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Friday, March 4, 2011

How Formal Do You Think You Are?


When you are working in music education there is a big chance that at some point you will find yourself entangled in a discussion on formal and informal learning - and maybe even on non-formal learning. And you will probably find out that definitions are mostly totally unclear (there is, however, a 2009-article by my highly estimated colleague Peter Mak that may shed some light in this darkness).

I do not intend to go into this definition question here (and hopefully not elsewhere, either; but I can’t make promises). But what interests me is that there appears to be a kind of good guy – bad guy atmosphere around the terms. Formal learning, which, according to many, is often the type of learning taking place in institutional settings such as schools, is definitely the bad guy: the learner has no command over what he learns and how he learns and therefore motivation dwindles. And informal learning is the good guy, because this is what people do when they learn something because they really want it, and they do so by asking the neighbor or the best friend to teach them the trick.


Because of this western-like scenario in learning, there are many attempts to introduce elements of informal learning in schools. Informal learning is the model. Of course I appreciate this. Any serious attempt to foster the effects of our formal education system has to be taken very seriously; and motivation is a big big problem in schools, especially in secondary schools, especially on the lower levels, and very often in the music subject. But I always wonder how much informality a formal setting can bear, and which elements of formal learning we should cherish because they are important. We did not invent schools for nothing, I presume; maybe formal learning is in some cases more effective, or maybe the emancipatory role of education is mainly thanks to it being a formal system open for all? Or should we re-open Ivan Illich’s “deschooling society”-debate?

There is another side to the discussions I would like to point out. In the attempts to infiltrate elements of informal learning in formal education systems, I sometimes read descriptions which seem to imply that informal learning is something new, and that the old formal school system should learn from it. I am writing a piece on informal learning in music, and in the instruction for authors the writers mention that informal settings seem to advance more and more in amateur arts practices, and that the more formal organizations such as municipal music schools have to formulate an answer to that. I quote: “In the world of the arts many self-educated people are to be found, of which many reach a surprisingly high level”.

Of which many reach a surprisingly high level is the text to be highlighted. Where is the surprise in that? It is only a surprise if you think that the only, the royal, the oldest or simply the best way to for example learn to play music is to pay for weekly lessons in a music school. But maybe that is only the case in classical music and maybe some bits of jazz (I leave many non-western traditions out of this now). And even then one often wonders whether this is really necessary the case, and whether the intimate linkage of genre (classical) and type (formal) of education is a construct which could also be otherwise – and which, by the way, leads to great results but also to great problems.

Let us not forget that much learning today, maybe the bigger part of it, is done informally; and that formal learning is in the history of humanity probably a rather recent invention based on the results of much informal learning.

In any case, I am quite sure that “self-educated people” like The Beatles, Johnny Cash or Billie Holiday would have a good laugh about honest educators describing their level as “surprisingly high”.

Ivan Illich. Deschooling Society. New York: Penguin Books, 1984 (1971).

Peter Mak. “Formal, Non-Formal and Informal Learning in Music. A Conceptual Analysis.” In: Peter R√∂bke and Natalia Ardila-Mantilla (ed.), Vom wilden Lernen. Musizieren lernen - auch ausserhalb von Schule und Unterricht. Mainz: Schott Music, 2009, 31-44.

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