Informal vs. Formal Education: How do we bridge the gap?

By: C. Meghan Hausman

Now that we have completed our 2-week summer academy with the students, we are able to take a step back and reflect on our work. Our staff for the summer academy was split into a few groups: researchers (who took fastidious notes on their observations), mentors (who guided the students through their inquiry process), and experts (who led mini-lectures, closed (guided) makes, and taught the basics needed for the technology such as breadboards or Makey Makeys). Between the mountains of data to go over (video, sound, journaling, observation notes, worksheets, etc.), our research team has their work cut out for them! Throughout the entirety of the program, we struggled to stay within the constraints of our roles and were constantly redefining our duties and functions as not only individuals but as a collective staff. We quickly came to realize that our original definitions of informal and formal learning were not necessarily the same across the board within our team, or within the industry for that matter; due to the diverse nature of our group, we had to reevaluate what these spaces truly embodied.

Many view a formal learning space as a classroom, a place with desks, anchor charts, students perhaps working in small groups, and one teacher to 25-40 students; this is the traditional view of a classroom at least.We came to realize throughout the process that what we initially thought was informal, actually was very formal to others. For example, we (NEIU/UIC staff) saw our summer program as rather informal in nature since it was hands on, student interest driven most of the time, alternative time/location/arrangement, and was outside of the classroom. Our mentors (library staff/makerspace educators), on the other hand, thought that we had created a rather formal learning environment due to the mini-lectures, closed makes, suggested journaling/worksheets, and pre/post-assessment. This difference in opinion made us all realize that the bridge between informal and formal educators may be larger and more vague than we imagined, making this project’s goals even more important.

We wholeheartedly believe that making has a place in both the informal and formal arenas of education. That being said, why does it have to be one or the other? While we had our disagreements, our students who attended our summer program most definitely benefitted from the array of diverse teaching styles present within the staff. As we move forward now, we must ask whether we will tailor different programs to align more with formal or informal sectors, or continue to bridge the gap and create new, innovative spaces for students to learn in. Will formal education always look like what it does now? Of course not, but is there a place where the two worlds can meet harmoniously within the realm of assessment, Common Core, NGSS, etc.? We sure hope so!

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