When Jay mentioned that informal learning is, in some sense, going back to basics ("the natural way"), I couldn't help thinking of Aristotle (even more than Socrates) who conducted learning “peripatetically”, i.e. by walking around and letting both his thoughts and the discussion grow and flow. Apparently, he also did a few "wandering" lectures (most of his extant writings appear to be the result of students’ notes on his lectures) but his school was known for moving and grooving. This is certainly a way of building doing into formal learning while at the same time specifically recognizing the value of informality. I would suggest that we would be wise not to be satisfied by simple opposites, such as studying or listening vs. doing, or formal vs. informal, but reflect on how these opposites are complementary and may, with a bit of judicious encouragement and clever organization, in some way blend (could this be the key to a new definition of blended learning?).
On the question of learning by doing, it might be useful to expand our cultural horizon by introducing a nuance in the form of an apparent opposite: the Taoist concept wu wei or “non-doing”. Ted Kardash elucidates it as follows:
Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one's environment. It is not motivated by a sense of separateness. It is action that is spontaneous and effortless. At the same time it is not to be considered inertia, laziness, or mere passivity. Rather, it is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Our contemporary expression, "going with the flow," is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behavior occurring in response to the flow of the Tao.Even if we all agree that learning by doing is better than learning by listening to an authority, I would suggest that we need to think about how to integrate non-doing (an active, not a passive concept) into our learning strategies. That may even be one of the keys to understanding the meaning and processes of informal learning.
In a recent book by Andrea Nightengale, Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy we learn that the origin of our all too familiar word theory, which our civilization has turned into a synonym for abstraction (and more recently, a highly pretentious form of abstract criticism) comes from Greek “theoroi” which originally meant “spectators” and implied active involvement (eye-witnessing) in games, including the notion of actually going to the games and interpreting them within a social context. A far cry from the way we use the term today. It’s true that Plato and Aristotle used the idea of participating in events, observing action and reporting on it as a model for contemplative study, which they subsequently called theoria. But the theoria they proposed implied a kind of communion with real physical events (Nightingale calls it “sacralized spectating”). Possibly a Greek version of wu wei.
So what’s the point of all this? I’m suggesting that we may have a tendency to paint ourselves into linguistically and culturally determined corners that restrict our reflection on the very problems we all recognize. Perhaps we need a bit of lateral thinking rather than head-on debate, or rather, we need both, as they are the yin and yang of inquiry. Instead of looking for a winner between polar opposites let’s try to see what both doing and non-doing accomplish and how formal and informal complement each other. Is that beyond our powers?
My final point: we still seem to assume that learning means assimilating or appropriating and its end product is possession, which reflects a highly individualistic view of learning and neglects both its social dimension and that part of knowledge that exists below the threshold of immediate and measurable awareness. While these metaphorical notions have value in describing aspects of the process, I'd suggest that we make a special effort to bear in mind that they are only metaphors and can only do part of the job. Wu wei and theoria are two examples of culturally unfamiliar notions that may help us to achieve a deeper level of nuance.