Archive for the “Informal Learning” Category

I graduated high school in 1977. The English classrooms I see in 2009 are almost identical to the English classrooms I experienced in 1977. I started teaching biology in 1986 and my biology classroom then looks exactly like most biology classrooms do today. Don’t get me wrong- a great deal of outstanding teaching and learning can, and does, take place in such spaces.

Will I be able to say the same thing 20 years from now? Will the English and Biology classrooms of 2029 look exactly like the same classrooms from 2009?

It is my personal belief that they will, and that the notion of what a learning space looks like will not fundamentally change in mainstream K-12 education over that same time period. It is also my belief that the concept of learning space is one of the most neglected concepts of school design. Unlike some, I spend each and every day actually in a school, and I see teaching and learning jammed into a one-size-fits-all space that has the potential to constrict learning.

So I’m interested in something more. Something different, something better. Some might say I’m passionate about learning space, some may say obsessed. So, here is a quote that I posed the other day on Twitter, from Ryan Bretag:

“What are the dimensions of a learning space?”

If I were to ask you to identify a single word that describes a place for learning, you would probably say “classroom.” And that’s a great place to start, but unfortunately, that’s as far as most schools go. So when I think dimensions, I think of all possible spaces for learning, and all the types of learning that could potentially take place in those spaces. I use dimension in that context. To that end, in the school I work in, I’ll be focusing my passion for developing learning spaces on:

Flexible spaces that can be reconfigured to meet the need of the learners. One size fits all needs to go away. (Our library renovation will include a laptop lab with furniture that can be rearranged to align space with learning needs).

Non-traditional spaces, such as commons areas, where students can take advantage of their electronic devices and our open wireless network. (Our hallways, our Student Activities Center, our cafeterias can now have an additional dimension to what is available to learn with.)

Private student spaces where collaboration can occur, spaces for quiet reflection and collaboration. (Our library will contain two glass-enclosed conference rooms for students, complete with whiteboard wallpaper where kids can use the walls to diagram their ideas, their learning, and their passions.

Large open spaces in our library where kids and teachers can push and pull different resources to design their own space, given the immediate need. (Information commons, knowledge commons, what does a library in 2009 and beyond look like? Oh yes, it will still have….books.

Digital spaces where teachers can work, where students can interact, that support the physical space and extend it, to help students master the complex skills of connecting, creating, and learning in a digital context. (Our multidimensional learning space, with Moodle and Google Apps, and the focus on an entire digital school community, will provide students with support for a different type of learning experience).

Opportunities for the support of informal learning, that enable students to pursue their interests, their own learning, but within the context of the traditional learning space, i.e. schools and supported by adults. (Why limit learning? How can educators become mentors outside of the classroom context to help students explore their passions?)

So that’s why I’m passionate about learning space. And I don’t care if any or all of it has been done before, because it hasn’t been done enough….

Of course, this is all in support of a very successful and diverse school with multiple types of programs, services and opportunities for kids, a committed faculty and staff, excellent administrators and a supportive community-we’re very lucky. And we still have a wood shop, an automotive program, and we still offer film photography. Sort of old school, but old school can be good.

I’m not the only one interested in this of course. Consider the 2010 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in Denver. Their conference theme is Understanding Complex Ecologies in a Changing World and they have a list of suggestions for presentations, which include:

  • How educational settings—formal and informal—can be designed to address the interrelated cognitive, social, and emotional demands of learning;
  • How learning occurs within and across time and space in complex dynamic systems;
  • How alternative organizational spaces for education, such as for-profit schools, colleges, firms, community organizations, and museums interact with schooling in recruiting and expanding repertoires for learning.


If you are looking for an outstanding resource to get started, look no further than Educause’s excellent set of essays, appropriately entitled “Learning Spaces.”

Yeah, we will always have classrooms. I get it. But I would encourage you to think bigger, think beyond that typical space to take advantage of every opportunity for learning, and that includes a consideration of how space can impact learning, and what kinds of learning can take place in those spaces. I think that consideration is something that we dismiss too easily, it’s too much of an assumption that we don’t seriously reflect upon.

“Space can have a powerful impact on learning; we cannot overlook space in our attempts to accomplish goals” (Chism, 2006)

Chism, N. V. (2006). Educause. Retrieved July 8, 2009, from Learning Spaces:

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My Dad taught ceramics for 38 years. I was always amazed at what his students produced-and that he could access that hidden capacity in them and bring it forth to create a personal piece of art. He would always tell me that everyone has that talent; it just has to be accessed and developed. He did it with the most difficult kids in school, and usually with multiple sections, all in one class. And he never let it pass that the piece they produced would still be on their mantle 30 years from now when my science tests wand labs were long forgotten…Many of those kids just came to school just for his class and then left.

My new school is a different place than where my Dad taught. We have a commons area, comprised of the cafeterias, a beautiful student activities center with an open-air courtyard, our library, and a wide area of hallway where multiple hallways come together in an area that creates a large open space. Kids have access to travel through all of these areas during their open periods.

It’s not unusual to see a student playing a guitar in this area in an impromptu coffeehouse session. It took me a while to get used to this type of space, and the openness it affords (kids also can use ipods), but kids like it as you might imagine, and it generally works pretty well.

Another observation about my new school: the kids in our school actually like coming to school. Having a few freedoms like the commons area is only a part of that, and those freedoms provide an environment that enable kids to connect with other kids.

Simply stated, successful teachers, and successful schools, find ways to develop and deepen those connections. Those connections typically occur, and are probably expected to occur in formal traditional learning spaces, i.e. classrooms. But what about informal learning opportunities, and the connections they afford? How well do we do in providing opportunities for informal learning to take place? Of course the danger in that is that we probably don’t want to formalize the informal and take away the essence of that experience. But we need these types of spaces, and opportunities for exploration beyond the classroom to be available inside of schools. And we need to support that with dollars and tools, with adults, and perhaps with policies that enable them to use the very tools that we ask them to lock away…

So when I saw this video, I thought of all of that.

Here are kids using their iphones and ipod Touch’s, and a variety of apps, to play music. I can see kids doing this in our open areas, and I can see them doing this in our V-Show (Variety Show), perhaps even part of a club. Couldn’t you see kids downloadiing an a cappella from ccmixter and adding their ipod Touch instrumental to it, and contributing it back?That would obviously be pretty cool. But what would they learn? Certainly it would be an opportunity to teach them about remix culture, something that most do now and not very well, and something that they will interact with for the rest of their lives. For me, that’s huge, and it adds additional authenticity and relevancy.I can also see kids using these tools as part of a music class. Why not? Would we get pushback from music educators? Administrators? Parents?Would experiences like this potentially attract more student to music? Or should we leave them to do all of this on their own? Would we be too intrusive?I don’t think so.

And speaking of the ipod Touch and the iPhone, shouldn’t we be teaching kids how to develop applications form them? Stanford offers a free 10-week online course, with content available at their iTunes site. Should we publicize that, encourage that kind of learning, and provide assistance when necessary? I wonder how many teachers have taken this course, on their own, and brought their own informal learning back to class?

We are still a school. We have a responsibility to teach kids, and we should do so with everything at our disposal. If that means using an ipod Touch in a music class then so be it. If it means saying that you can use your personal ipod Touch to play music in school, then so be it.

We also have a responsibility to extend our expectations of what learning is, and where it can take place. Technology today permits learning to take place without the limitations of time, space, and place. A hallway, a commons area, can be a learning space. It doesn’t have have to be a classroom. And we don’t necessarily have to structure it for them. Providing the opportunity and structuring and controlling the opportunity are different things, aren’t they?

We also have a responsibility to find ways to provide experiences for those that cannot afford these technologies at home. And that means doing so at school.

The more that kids are connect to each other, to adults, and to the school community, the more ways we can find to develop talent, the more environments for learning that we provide and support, both formal and informal, the better off our schools will be.

The better off the kids will be.

UPDATE: be sure to read this interesting perception of informal learning, with a new term I had never heard of to describe mobile devices…

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