Unfold Learning

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“Formal” Learning

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A tri-lobed sassafras leaf from Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Photo by W. Rankin, 2016.

Last week, I published a model of natural learning that explores the cyclical structures of the informal or “personal” learning we do outside of school and professional settings. Thanks for the comments and ideas you’ve sent me — and I hope you’ll send even more. Refining these models and getting them right is important to me, and I know they’ll more accurately represent the complexity of the learning process with your input and insight.

This week, I’d like to enlist your help with another model: my model for formal learning — the sort of learning we do in schools and formal training sessions. Again, my goal here is to begin a discussion around a work in progress rather than to present something fully formed — though this is, like my “natural” model from last week, something I’ve been thinking about and working on for several years. I’d love to hear what you think so please leave me comments or send me a message. What do you like? What seems off? What parts seem overblown or underemphasized? What’s missing?

You can download the complete model in PDF form here: dimensions-of-formal-learning. The second page defines the terms I’m using and discusses some of my rationale for understanding the structure the way I do and for including the particular elements I include. In this post, therefore, I won’t go into any detail about the overall structure of this model. Instead, I’d like to focus on a substructure of this model — a process of moving between and among the elements that I call the “propeller of learning.”



First, note that this multidimensional structure is comprised of three main “facets”: content, community, and context. If these look familiar, it’s because they’re the same three elements that form both the “stream of experience” and the phase steps in the informal learning model I presented last week. What this model of formal learning makes more explicit, however, is the notion that these are not isolated elements; they are each dimensions of a single learning structure that cannot be easily extricated from one another. And because they’re parts of a single structure, as each dimension approaches an intersection with another, they coalesce. Mentors are mentors precisely because they have an integral relationship with the main interest (the “focus”) of our learning, and are thus able to help us approach that discipline productively. Because they’re so closely interrelated, they share a vertex in this multidimensional model’s diagram. Similarly, practice space shares an edge with reflection because reflection — and especially self-assessment — often emerges as we’re practicing or trying out our learning, helping us to understand where we are in our learning journey, what we need to work on further (that is, to “practice”), and where we should go next as we gain proficiency. Finally, production spaces offer both the opportunity and the pressure to produce specifically because they put us in contact with an outside “audience” to whom we can demonstrate our developing expertise and proficiency; these are “two sides” of the same learning aspect and thus share an edge in this model. All of these relationships provide a kind of generative, iterative energy that drives the learning process, and as we move among these relationships, our learning progresses. I call this the “learning propeller,” therefore, not only because of its propeller-like shape, but also because it’s this series of energizing connections and tensions that propels our learning forward.

Of course, sometimes we’re not ready to move to the next learning vertex and might need to circle one or more times inside one of these pairs of elements. For example, as we’re practicing, reflection might cause us to want to try something a little different — to iterate in the moment — and we might therefore circle between “practice space” and “reflection” for a while before we feel ready to move ahead. Such iterative circling can give us the “escape velocity” we need to move on to the next part of our learning and is an essential feature of this model.

As with “natural learning,” learning here begins with interest (1). Unfortunately, most schools and professional training organizations neglect the importance of interest, beginning elsewhere. Too often, such “formal” learning begins with some sort of structural element: a requirement, a tool, the steps of a procedure. These details can all inform our approach to content — and can even form an important part of what we do in the study of content — but they’re typically an ineffectual place to start a learning journey. If we don’t understand the requirement (or don’t agree with it), if we don’t understand why using the tool is important or how its use makes us productive in a particular context (and note that being told “it will be important eventually” doesn’t count here), if we don’t understand through experience how the procedure will benefit our goals (and not the goals of someone else), then we’ll typically “opt out.” We may go through the motions, but our learning will be stunted and won’t be self-generating. It will only go as far as it absolutely has to and no further. The reason is that such starting places typically leave us on the “content” plane alone, without the momentum needed to cross over onto the other facets. And content that is divorced from a supportive community  or a meaningful context eventually fades and disappears. It’s just stuff.

On the other hand, when we tap into interest, we begin a process that mirrors natural learning, catalyzing the organic structures of everyday learning. In fact, the first four moves of the “learning propeller” in this formal learning model mirror the moves in the natural learning model precisely: a series of questions driven by curiosity (“How?”, “What?”, “Why?”) brings us into contact with a guide (“Can you help…?”) who gives us an initial project (“I’ll try…”) that elicits reflection (“Next time…”). Similarly, in this model, we start with an interest (1) and then seek connection with a mentor (directly or via media) who helps us approach it productively (2) (this is the “exploring” blade of the “propeller”). The mentor offers us initial tools and resources and provides an initial challenge, which gives us an opportunity to practice — and put into practice — the skills and knowledge we’re acquiring (3). Putting our learning into practice sparks an important series of reflective questions (4), the kind of formative- and self-assessment that encourages the new instances of exploration, iteration, formation, and application that drive learning forward (these two aspects constitute the “trying” blade). So far, so good.

What makes formal learning different, however, should be its ability to offer (or at least to offer in a more “formal” sense) deeper access to the community and context dimensions — the “production” blade. Ideally, formal learning settings should provide not only rich access to content, but should also bring us before an “audience” (5)— people outside of the learning process — in a production space (6) in order to demonstrate our developing proficiency in our field of study. This opportunity to demonstrate, in turn, drives us to increasingly mature and sophisticated encounters with the main interest (1), and the cycle begins again. These “audience” and “production” stages might consist of a performance, a real-world project, or an artifact that is released for public reaction and critique. Such opportunities for deeper interactions with community and context in these stages provide us with the energy we need to expand our proficiency and expertise and to move through another rotation of the cycle. However, this expanded proficiency requires the entire next rotation to be expanded or augmented as well. If we’re just covering the same content in the same way, we get bored. What we need, therefore, is neither simple review nor even further exploration at the same level, but instead a deeper, richer, more expansive exploration with each iteration of the cycle:


With each rotation, our expanding skills, proficiency, and expertise become the ground for yet more expansion. In Vygotskian terms, this is one aspect of the “zone of proximal development”: the more we learn, the more we’re able to learn. And this increase in dimensionality — in the depth of our learning — occurs most often at two critical points in the learning process. And I use the word “critical” here intentionally: at both points, “making” in an evaluative context provides us with opportunities for reflection and growth. In the first, our experience of reflecting (4) after a period of practice (3) offers us an opportunity to see what’s missing or what needs refinement and to reapproach content (1) with a clearer sense of what we need. In the second instance, production (6) in the presence of an “audience” (5) offers us both their feedback and our own experience to help set a new, more robust trajectory as we reapproach the focus of our learning. In both cases, the refinement and expansion of our learning grows from active application of our learning — “making” — in a richly prepared context, and both are strongly connected to our interaction with others (5) who help us determine the validity, reach, and relevance of our learning. The first three stages of learning — content to community to context — are thus both echoed and intensified by the second three — content to community to context — and when we return once again to context, we know our journey has been productive if we do so at a deeper, more robust level.


This is why it’s essential for learning institutions to provide opportunities for deep interaction with the context and community dimensions. Without them, our learning can’t expand to the next “valance level,” and the corresponding decrease in energy causes the organic motion of the “propeller” to slow and eventually stop. The greatest resource institutions can provide that distinguishes “formal” from “informal” learning is therefore this depth of access, marshaling their assets — physical and technological facilities, networks of experts and practitioners, institutional credibility, etc. — to provide well-equipped and -supported practice and production spaces and frequent opportunities for learners to demonstrate their growing proficiency to real-world audiences who can provide critical insight and feedback.

In practice, however, most learning institutions believe erroneously that their main responsibility should be to extend the content dimension. In an age of expansive and near-instantaneous access to information, this conception may seem ludicrous, but it’s rooted in these institutions’ historical role in solving particular technological problems related to informational access. In the previous two informational epochs — the “age of hands” prior to the mid-fifteenth century deployment of the printing press and the “age of print” prior to the late twentieth-century deployment of digital information technologies — the chief task learning institutions served was to make information accessible, solving a serious learning problem. Their size and financial resources meant that they could coalesce and distribute content as their chief raison d’être, and that role made them prized and valued cultural institutions. However, it is this very identity centered around content aggregation and distribution that has caused so much of the uncertainty and marginalization of these institutions in the present digital age.

While many institutions continue to play a central role in the generation of new content — new scientific discoveries are just one example — content is still not the most important resource they can offer in the current climate. In fact, the means by which that new content is generated points us to the real value learning institutions can continue to offer: new content is almost always generated because of the resources these institutions can muster in the community and context dimensions — the groups of experts and explorers and the advanced facilities and real-world contexts that are part of their systems. If this is the true value such institutions bring to elite practitioners involved in making new content, then in a world of easy access, it is also the distinguishing benefit they can offer novices just approaching a new field or discipline. It is the content dimension combined with deep interactions with the dimensions of context and community that drives the learning forward, and it is the ability of learning institutions to generate this deep dimensionality that will continue to make them valuable and necessary in the future.

This is why we need models for both personal and formal learning: they’re related, but they provide different sorts of resources and experiences to the learners who move through them. And they prepare us in different ways for the challenges we face throughout our lives. Ideally, formal learning gives us a more thoroughgoing and “dimensional” experience than personal learning, situating us to become proficient practitioners of a whole range of related and connected fields in a variety of contexts for a broad range of audiences.

By the way, formal learning — and the “propeller” — have one more trick up their sleeves, and it has everything to do with that last little sentence. As we become increasingly experienced in a field of content, we “professionalize.” We begin to develop the same kinds of resources as formal institutions: networks of expert peers, technological and physical resources, “institutional” credibility, and other resources associated with expertise and experience. When we attain this stature, something very interesting happens: the propeller of learning flips direction, and we develop ongoing expertise following a reversed pattern. This is due chiefly to changes in our needs and capabilities. We still begin with a main area of interest (1′), the area in which we’ve been building our proficiency, but because we come already equipped with skills, experience, tools, and knowledge in that field, we can now move directly into a production space (2′) and contact with an “audience” (3′). Following our production or performance, we begin a process of reflection (4′). What worked well? What didn’t? What should we refine, expand, or eliminate? Feedback from the “audience” thus leads to an evaluation which drives us into various modes of “practice”: research, development of new approaches or artifacts, exploration and employment of new materials, etc. (5′). As we develop these new resources, we not only consider how they further our praxis and how they “fit” with and influence the strategies, manifestations, and objectives we already employ: we also take them before a group of trusted advisors (6′), whose guidance and expertise  brings us ever more richly into contact with the area of interest (1′). This final social engagement, with its opportunities for external and internal reflection, empowers us to recommence the pattern, and we once again begin the journey that propels our growth and development.


Note that two features of this “expert” structure have changed: “mentors” becomes “advisors” and “co-learners” becomes “colleagues.” Of course, these differences are so minor as to be effectively solely semantic in nature. Good mentors, after all, serve us best when they act more as advisors than as what we traditionally think of as “teachers” — when they work in service of our own curiosity and goals rather than forcing us to conform to theirs. Similarly, co-learners are our colleagues, people who share our approximate “level” in the field of our expertise, and these fellow practitioners serve as both a check and a resource in our ongoing development.

Ultimately, while this model for learning seeks to delineate and explain the chief components of the learning process, it also encapsulates a particular understanding of pedagogy and the nature of the learning environment. It emphasizes “making” in a richly contextual setting supported by a diverse community, all driven by the learner’s own curiosity. While this model is “formal” it is therefore not impersonal. It is instead profoundly social and fundamentally connected to a learner’s own identity and interests. And while its structure is the same for all learners, that structure is incredibly flexible and robust, able to adapt itself to a multitude of fields, approaches, and participants and able to grow with us as our curiosity engenders expertise.


Author: williamrankin

Explorer in emerging pedagogies, mobile learning activist, digital book prospector, information designer, medievalist

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