Formal vs. Informal Learning

I have been a spectator in a number of drawn out discussions and debates over the last year in which learning and development, education and business folks have come together in an effort to define and determine the differential value of “formal” and “informal” learning. (for a more theoretical opinion on these debates, see this)  I have remained mostly silent, not because i don’t have opinions, but because it seems that these debates are not serving the goals of this group, which are, i presume, to improve the triple-bottom lines in and around the organizations they serve:

1) increase profit
2) make people’s lives better
3) improve the world by ensuring that the people within them develop as human beings.

Rather than write a long polemic here, i’d like to make a short statement, and offer a very particular example.

The Statement:
Spending more than 30 seconds arguing about the difference between formal and informal learning is a waste of time. If we must distinguish between the two at all, then we must conclude that they always happen simultaneously, as any reflective person who has taught something to a person or group knows.   Ignoring one or the other (again, if we must distinguish between the two) in any learning situation always results in sub-optimal outcomes.

The Example:
Me teaching a 300-level course in new media theory at the Indiana University School of Informatics:

Some of the “formal” learning occurring in this moment:
I’m guiding students through a series of readings and theories on the mass effects of the electronic revolution (first photo) and on the notion of identity construction and stereotypes (second photo) that they would not likely encounter in their “informal” interactions with other students, popular media, or other technology classes.

Some of the “informal” learning occurring in this moment:
I am letting my passions for serious study, inquiry, media and playful exploration of ideas show through, mindful of the fact that i am both being authentic and modeling these passions for my students. It’s not something i plan ahead of time, but it tends to come out in my classes. Also, notice that i am forsaking the many-thousand-dollar computer/projector setup in the room, and using a chalkboard to teach a new media theory class to students in Informatics. I do this for many reasons, one of which is to informally demonstrate that media isn’t all about tablets, screens, bits and bytes.

Why Distinguishing Between the Two Is A Waste of My Time:
Simply put, if i were to teach hard theory without showing my passion, the learning outcomes would be pretty crappy. Students would get a bunch of great information without any sense of how to integrate it into their lives. On the other hand, if i were to demonstrate my passion without a formal syllabus and some sort of academic rigor, the learning outcomes would also be pretty crappy. Students might be excited about new media theory, but have gained no useful tools to put into practice.  Instead, i let the two mix as i go (really i am mostly oblivious to the distinction), continually reflecting on how both are affecting the established and emergent learning goals for the class.