Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lift Off for Informal Learning

Rachel Burnham writes: About a month ago, I was intrigued by a series of tweets, which together read ‘Problems are treated as well defined and readily soluble, and therefore susceptible to formal, standardized types of training’.  

This immediately resonated with my own experience of neatly packaged ‘learning needs’ being brought to my attention by line managers, and my experience of investigating the need only to realise that the learning requirements are much more ‘particular’ to a context and often more ‘messy’ than they had suggested ie less easily labelled and defined.  In my experience when you really want to impact on performance, off-the-shelf easy answers and neat stand-alone training courses on their own are rarely the way forward. This is a topic that I have often discussed with the CLDP students I work with.

The tweets were from @AndrewJacobsLD and when I responded to them – it turned out that they were from the closing paragraph of a paper by Michael Eraut in 2004, titled ‘Informal Learning in the Workplace’.  Michael Eraut is now Emeritus Professor (Education) at the University of Sussex. This paper sets out some of the key frameworks that he developed from years of research into how professionals actually learn.  Over the years he has worked on many projects to identify how professionals, technicians and managers develop the skills and knowledge needed to be effective in their roles.   He identified that the vast majority of this learning in the workplace was informal.  By informal learning he simply means learning through other means than formal courses or education. Through these projects he was able to identify different forms of informal learning and also the kinds of factors that aid informal learning.  

The paper is detailed, thoughtful and there are lots aspects to consider within it.  Andrew Jacobs and I had fun discussing it one afternoon, relating it to our own experiences and trying to get our heads around it.  Andrew is also blogging about Eraut’s work, so do read his article too 'But what is informal learning?'
Two aspects of Eraut’s article particularly stood out.  The first is a typology of different kinds of informal learning – more of a map of the territory - rather than a simple listing of different methods of informal learning.   In this typology of informal learning, Eraut considers three levels of intention in learning – implicit, reactive and deliberative.   By implicit learning he is getting at learning that occurs without conscious attempts to learn.  Reactive learning refers to learning, which is intentional, but ‘it occurs in the middle of the action, when there is little time to think’. (Eraut, 2004).  Finally, deliberative learning, for Eraut, includes both deliberate learning which is planned for and also involvement in activities in which ‘there is a clear work-based goal with learning as a probably by-product’ (Eraut, 2004) such as problem-solving or planning.  Eraut then considers each of these levels in relation to three time frames – past, current & future to get a grid of nine forms of informal learning.  I have adapted Eraut’s typology to produce a graphic version of it.

Coincidentally, a recent post by @fuchsiablue 'Learning Echoes' explores some of the forms of informal learning found in Eraut’s typology from a personal perspective.

This typology gives us in L&D another way to think about how we are approaching learning – we could use it to review what we are doing and challenge ourselves to make use of a much greater range of informal learning methods both for ourselves and the learners we work with.   

The second element of the paper which really impacted on me was Eraut’s model of the factors which affect learning in the workplace.  Again, I have adapted his model in my own illustration.  Eraut has identified two sets of factors – ones to do with the individual learner & a second set to do with the work context, which will influence the extent to which informal learning can take place.  These factors enable informal learning – they give a ‘lift’ to informal learning.  

The ‘context’ factors which Eraut discusses are similar to those discussed by Paul Matthews under the idea of a ‘learnscape’ – the learning ecoysystem which can encourage & enable informal learning or lead to an informal learning desert. 

I think there is a great deal to get us thinking about in this paper.  A recent report from the ELearning Guild by Jane Hart identifies that there is a lot more that L&D could do to support informal learning in organisations. I encourage you to use these models to consider the extent and range of informal learning that you and your organisation are making use of.  And I look forward to hearing your comments.
Rachel Burnham
29 August 2014

Michael Eraut (2004) Informal Learning in the Workplace, Studies in Continuing Education, 26:2, 247-273

Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.
Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

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