This is the first in a series of guest blogs by the CREATE Lab Team.
Informal Learning in Formal Learning Spaces
By MaryLu Hutchins
I wrote these words a year ago using the lens of a public school teacher as I contemplated the potential impacts of #thefluencyproject: “Education for all in the United States was created as a basis for a democratic society. In the information age, development of student voice allows for teaching and learning to support growth across all divides as we use data based reasoned thinking to level the playing field. In serving this greater purpose as educators, we promote data fluency to empower our students.”
Now as an informal educator, I have updated my position statement to say: “Development of student voice is vital to the contemporary vision of teaching and learning. Within fluency frameworks, students and teachers are co-powered to investigate data. In doing so, they invest in working together to build compelling narratives, illuminate statistics and collectively design appropriate structures to share their learning experiences and perspectives."
While my belief system remains solid, my knowledge base expanded dramatically through my experiences of working with the magnificent CREATE Team and our beautiful Teacher Cohort. My investigation started with an important query: “What might educators learn from exploring informal learning spaces?” As the cohort made site visits to several CREATE Lab partner locations and reflected on their great works and messages we heard, teachers and team members entered a new realm to become learners. The most powerful message that arose for me was a reinforcement of my belief that strong and supportive Relationships (an intentional capital R) create the foundations needed for experimentation, mistake making, iteration, and genuine sustainable learning. With mentors to guide, support and sometimes challenge the process, learning is rooted, becomes distinct, and takes on a life of its own.
The informal learning spaces demonstrated very high mentor- learner ratios and this seemed crucial to nourishing early learner persistence in chosen tasks/adventures. Once established, the mentor - learner relationship ebbed and flowed according to need, while remaining a constant in the life of the young person. Formal learning spaces by their very definition move students from grade level to grade level and from teacher to teacher, making sustained relationships a challenge at best.
A former librarian, now an informal learning space mentor, explicitly discussed the challenge of luring the learner into an informal learning space. Exemplifying the exact opposite of formal learner spaces, where the learner is required by code to show up, adults in informal learning spaces make the time to listen closely to learner feedback. Thus enabling constant adjustments in the informal environment, student voice contributes significantly to evolution of the informal learning space. This interplay becomes a burgeoning example of youth voice and speaks to the value of collaboration while exploring the technology that is mainstream beyond school contexts. For educators, that challenge is very real: “Are we prepared to build ‘in school frameworks’ where adults are given the time to develop and mentor student interests?” “ Do we believe that student interests and strengths should guide our work?” “Are we prepared to listen to our students, from PreK- 12th grade, to actually hear and understand what they are telling us?”
Education continues its function as the basis for a democratic society. Democracy functions because we choose to invest in the greater good by responsible engagement in choice and ideology. The diversity of learners and their “ways of knowing” within larger systems in the information age present many challenges. Sharing ideas and caring about universal quality of life separates humans from chaos. Nurturing students and humanizing our schools means that we must listen closely to remain centered on learners’ needs, encourage social responsiveness and sustain caring relationships. Our students are our future. If we want student leadership to grow, as educators, we are obligated to model student-centered design and focus on cultivating and endorsing student voice.