Why Informal Learning is an Important Part of Future Success

Informal learning matters for students. This is my continued reflection on Will Richardson’s 9 Elephants in the Class(Room) That Should “Unsettle” Us. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out his original article. It is definitely worth the time and would make for a great discussion starter among educators.

And finally, we know that learning that sticks is usually learned informally, that explicit knowledge accounts for very little of our success in most professions.

In a world of democratized access to a broad range of knowledge, informal learning is taking on an even more important role. In fact, I’ve often described the capacity and extend of informal learning to be a significant part of the new digital divide. In the early days, the digital divide referred to those who did and did not have access to computers and the Internet. Then it was extended to include those who were restricted in their access and education with these items. Now we are at a point where we know that access is not equal. Those who just have access to digital technologies and the Internet in formal settings like school are lagging behind those who have access to these technologies during unstructured time.

Why is this the case? As best as we can tell, it is because this unstructured time is where young people get to direct their own learning. They hang out with others. They learn about networking. They learn how to set informal learning goals, establish a plan of action, and adjust that plan as they get feedback on how they are doing. Unstructured and informal learning is about growing as a learner, leveraging the power of passion-based learning, and learning for something other than a grade or because it was required or prescribed by some authority figure.

As such, this sort of informal learning is a place where people have the ability to develop the capacity for more self-directed approaches to lifelong learning. Those who do this and develop their skills in this area have an advantage over those who are persistently depending and submissive to authority figures who tell them what to learn, when to learn, and how to learn. While there are some jobs in the world where you are praised for just following the instructions of a micro-managing boss, the growing number of jobs are not that way. Those who gain opportunity for leadership positions show initiative. They identify problems and pursue solutions, often before a boss or another person even notices that it is a problem. They know how to play well with others and the importance of being a good follower at the right time, but they are also self-starters who are intrinsically motivated.

The greater the leadership position, the less orientation that you often get. This isn’t true across all industries but it is in many. In other words, the people who find the greatest success in terms of leadership and advancement know how to learn informally. They are not just good at doing what they are told. They can step into an ambiguous or complex and confusing context and find a way through it. They can bring order to chaos, direction to misguided efforts, energy and confidence to otherwise deflated contexts. These are the people who do more than take advantage of opportunities provided to them. They create opportunities.

All of this can be nurtured by informal learning. Yet, school is not a place that usually leaves much space for informal learning. Schools as learning communities are, by definition, frequently referred to as formal learning communities. Perhaps that is good and appropriate. Perhaps we could benefit from spending more time considering the implications of Sugata Mitra’s concepts around self-organized learning environments both in and outside of school.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.