3 Learning contexts
The way in which leadership interacts with learning naturally depends on, and is influenced by, the context in which the learning is taking place. These are often categorised as informal or formal (Schön, 1983). Sefton-Green (2004) considers informal learning to include all those experiential aspects of learning that are ‘voluntary, accidental or embedded in people’s day-today lives’ (p. 2). For Rogers (2003) learning is categorised by the way in which learning takes place, rather than the context in which it takes place. Thus, formal learning is seen as that in which there is overt ‘instruction’, and informal learning is considered more serendipitous.
Thinking about your own context, identify where the learning of students, trainees or young people is formal and where it is informal.
Now consider your own learning – perhaps an aspect of professional development, or a course of study (like this one), or perhaps something that you are learning out of personal interest or so that you can carry out your role more effectively. Identify where this learning is formal and where it is informal.
In considering the types of learning, you should think about the way in which that learning is framed. Formal learning has elements of a defined curriculum – learning outcomes, programme of study, assessment. Informal learning may contribute to these but takes place in a less planned way. There are also dimensions of relationships between the teacher or trainer and the learner. These are more clearly defined for formal learning of students or pupils.
For your own learning you might consider how you gained experience, expertise and ability for the role, any professional development and updating courses that you have participated in. These are examples of formal learning. Informal learning would include working with others, self-development, reflection on practice, and so on. Relationships here also impact on your learning – with peers, with managers or more senior leaders, with more junior colleagues (e.g. in coaching or mentoring contexts where you learn as you help develop others).
While we have used formal and informal categories, Eraut (1994) suggests three contexts for learning:
- formal – e.g. in school or training where there is a set of intended learning outcomes that are usually subject to assessment
- informal – other learning that takes place in the formal setting (e.g. a school) but is not directly tied to the curriculum or assessment processes
- non-formal – learning that takes place in other settings.
It may be that this model is more pertinent to your situation. There are, of course, problems with any model that purports to categorise things in this way, as one is led to think about individual aspects or instances, of learning in this case, and to try to locate them in one category or another. The reality is probably less clear cut than this and the categories are blurred.
Just as we have discussed learning as being formal or informal, so we might refer to is as being planned or unplanned. Learning will be derived from the set curriculum, but other learning may take place that is not described by it. This gives rise to Eraut’s informal learning above and also to the notion of hidden curricula. Learning may come from explicit teaching, but it may also come from the atmosphere, the culture, the context, and so on.
That all learning cannot be planned also means that some learning will run counter to others. What pupils learn in the playground may contradict, or undermine, what they learn in the classroom. What a member of staff learns over coffee may be very different to what is learnt on professional development days. Much of this will be unknown or hidden from the ‘leader’. Here, again, is the need for the leader to be responsive to the context and to the behaviours of those being led.
In this activity, you are asked to consider models of learning applied to your own context.
Using the models of formal and informal learning above, or your own framework, note down your thoughts on the following questions:
- What constitutes different types of contexts for learning in your setting?
- How do these contexts for learning relate to your own position within the context? For example, do the different contexts give you different opportunities to learn?