaches and tries different paths… essentially just “messing around” with the coding to try and see what fits her objective. She also mentioned that one hurdle she had to overcome was letting go of achieving specific outcomes in a specific time frame – which is what a lot of formal education focuses on. Instead, there are checkpoints where the teams meet and individuals give presentations on their work. The focus is more on showing progress than on having concrete expectations around what is being produced.

I recall one scientist saying that most discoveries come less from having the right answers as much as having the right questions. But having the right questions is often not the focus of formal primary and secondary education (although it tends to get into much more exploration at the college level). Innovation requires us to learn a process of forming an inquiry. We need to let go of the idea that inquiry is innate. We may all be capable of asking questions. But if we lack foundational knowledge, we can waste a great deal of time asking questions that don’t address the challenge.

I don’t think the answer to raising innovative students is to abandon formal education. We do need foundational knowledge in order to build our inquiry. However, I think the strength of Informal Education makes more space for learning the process of inquiry. The process of Informal Learning is self-directed, learner-controlled, and present in most of our lives on a regular basis. It’s part of a child’s daily life when they play, such as building structures out of sticks or containers. As adults, we still come upon this in our own life routinely. Just think of the last time you looked up a solution to a problem you had on the internet.

There are many aspects of Informal Education and Learning that deserve comprehensive discussion and exploration. For example, Formal Education uses the “Push” model of education delivery: Teachers present information that the student receives. Informal Education uses the “Pull” model:  Students reach out and locate the information they need to solve the problem at hand. The former is assigned work that is often based in a grade (pass/fail). The latter is utilized by individuals who have an immediate need or interest that is based in performance (how well does it get the job done), to satisfy a curiosity, or for formulate an informed opinion. I see this repeatedly with digital natives (the generations who have grown up with the internet). If they want to know what kind of plant is in front of them, they can take a picture with their cell phone, upload it to the app called Seek, and it displays the name, genus, species, and other important information about the plant.

One of the biggest differences between Informal Learning and Formal Learning, however, is that the learning is driven by the learner and based on the learner’s desired outcome. Because of this, a higher level of motivation is often a driving factor in the learning process. It is easier to stay focused, work long hours, and be resilient when the learner has ownership over both the process and the outcome. Don’t believe me? Just watch a video-gamer learning a new game. They will ignore sleep and food as they become immersed in the process.

Another important aspect of Informal Education is that failure isn’t just allowable, it’s necessary. Failure is an equivalent building block to success. Knowing what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing what works… and why. Ask anyone involved in innovation and they will tell you a long history of failures that led to the resulting service, product, or discovery. Failure is part of the process – not a punishable offense.

The challenge before us is that Informal Education has to meet the needs of the Informal Learner. With the power of the internet and massive databases of information, the focus can be more about curating information than creating it. However, then we need to figure out how to best present the information in a way that the learner can find it most readily, which is essentially the largest task of most modern search engines. There also has to be a consideration for which medium the information is relayed through – written instructions, video, online mentoring, story-telling, augmented reality? The method is often determined by the learner’s problem:

  • How urgently is the solution needed?
  • What are the consequences if the provided answer is wrong?
  • What is my preferred learning style?
  • What is my current knowledge base or need for additional context?

There are many more questions that we need to answer. But thankfully, the topic is also the answer. So let’s move forward with the understanding that education doesn’t stop at the school exit.

Let’s explore how and why people learn – both intentionally and incidentally. Presenting information in a manner that is both discoverable and applicable will be our biggest challenge as we collect more and more answers that are stepping stones to problems we have not yet identified. Through this process, along with collaboration and non-stop inquiry, we can inspire the innovation that is necessary for solving the most significant challenges before us… whether that’s how to breathe fire, or how to upgrade a particle accelerator.



About the Author: Meghan Gardner is the founder of Guardian Adventures which licenses Wizards & Warriors and Zombie Summer Camps, programs and events. These educational camps and events are the STEM and story-based experience we all wanted to attend as a kid – where instead of watching movies or playing video games about heroes, mythological creatures, mystery, and adventure, they get to live it. Kids and teens spend the summer playing a character of their own design and fighting monsters with foam swords or NERF Blasters, physics, biology, chemistry, and more.

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