Sunday, December 3

Is it self-defeating to write a book advocating Informal Learning over Formal?

I am happily reading Jay Cross' new book, Informal Learning. As one would expect, Jay writes well and I can easily recommend the book to anyone interested in organizational learning.

While I will chew on this book more intelligently in weeks to come, I am struck by a basic paradox. Can one criticize formal learning models in a book? Isn't a book the epitome of what one is suggesting is the wrong model?

I write this in part because when I attend any of Jay's events, he is the anti-presenter and runs anti-workshop workshops.

I write this also because I have the same issue in writing about simulations.

The answer to the paradox is non-trivial, and fairly important for our industry. In my mind, even though a formal learning experience is not the complete answer, it can be a really productive first step. Reading Jay's Informal Learning is a great first step towards the work of developing a better learning culture. Hopefully reading one of my books is a great first step towards the same goal, just along a parallel path.

In fact, the justification for all formal learning experiences has to be no more and no less than being great first steps. Honestly accepting this truism, in fact embracing it, at all levels of the design, funding, and measuring stages, seems necessary for success.


Tom Haskins said...

Thanks for the question Clark. You gave me a lot to ponder. It obviously makes sense to take books literally. A book is formalized learning, not informal. A book is 2D, linear exposition, not a simulation. Yet it also makes sense that the experience of reading a book in the context of the reader can be informal. A book can be written in a voice to support that informal use of the book. Likewise a book can function as a simulation of an adventure, journey or obstacle course for the reader. It depends on the strategy used, the framing of the reader and the design of the book as instruction. I wrote a new posting to my blog that explores this possibility. (link below- Sending Congruent Messages)

jay said...

Clark, you ask, "Is it self-defearting to write a book advocating Informal Learning over Formal?" I don't think so, but frankly I do not know, for I don't advocate informal learning over formal.

Formal and informal are ranges on dimensions of plain old learning. They are not opposites. In fact, most learning is a mix of informal learning and formal.

In general, I advocate more informal learning for experienced workers because the current situation is out of balance. In a knowledge economy, organizations can ill afford to leave informal learning to chance.

You ask whether a book is not the ultimate in formal. Well, no. Books are tools, not learning. If my professor requests that I read a book, then conducts a scheduled class on it, and makes me take a test, that's as formal as can be. If I pick and choose pieces of a book to skim or read in my spare time, that's quite informal.

Books are more rigid than I would prefer, but books are powerful symbols. A book legitimizes its subject matter and makes its author credible.

When I converse, collaborate, write, and blog, I try to drink my own champagne. I model the behavior I advocate.


Tom Haskins said...

Adding to what Jay has said about books as tools, symbols and credentials-- Books are many things:

Books are totems - take the book and show it off, prove to yourself and others that you are one of those who plays at that level
Books are tools - take the book and apply it to decisions your' re making, problems you're solving, designs you're creating, changes you're formulating
Books are instructional designs - take the journey through the cognitive challenges, get support for your hesitation to use it as a tool, tie these new ideas into your current mental model, incorporate your personal experiences into the change this presents for you, immerse yourself in an application scenario
Books are conversations - take it as an invitation to join in, take the dialogue further, deepen the significance of the message

Ben Watson said...

Of course, books are dead the moment they are published and that is the irony when you use one to talk about informal learning which is inherently a continuous learning experience often used to fine-tune or update existing knowledge.

Just imagine if you bought book and had access to the book content in a Wiki so you could add your comments and share your knowledge.

Imagine if Jay created a companion PDF so that the book can be searched and become a reference tool.

Imagine if Jay wrote a new foreword every 6 months and I didn't have to buy the book again to get the updates (make the forewords always free to everyone; also becomes a great marketing tool).

Imagine if a book became part of my continuous journey to learn more about a topic rather than being a dead end off of my path to knowledge.

Frankly, I'm tired of imagining. When are we going to start seeing, on a large scale, some fundamental changes to learning that take advantage of new enabling technologies and learning techniques versus replicating traditional learning online?


Ben Watson
VP, Collaboration
Thomson NETg

Clark Aldrich said...

Hi Ben,

First, Jay is the first to admit that his book (and any book) is a beta, and is evolving. Jay gives a URL in his book for continued, live follow-up.

Second, one reason for my post above this one, (, is to challenge some of our fundamental assumptions about this profession. Without that work, any improvements, when made, get rejected by the body-training.

Unknown said...

I've got to say here that books are not formal learning processes at all. They are tools - as Jay said - and can be used formally and informally.

Every book I have addressed for learning (rather than enjoyment) I have a had a conversation with - either written in the margins or with the book and someone else (who may or may not be having a conversation with the book themself)

Also, your definition of 'informal' learning seems to be too narrow. Could you clarify it? How is a simulation informal (as Tom implied) and a book formal? I see both of them as possible tools that a learner can interact with...neutral on the formal/informal scale.

Clark Aldrich said...

Saying that a traditional book is informal, because you can only read parts of it, is kind of like saying, a classroom lecture is informal because you can space out when bored.

The risk is, like blended learning, that it means everything and therefore nothing.

Having said all of that, I am working on my next book that attempts to be non-linear (which will please half the people and irk the other half).

Anonymous said...

Do you know how to incorporate?