Schooling tends to be a blessing and a curse. It’s wonderful when formal study helps people gain experiences and understandings beyond what daily life in a single body and time affords. But when procedures and hierarchies of formal education dominate, rank, and routinize individual experience, we are in trouble. In response to this trouble, we argue here that it helps to bring informal learning into formal education. Openings to informal learning in settings where it is not expected or valued enable formal education to make more use of processes and activities not usually thought of as part of formal education. They also call attention to cultural (not necessarily educative) processes that distinguish between “formal” and “informal” to begin with.
Having been a teacher of elementary, middle, and high school as well as of adults in a range of settings, I have taught for past 13 years in an educational studies program in a liberal arts college. Our education program guides students to explore, facilitate, and transform teaching and learning within and beyond classrooms (Cohen et al. 2007; Lesnick et al. 2007). My research, like my teaching, focuses on collaborative learning. In this section, I offer two of my experiences with bringing informal learning into formal education—one classroom-centered, and one at and across the boundary of the classroom and the broader institution of the college.
To me, to consider the differences between what is and what could be, and then to reflect on how things are thought of as what is—“reality”—or as what could be—“possibility”—is the work of education. And it is the work of education to reconsider what is and what could be, to change the relation between actuality and possibility. Thus, doing education essentially includes changing it as needed lest the stories it tells isolate people from life itself (Percy 1975). In the classroom, plans and goals are necessary but not sufficient. Equally necessary are openings to the unexpected and unknown (Dalke and Lesnick 2011).
Of course, when frameworks of reality and possibility are in play, so too are relationships within and between people and between people and the non-human world. Whose “reality” counts? Whose pays? Whose is eligible for study? Who is the knower? Who needs to be taught? And why are people so often concerned to divide the human world into knowers and taught, winners and losers, when in fact everyone has things to teach and things to learn? As my co-author writes, “We live in a culture in which social status and power is based to a large extent on establishing the validity of one’s own dreams by exclusion, by successfully challenging the validity of the dreams of others. To decline to engage in that process is to risk being regarded by many others as weak at best and, at worst, as irrelevant or meaningless” (Grobstein 2010). It has been my hope to help my students respond to one another’s contributions as part of working with and building from whatever is offered, rather than as a competitive process of recognition and evaluation.
One way I have sought to open academics to informal learning and to de-center the evaluative objective of schooling is via the use of informal writing to learn in the classroom. To invite students to work from spontaneous, personal writing has been a bass note of my teaching (and of my own practice as a learner) across the span of my career. I had the good fortune to come of age as a teacher during the first flowering of the writing process movement. As a third-grade teacher in the mid-1980s, I learned to invite students to use writing to brainstorm, plan, document, and revise their thinking, not only to report or practice conventions. Once I became a faculty associate of the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College, in the early 1990s, I began leading workshops for undergraduates and for practicing teachers in the uses of informal writing across the curriculum to foster learning, inquiry, and pedagogical community (Vilardi and Chang 2009).
While I have used and recommended specific practices (free writing, focused free writing, process or metacognitive writing, dialogue journals, reading logs, etc.) for various curricular and developmental purposes, this paper offers a more general rationale for informal writing in the context of formal education: It is a conduit for life itself, and for the lives of learners as individuals. It is closer to what writing educator Natalie Goldberg (1990) called, “wild mind,” closer to the unconscious, and it allows those who undertake it to make contact and then to work with language of the unconscious and experiences not codified as academic. I have come to think of informal learning as including the mind’s experience of words, the ways that words make up important parts of our internal and external landscapes. “Informal learning” thus expands to take in not only interpersonal but also intrapersonal experiences not designed as academic.
Informal writing to learn acts as a two-way bridge between the personal and the public, the known and the new. It is a way of thinking that depends on the individual’s contact with and disclosure of his or her experience and language for it. “Wild mind” writing encourages us to see language for experience in a more immediate way. Bringing such writing-enabled thinking into the shared space of the classroom allows personal knowledge and language to come to bear on common learning projects. As learners’ experiences become texts for classroom use, we can see that to “do education” is to cause change as well as to be changed. Indeed, as experience is cast as text, change—in the “reality” available for uptake by the individual writer and his/her community of practice—is already occurring. Whether the change has to do with the framing or interpretation of a focal topic, or with a challenge to others’ assumptions (including the teacher’s), or with a shift in the writer’s own sense/story of self, or something else, it creates ripples. Some of these come into direct contact, and conflict, with their surroundings, while others move out to unanticipated encounters.
An important route to growth and development is for people to change their worlds as well as themselves: to experience a relationship of mutual impact between their lives (academic and otherwise) and broader contexts of life. This can be dramatic or explicit and also can be understood as an ongoing part of daily life that we often don’t recognize as such. A second project through which I have sought to enable and make visible such change and such relationship is a campus-wide learning exchange I helped conceive and lead, The Empowering Learners Partnership (ELP). Part of Bryn Mawr College’s Teaching and Learning Initiative, the ELP pairs college students and “non-academic” staff members in unique teaching and learning relationships. The goal is for participants to gain access to one another’s knowledge and interests (and also to their own) and get to know one another outside of their formal campus roles. The mutual respect of a learning partnership, as well as institutional support afforded staff and students, expresses the founding principle that each partner’s contribution is equal and worthy of recognition and that no matter how they are positioned by the institutional division of labor, each is both a giver and a receiver. Staff members at all institutional levels—service/craft, clerical/technical, and administrative/professional—are active in the ELP, and all students are eligible to participate. The egalitarian basis of the program runs counter to intense hierarchies that often prevail on campus and in the world.
The staff-student pairs work in unique 10–14-week partnerships with financial support from the College (staff participants get two hours paid release time per week; students are paid hourly, as well, or are afforded fieldwork credit for selected education courses) and both students and staff get program support from TLI coordinators. A faculty and a student co-coordinator help partners identify a focal subject to teach and a focal learning area that relate to their interests and goals. Participants are encouraged to think of themselves as teachers and learners whatever their formal education is. They meet two hours weekly, one hour for each subject, and track their activities, insights, and questions through several discussion and written venues (including reflective logs, a NING site, and midcourse, program-wide discussions). Student participants meet for an additional hour of reflection each week; staff, students, and faculty collaborate in the program advisory committee. The 75 unique partnerships that have taken place to date have focused on such exchanges as Greek cooking/research skills, woodcarving/email literacy, fresh fish preparation/Biblical diction and syntax, baking/house painting, PowerPoint/Tae Kwon Do, Bulgarian language introduction/ESL, crafts/digital photography, Facilities Overview/Creating a Facebook page, and instructional videos for students about campus facilities.
While time and scheduling pose ongoing challenges to the program, participants have affirmed the new friendship, new understanding, and new knowledge it enables. They also speak of feeling a sense of having increased their value to, and benefits from, the campus community (Lesnick and Cook-Sather 2009; Lesnick 2010; Cook-Sather et al. 2011). When students participate in the ELP to fulfill the fieldwork component of selected education courses, they bring into the classroom a wider lens on institutional life, adult learning, and the differences and commonalities they come to recognize with their partners. They also raise questions--and, and others’ awareness-- about social class, cross-group communication, and what it takes to be a good facilitator of someone else’s learning.
The Empowering Learners Partnership follows some of the same contours as the use of informal writing to foster classroom learning. Both draw experience not already framed as academic into visibility and use within classrooms. Both amplify dimensions of people’s lives that academic institutions tend to ignore and silence. Both highlight the distributed nature of knowledge—the fact that everyone, by virtue of being someone, has expertise to contribute to the project of learning. And neither is a ready candidate for evaluation via traditional means.
This is not to say that progress, aspiration, and attainment are irrelevant here. When a student or group of students gains insight and fluency through informal writing and thinking practice, we celebrate. And when, at the end of each semester, ELP participants gather with others in the teaching and learning initiative to share their learning via presentations, we celebrate. And then we go on. “Achievement” is more a matter of sustaining engagement than it is of getting to a preset objective or performance. This is consonant with what Peggy McIntosh (2000) called the “horizontal” quality of life and growth. For even by the most traditional standards, human success is never complete or absolute. The fortune is lost in a market crash; the violin prodigy breaks her hand after playing Carnegie Hall; the writer completes a great novel...and then rises the next morning—or not.
Thought of in this way, progress and achievement are part of the engine of continued life and learning, not their end. They are their own ends insofar as they stimulate and make possible more learning/growth/life. In evolutionary terms, then, “adaptation,” or successful adjustment to one’s environment, is a byproduct of exploration, of living, rather than its objective. In settings of formal education, the point of trying, striving, and working to achieve is to enrich the scene of achievement, not to guarantee the achiever or the product of achievement.
I arrive at these ideas and activities via processes both deliberative and intuitive and via opportunities both made and found. It is not possible, or, according to this paper, desirable, to codify them. They are, as it were, part of my progress and my adaptation as a teacher and learner. My students are about their own progress and adaptation as individuals engaged with life itself. To the extent that we find ways to progress together, we are usefully changed and mutually informed, in-formed. But our interactions take place in specific contexts where counter-definitions of progress and adaptation are always in play. It takes skill, luck, and stamina to elucidate the conflicts among varying definitions and render that conflict generative for individuals’ growth; then there is the problem of conflicts between that growth and the social expectations around the person. I do not see a way to resolve these risks ahead of time. That is what makes them risks. And if educational planning can make provision for risk, we must investigate and experiment with how in ongoing ways. I am thus at once minded to stick with this outlook and to recognize the difficulty—conceptual, not procedural—of formally recommending it to others. I recommend it not as a program, but as a platform for further inquiry.