What’s formal learning ever given us?

25 Jul
July 25, 2013

The debate over formal learning versus informal learning versus social learning versus live online learning continues apace but a recent exchange via Twitter rather got my dander up!  In response to an excellent blog by Clark Quinn, Jane Hart from the Centre for Performance Learning Technologies (@C4LPT) tweeted that “Formal learning should be the LAST RESORT”. (Jane’s emphasis)

My response was that we need formal learning – that flying ‘social airways’ or living near a ‘social nuclear power station’ was unacceptable.  Clark took a slight offence at my comments, calling them clichéd.  Jane responded with, “There are few situations that demand formal as first resort; most have just become CONDITIONED to think so.” (again, Jane’s emphasis)

This short exchange made me nothing if not a little cross, and then really got me thinking. Here are two people, both with massive amounts of experience and both agreeing – by implication – that not only should formal learning be the last resort but that there were few occasions when it should be the first resort.  This made me wonder. Are we – as learning professionals – really looking at formal learning in an appropriate context of business need balanced with new, exciting and constructive ways of delivering learning via social media, or as we seemingly enjoy our rush towards ‘social learning for everything’, are we actually in danger of forgetting the power of formal learning or of forgetting that it’s absolutely vital in certain areas?

OK, firstly a slightly philosophical debate: which came first, formal or informal (social) learning?  As I’ve written previously the concept of social learning is nothing new so it could be argued that social or informal learning comes before any formal learning – and this would be correct.  The point I’m really looking at though is workplace learning – the learning we need for our role and our career.  Again, you could easily argue that informal learning comes first – again – even if we require a great deal of formal learning to do our role, such as being a fighter pilot, then we’ve almost certainly learned a great deal about that role informally in advance of formal learning through research, watching videos and so on.

So we could rightly assume that all roles in all industries have an element of informal learning – or discovery – that happens before any formal learning takes place.  But what about where we really do demand formal first before we unleash someone who’s untrained on an unexpected world?  Are there roles or professions where we still need to preserve formal training? I decided to take a closer look.

Although my comment about living near ‘social nuclear power stations’ was considered clichéd by Clark Quinn – and I can understand why – the comment was made to reinforce the case for formal learning, because within every cliché there is truth.

Jane Hart is right. We have become conditioned on so many levels to ‘do formal first’ but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t.  There are real instances where the financial, social, legal, ethical or environmental cost of non-conformance is so high that we must demand formal first. Indeed there are professions where we would be horrified if formal-first wasn’t the norm.

Putting clichés aside for a moment, how would you really feel if you knew that your local nuclear power station was being run by people with little or no formal training?  I suspect you’d be less than happy!  And would you readily climb aboard a budget airline where you knew that the pilots, aircrew and maintenance teams also had no formal training – again probably not.

Sadly I believe that over time we’ve just got too used to jumping on the current fad or bandwagon and ignoring reality.  Craig Wiggins’ wonderful article summed this up perfectly for me.  Life is not about black and white – it is shades of grey – and far more than fifty!  And yes, pun intended.

I could go on – but I won’t.  Either we want professionals operating safely, ethically and environmentally or we don’t.  We wouldn’t readily entrust our money to just anyone – we want qualified financial advisors – so why shouldn’t we embrace formal learning for the right things at the right time?

Formal learning certainly has its place and without formal learning we’d be in a real mess.  I’d like to summarise by taking you to that wonderful scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – the scene where the activists are discussing what the Romans have done for them.  Now imagine it’s the same bunch of people, with the same comedy values, but this time imagine they’re a bunch of social learning gurus having a discussion about formal learning . . .

Reg: They’ve bled us dry, they’ve taken our money and our people and our classrooms . . . And what has formal learning ever given us in return?
Xerxes: Universities.
Reg: Oh yeah, yeah, it gave us those. Yeah. That’s true.
Masked Activist: And the trained doctors!
Stan: Oh yes… doctors, remember what the health care used to be like.
Reg: All right, I’ll grant you that the universities and the doctors are two things that formal learning has done…
Matthias: And the teachers…
Reg: (sharply) Well yes, obviously the teachers … the teachers go without saying. But apart from the universities, the doctors and the teachers …
Another Masked Activist: Dentists…
Other Masked Voices: Lawyers… Radiographers… Vets…
Reg: Yes… all right, fair enough…
Activist Near Front: And engineering…
Omnes: Oh yes! True!
Francis: Yeah. That’s something we’d really miss if we didn’t have formal learning, Reg.
Masked Activist at Back: Airline pilots!
Stan: And the police force – it’s safe to walk in the streets at night now.
Reg: All right… all right… but apart from universities and doctors and the teachers and dentists and lawyers and radiographers and vets and engineers and the airline pilots and public order… what has formal learning ever done for us?


Let’s never forget that there is a range of ways to provide excellent learning and formal is just one of those.  Because it’s tough to do it well, formal learning can be easily overlooked and formal-first can be forgotten altogether.  But the approach of formal-first is right in a wide range of situations and the ‘ease’ of social learning should never dissuade us from using formal-first, especially in instances where the financial, social, legal, ethical or environmental cost of mistakes are considered too high to bear.  There are times when we must demand formal first, because as learning professionals we must always provide the right solution for our business and clients regardless of our own preferences and biases.

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2 replies
  1. Bill Brantley says:

    Love the Monty Python dialogue! Thank you for pointing out that the choice should be based on the learning goals and skills development rather than the false dichotomy of formal/informal learning delivery methods.

  2. Jonathan Kettleborough says:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the comments and glad you liked the reworking of the famous Monty Python sketch – to be honest it’s always easy to work with brilliant material 😉


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