Monday, 4 August 2014

Serendipitous, #informal learning through some ages


Informal learning has been an important self-constructing force throughout the ages. At present it gains interest with the increase of online learning options (eg. MOOCs in all forms and formats), and it also becomes more visible through the concept of learner-centered learning, personal learning environment... So I picked up a mail from years ago, and revisited it with some of which I learned now. For I wonder how much of informal learning is actually new, in the face of technology I mean.

Informal learning - a (very) quick serendipitous tour:
Leonardo da Vinci is a great example of a human that was instructed as a painter, but through his ideal location (a city filled with artists and knowledge) and the need for travel (sometimes voluntary, sometimes political need), the exchange with other artists (peers) from other regions and the fact that he was able to talk with people from different trades molded him into a genius (cfr. a personal learning network, but possibly with less sustainable connections through travel realities). Da Vinci became interested in different fields which he than explored pushed by his own curiosity and sometimes political circumstances. Looking at his interests, it is clear the man absorbed whatever he found of interest. Chances are he would be a prolific Internet surfer and producer.

Learning from peers and looking up specialists in different fields to learn from them is a natural human learning trade from every era, and current technologies just link more of us together. Plato traveled to peers (School of Pythagoras) that were working on different topics to be able to learn (or exchange ideas) with them. There were more people learning their trade by themselves or with peers and thus the idea of autodidactic learning became a term. This term fascinated artists and scholars and the idea that a human being could become more by learning became a theme in the arts.

The child in the wild or the whole in the wall
A human being raised without external influence and becoming a better human being has been a theme in many cultures. One of the ground breaking novels that cornered this type of self-learning is 'Hayy ibn Yaqdhan' written by Ibn Tufail (known as Abubacer) in the early 12th century al-Andalus. It was later on referred to by Kant, Locke a.o. It later became a theme in Western literature (Mowgli from Kipling, Nel from Jodie Foster a.o.). So we have always known that this approach added a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to every type of new knowledge. For in a way expert learning is always a result of informal learning, for there is no other way new knowledge can be produced... the frontiers of what exist need to be surpassed, and only informal learning can fit exploring minds. And it is all to easy to leap to what Sugata Mitra and colleagues of that train of thought propose in the whole in the wall project.

Grand tour or Google view
Let’s move closer to our era. I see informal learning also as the further democratization of the Grand Tour that started in the late 17th century and which wanted to instruct (mostly British) noblemen in order to become more in touch with the most important features of their times: classic arts, becoming a worldly person. This Grand Tour could be seen as the next step from the early autodidacts. Although the Grand Tour only provided the possibility to learn, a lot depended on the person on whether or not and particularly what they would learn. I like the political awareness linked with literature that was mixed in the writings of George Sand after and during her travelling. So in a way the world became smaller thanks to technology, and principles that worked (or at least that worked for specifically hungry minds) then worked in another era as well, and become more common place. The more I think of it, the less important technology becomes, as we only embed it to fit human action anyway. What do we do with Google view?

Tech results from informal learning
The autodidactic, or self-taught approach to learning has always been crucial to IT (yes, we all know the biggies like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson - euh... missing recent women here). Even at the beginning of the computer age self-instruction was crucial, the mythical Ada Lovelace (image in this post) for example who developed the first computer program for the Babbage machine. Where would the computer age be if self-taught learning or informal learning would not have been an option? Where would anybody be?

To come to heutagogy
Throughout history the concept of autodidact learning has been spoken about on many occasions, but at this time in history this term becomes pivotal again (or with extra focus) to being an efficient knowledge worker. Self-taught learning is now (in part?) encapsulated in a new concept: heutagogy, where it is called self-determined learning, for indeed you need to have determination to really achieve deep learning.
Informal learning is now key to effective corporate, academic, personal learning and I feel that if I could only master this skill with zest, it will bring us closer to the geniuses of all times.... thrilling!

If I could only have more time to learn!