The characteristics of formal learning

The new learning architect

Throughout 2011 we will be publishing extracts from The New Learning Architect. We move on to chapter 7:

Having explored the contextual model from top to bottom, it is time to begin a closer examination of the four main contexts in which learning takes place in the workplace, starting with formal learning. Why start with the fourth of the contexts, rather than working from left to right? Well, simply because formal learning is what most people focus on when they think about learning at work. For many, learning means courses, and typically it means those courses where teachers and trainers provide instruction to a group of learners in a classroom.

Both formal and non-formal learning are proactive approaches, with the same overall goal of equipping employees with the knowledge and skills that they require to meet present and future job responsibilities. The difference with formal learning is in the way that this task is tackled.

Formal learning experiences are typically packaged as ‘courses’ or ‘programmes’. These tend to have a number of features in common:

  • Objectives that describe, in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudinal change, what learning is intended to result from successful completion of the course or programme. Some courses may adopt a more learner-centred approach, focusing on the goals of the learners themselves, but it would still be highly unlikely for a formal learning intervention to have no objectives at all, whether or not these are made explicit.
  • An established curriculum or learning plan, which sets out how the learning objectives are to be achieved in terms of the topics to be covered and/or the activities to be undertaken.
  • Content assembled by or with reference to acknowledged subject experts. At the very least this content is likely to consist of a simple trainer guide or lecture notes. More commonly, it will extend to slides, videos and other visual aids, handouts, job aids and reference books. And where self-study forms an important part of the intervention, the content could include workbooks, online reference materials, interactive tutorials and simulations.
  • A designated teacher, trainer or tutor to facilitate the learning process. The role of this person or persons will vary widely depending on the type of intervention and pedagogical approach, from a formal instructor to a subject expert, a coach, an assessor, a moderator or a curator. In cases where the intervention consists entirely of unsupported self-study, there will, of course, be no role at all.
  • Some form of assessment, to determine whether the learning objectives have been achieved. Where a qualification is being awarded, this assessment could be elaborate, requiring an exam, a practical assessment, or the formal submission of a paper or portfolio. In other cases, the process of assessment could be much less formal, perhaps a practical exercise or a quiz.

Coming next in chapter 7When formal learning does the job

Return to Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6

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About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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