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Brookline, MA, United States
I'll post rants here, and musings; articles and thoughts about articles. I'll keep it quite complex and yet astoundingly simple: whatever it is I am interested in at any given moment.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Blowing up Formal/Informal Education: A First (Stream-of-Consciousness) Stab

Distinguishing Between so-called “Formal” and so-called “Informal” Education

I have a number of posts in the queue that are to be about my favorite professor here in Israel, Zvi Bekerman. I’ll leave the background to another post, but last week in our Ethnography class, Zvi said something so obvious that I had never thought of before (and had never heard anyone say before) which I think has profound implications for my dissertation and the conversation about so-called “formal” and so-called “informal” education.

Zvi pointed out that the essence of a “formal” education is its abstraction.

One is removed from the “real” world into a structured, formalistic setting that is governed by its own rules where “learning” happens. In that setting, for some reason, 2 + 2 = 4 has real meaning, and that B- on your English essay somehow becomes more important (at least temporarily) then whether or not your ability to write (and to get help with your writing) can convince someone of something (like letting you into college, or giving you a grant).

Zvi’s point helped contextualize for me an article I read last year that helped me see one of the fatal flaws in the Jewish community’s usage of the term “informal education.” In this article, the origins of the formal-informal distinction are traced back to their anthropological context, where so-called “civilized” systems had formal education (i.e., schooling as we know it) whereby “less civilized” systems had a non-school system that usually involved embedded or contextualized learning (or, to call it what it is: immediately useful learning, not needing to be re-mediated [i.e., recontextualized] because the learning itself lacked mediation [i.e., it was unmediated]).

One reason why the phrase “informal education” is so terrible is that it doesn’t mean what we think it means (props to Rob Reiner, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, and William Goldman). To go a step further: what we call informal education is not informal education (I’ll clarify this in a moment) – even in its most absolute and extreme forms.

Another point that Zvi likes to make – and rivaling his abstraction one in brilliance and duh-ness – is that the best thing children do is learn; learning is automatic, it happens constantly. Therefore, there is a need for Scheffler and other philosophers of education to define “education” as something other than learning, for without the כוונה to educate, anything and everything would be educative settings (including, in a Seussian way, leaving the kids at home with a communist cat to wreak havoc). But intention itself cannot be enough, for then we would have to consider what good parents do at most moments during which they are involved in their children’s lives “education” as well, and that leaves us on a slippery slope back to “everything and anything” and with terribly low expectations for what we call education. So we build other things into the definition (you’ll excuse me, I’m not holding on to any definition of education this second, so I cannot parse an existing one, though that’s what I should be doing) that help direct us towards what happens in classrooms in schools with abstract, mediated knowledge because, well, we know what that is – it’s education. Such definitions, however, most often remove all the other things we learn in school, things that are unmediated, like sharing, functioning in a political climate, and making appropriate wisecracks. And I’m not exactly sure what these philosophers do with things that began as mediated uselessness in the classroom but that end up as unmediated usefulness: writing (as we transition from drawing a “c” to being able to sign our name or write a letter); reading (similarly); making an argument (from 9th grade writing and learning about the scientific method to seamlessly presenting hypotheses, rationales, evidence, implications, and conclusions as we speak, write, and think); et c.

So, then, to repeat, formal education is abstract education, is memorizing the planets in the solar system and the multiplication tables (but only up to 12 x 12) and the capitals of the states and Linnaeus’s system of binomial nomenclature. Eventually, abstract education goes beyond simple memorization, to abstract usages that might somehow be relevant (word problems in math, for example; learning from history, though much less likely), though they return again, inevitably (if you’re successful) to wholly abstract concepts (calculus; quantum mechanics; historiography).

Informal education is that education by which pre-literate (or just pre-educational) societies somehow readied their children to be good citizens, civically (redundant, I know), economically, morally, and more, without schools – through apprenticeships of one sort or another, always embedded in the real world or in rituals meant to create meaning out of that real world.

4 Stages of Education at Camp

So, before getting to the question I’m currently trying to wrap my head around – what happens when the world is

run on abstractions and the means of the formal and informal seem to merge (their ends, of course, having always merged to a great extent) – I’d like to briefly analyze what I will call the four (fluid) categories of education in what the Jewish community unfortunately calls “informal education” (full disclosure: I’m going to be talking about camps here, and the extent to which this stuff is transferable to schools, youth groups, and other immersive programs [i.e., AJWS, מסע, et c.] will have to be worked out later). Before delving into the categories themselves, one note about skills, content, and orientation: for the purposes of this schematic, I insist (we’ll see if this holds up) that each category possesses learning of skills (things we do); content (things we ‘know’ – damned epistemology requiring me to put that in single quotation marks); orientations (ways we think and do). I’ve tried to separate them from each other, but I don’t think it works.

And, for the sake of fairness, I’ll exclude non-purposive learning from the discussion of informal education as most do for formal education, though this is a distinction that is not tenable in my mind. The real world is set up to teach us things accidentally; and good educators help people see these things more readily. Good educators set up environments over which they have some control to teach maximally while minimizing effort (there is no other way – too much to teach). (And what, exactly, do we do with a situation whereby someone learns something purposively and then repeats that learning, more profoundly, at a later moment without any purposefulness on behalf of the original educator?)

Stage 1 (the closest to informal): so-called “teachable moments”

These are those moments which take advantage of being to provide for learning that is pretty close to unmediated.


- that conversation you have walking from the חדר אוכל to your צריף with your counselor about the girl you like, why you’re upset, or that thing you learned in archery earlier in the day

- someone pointing out the ברכה you say over a rainbow, impending thunderstorm, or sweet-smelling flower upon one’s organic encounter (because you’re at camp) with said natural phenomenon

It is essential to note, however, that this category, though it is irrefutably the most informal of the four (relying on no formal structure other than life) cannot be what the social sciences mean by “informal education” because this type of education happens in every setting and the comparison of schooled civilizations to un-schooled civilizations does not mean to imply (quite the contrary, I think) that the un-schooled civilizations are at a deficit for not having schools. In fact, I might suggest that the usage of “informal education” is meant to show to the so-called civilized world how absurd it is that we spent millennia calling non-Western societies “uncivilized” when, even without schooling, they managed to transfer information from one generation to the next with, seemingly, as much efficiency as we did. In other words, the equation is not: informal education + formal education = Western (schooled) civilization and informal education + 0 = non-Western (un-schooled) civilization. In fact, even conceding the emphasis on the liberal arts in schooled societies, the equation must be something more like: informal education + Stage 1-ish activities = formal education + Stage 1-ish activities. Or, to put it more blatantly, formal education and informal education must essentially accomplish the same things.

Stage 2: embedded activities

These are most of the things we think of when we talk about what we “do” at camp.


- organized sport activities (remember: purposive)

- studio arts classes

- performing arts classes

- תפילה

- ניקיון

- שירה/ריקוד בציבור

Note that these embedded activities are, by definition (duh), embedded in the acquisition of unmediated knowledge and skills. The purpose of the sports practice is to improve one’s individual or the team’s collective abilities to play that sport; participation in the woodworking or arts & crafts activity is the creation of something. Similarly, singing in a group is just that, singing, as is the act of communal prayer. Which is not to say that part of these activities cannot be abstract to a certain degree (i.e., the recounting of a certain play that Duke used in their run to the 1992 national title in men’s basketball, or the historical context of a folk song, or a discussion about what a certain prayer means) but the essence of the activity is embedded (this is part of the problem when the world we live in today operates on abstractions). For if any abstraction disqualified something as embedded, then going to a concert is not an embedded activity, nor would be reading a book or watching a performance – for all of them serve to provide some abstraction, part of our thirst for knowledge.

Stage 3 – abstract activity (i.e., “educational programming”)

A constructed activity that is not, essentially embedded. However, the abstraction’s educational purpose makes the actual knowledge content of the abstract learning the figurative gravy on the meat that is the broader educational goal.


- Shabbat afternoon שיחות (even if they’re not שיחות)

- תכנון ליום מיוחד

- פעולות צריף (with rich educational content; most פעולות צריף would fall into what I would call Stage 0: organized play)

This is the category that is my first love in education and also the category that seems to get the least amount of attention in any educational literature. It is the category that is most often utilized in schools in what is called “experiential” or “informal” settings (though experiential should really refer to more embedded experiences).

At the same time, the distinctions between Stage 3 and Stage 4 (below) are not particularly clear to me at the moment, and they may end up being conflated into each other, with or without another conflation of Stage 4 into the category that would include schooled classroom settings. I believe, however, that the notion that imparting the knowledge content of such programs is, at the end of the day, perhaps the least important goal of the program itself, whereas that does not hold in Stage 4 and classroom settings (where the abstract learning is, at the end of the day, the most important thing, if only for the sake of the integrity of the abstract setting in which that learning takes place).

Stage 4 (closest to, or actually, formal) – abstract curriculum-centered encounters

An abstract activity where the central focus and import of the activity is the abstracted content.


- text classes

- Hebrew classes

I believe that Stage 4 and “formal” education are one in the same, in spite of the differences others might point out. The difference in setting seems to me wholly insignificant, arguing that a college course that met outside on the grass is somehow different than that same course meeting around a seminar table. The difference in assessment for the class also appears to be unessential, as long-term assessments for either cohort would, I imagine, demonstrate similar retentions in two classes that spent the same amount of time on the Joseph narrative, one with formalized assessments in school and one with no formal assessment in camp. Additionally, a project that would be quite similar to a formal assessment could be given in camp, thereby equalizing the intellectual work of the students (if not necessarily the stakes of that work).

Embedding and Abstraction in Today’s World

I’ve defined formal education as abstract and informal education as embedded. But what happens if we exist in a world where abstractions have so pervaded our existence that they are now the tools by which we navigate society? In other words, if an informal educational experience would be defined as being embedded in abstractions, whereby a formal educational experience would be similarly defined?

In other words (and perhaps I am a victim of my own circumstances, unable to look beyond my own experience to see the essence of globalized civilization in late 2008) I am no longer sure that one does not need to learn a bunch of abstractions in order to function (again: civically, economically, and morally) in contemporary society, and though I know that formal education teaches extraneous abstractions (like the extra-credit quizzes in my A.P. U.S. Government and Comparative Politics course consisting of blank continental maps on which we were to fill in the names of the countries), I’m not sure if informal education would look substantively different. Or, to put it in a different (more compelling?) way: I’m not sure if you need to learn much of what we learn in formal education today in order to do the things to function in society – that the outcomes build on each other, that the skills and orientations are as important as the content.

One more complexity: camp. Is the purpose of camp the building of Jewish identity? Learning how to live in (nonexistent) encompassing Jewish environments? Is that not an abstract purpose? Isn’t the whole endeavor abstract? Or as abstract as a school is, what where you learn certain skills in embedded ways (i.e., how to play with others, how to navigate a סידור) or rote ways (i.e., the Pledge of Allegiance, ברכת המזון)? So how does the embedded vs. abstract distinction play in today’s setting?

1 comment:

Bradley said...

Jacob - thank you for sharing this. First, I loved learning with Zvi as well. He is great for pushing assumptions and boundaries.

Your writing is really helpful but you seem to both reject and embrace the continuum between formal and informal. I tend to simply reject it and am looking for completely alternative models.

At the same time I am rejecting the term "informal" for all the reasons you state and more. We definitely, thank you for taking a stab, need to create a richer lexicon of what we do do as opposed to what we do not do.

One thought - and I need to do more thinking about this - is that you do not seem to be acknowledging one vital element - that of partnership or in other words - communities of learning (Barbara Rogoff et al - ask Tamar for a related article that I love). In short, one central element in my view to effective education (not only experiential) and it can take place in a classroom or anywhere else - is the role of the learner as constructor of the learning in close partnership with the educator. You allude to this but I think it needs its own category - maybe as one that transcends several of your four. Good educators (of any label), in my humble opinion, partner with the learner in many ways to construct learning experiences, learning together and assess the learning (reflect on the learning) this transforms both the learner and the educator.

Would love to continue this conversation. Its very important.