What Counts? How Informal Learning is Challenging Formal Education

Learning on our own has never been easier and potentially more powerful than it is today given our access to the people, information, and tools on the Internet. It begs the question, should the only learning that “counts” be that which occurs in a classroom? Will Richardson takes a look at new attempts to give credit to informal learning and the important implications for how we prepare our kids for their futures.

Two years ago, 15-year-old Jack Andraka from Maryland developed a pancreatic cancer test that was 168 times faster and considerably cheaper than the gold standard in the field at the time, a test he created primarily through his research on the Internet.

At the same time, 14-year-old Jacob Arnott from Melbourne, Australia was in London covering the Australian Summer Olympic team for the news website he’d started when he was 12, “The Sporting Journal.”

And for the last three years, 12-year old Super Awesome Sylvia Todd has been teaching millions of viewers on her YouTube channel to create all sorts of interesting science experiments and technology tools.

All great stories, and just a few of the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of kids who are doing great, authentic work in the world both online and off. But aside from having that in common, here’s what else those three kids share: none of their work “counted” in their formal education. It didn’t happen in a classroom, no one assessed it, and it wasn’t a part of the curriculum. In fact in Jack’s case, it was even discouraged.

From a school standpoint, it’s like it never existed.

So here’s the challenging question you need to start asking: why not? If our students can now pursue their interests outside school walls by taking advantage of the resources they have via the access to the Web, and if they can create really interesting, in some cases life-changing work that lives in the real world, why shouldn’t that find space in our definition of what it means to be educated?

Well, here’s the news: it’s going to soon. And when it does, the implications for how we think about “an education” will be huge.

When Informal Learning Counts

How do we prepare our students to take advantage of the opportunities for passion-based, self-determined learning that can occur outside the classroom walls?

Efforts to credential the informal learning that we and our kids can do using the technologies and online spaces that are beginning to rule the day have been going on for a few years now, spearheaded primarily by the Mozilla Foundation and its Open Badges initiative. Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, says “the way we recognize learning is desperately outdated.” And he’s right. Traditionally, “learning” is the stuff that’s easy to assess — the numbers on the report card or state tests. But that narrow definition is becoming increasingly problematic in the modern world.

Today, we’re finding instances of badges and accreditation systems all over the place online. Khan Academy, for example, is just one of many online learning sites that award badges for successful completion of curriculum. Or DIY, which is a place for younger kids to work through challenges and gain skills, offers badges and a “badge backpack.” Recently, Pearson announced its own proprietary badge system based on the Mozilla standards which will allow learners to “prove their credentials.” In other words, learning — whether it’s done inside the school walls or not — is beginning to “count” in some important ways.

Obviously, many questions remain to be answered. Who (or what) evaluates the work that learners are doing for excellence, purpose, or beauty? Will learners be able to collate badges or credentials from different issuers under one portfolio? What qualifies one group or another to offer reputable credentials for learning outside of the traditional institution? (For its part, a badge issued by Mozilla carries with it data that links back to the issuer, the criteria for awarding the badge, and verifying evidence of the skill.) Many more questions are bound to ensue.

But what is no longer a question is that the kids in our schools will have a wider variety of opportunities to show what they’ve learned than just the traditional markers of a K-16 education. As Surman says, “The web has usurped the traditional idea of how we acquire an education, and we now have limitless pathways to self-driven knowledge and a seamless connection with other people who can help us learn.”  And that is a very big deal.

Questions for School Leaders

What does it mean from a leadership perspective? First, and perhaps most obviously, it means that you now have opportunities to develop new areas of expertise and gain credit for it outside of the formal classroom. More than 2,000 organizations have begun issuing badges that align to the Mozilla standards, and the organization just announced a partnership with the MacArthur Foundation to oversee and spur the growth of the badge system. If you choose to pursue a badge on your own, you’ll serve as a great model of those opportunities for your teachers and students.

On a schoolwide basis, badges could also be seen as a way to help teachers organize their own learning and professional development. At a moment where we can learn so much on our own, leaders need to be moving toward a culture that supports teachers as ongoing, self-directed learners who aren’t waiting for a school-sponsored workshop to discover new things. For example, New Milford (NJ) High School has used the Mozilla Badge Kit to create a structure for staff to achieve badges for learning new tools or meeting the ISTE NETs Standards for Teachers. You could do that too.

But more importantly, the move to create formal recognition around self-driven, self-organized learning provokes important questions for the curriculum, namely, how do we prepare our students to take advantage of the opportunities for passion-based, self-determined learning that can occur outside the walls? This is obviously a real challenge for those who have focused on diplomas and traditional credentials as defined by GPAs and state tests their entire careers. But as we are already beginning to see badges and certificates being displayed on personal blog sites or individual’s LinkedIn pages, we’re going to have to think deeply about how what we do in schools help develop the skills and dispositions necessary to become successful, connected, literate modern learners who are able to learn deeply on their own without us.

The Bottom Line

So, here’s the deal:

  • While powerful learning has always been possible outside of school walls, the Internet, and the Web in particular, have literally exploded the ways in which we can learn on our own in deep, personal, authentic, and meaningful ways. In fact, the learning they’re doing on their own may be more important to helping our students develop the attributes of successful modern learners than the highly traditional, institutionally organized curriculum and experience that most students now get.
  • New ways of acknowledging and giving real credit to that “outside-the-walls” learning are already here and promise to scale up quickly as badges and other credentials gain acceptance and credibility.
  • Our students need to be prepared to take advantage of these opportunities, messy as they may be at the moment. This means we’re going to have to take a hard look at the outcomes we’ve set for each student and the curricular pathways we’ve been using to get there. And, importantly, we need to do this despite the fact that few are articulating a call to value informal learning as an integral part of the education experience.

Start the conversation:

  • How are you currently celebrating the important informal learning that your students are doing outside of the classroom?

  • What are the skills and dispositions kids need to learn deeply on their own, and how are you developing that in your classrooms?

  • How can you create systems within your school to acknowledge and give credit to the informal learning of students and, importantly, teachers and staff done beyond the school walls?

Image credits: Brent LeimenstollMartin Fisch

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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