Finding a Balance Between Formal and Informal Learning

Learning can be formal, informal, or anywhere in between. Formal learning is planned, and it often includes set curricula and tests. Informal learning is generally spontaneous and based on real-life experiences. At Clonlara, we believe students learn best with a personalized combination of the two.

In this blog post, Clonlara parent Csilla leads us through her thoughts on formal vs. informal learning and shares her family’s journey toward finding their own balance. Csilla details her family’s creation of beautifully illustrated summary cards as a tool for bringing joy into learning and making informal learning experiences visible.

Learning always happens on a formal-informal spectrum, meaning that some parts of it will be more structured while others will always be more organic. When as parents we would like to follow the learning journey of our children, it is easy to focus only on the formal structure because it is more tangible and seems easier to oversee. The formal structure can give us a feeling of safety because it is logical, well planned out, and visible. 

However, this might not be the best way to do it. 

The 70-20-10 Model

I recently came across an older paper on learning and development (Lombardo & Eichinger, 1996) in which researchers asked 200 participants in a work environment about how they believed they learned. Their research found that about 70 percent of learning happens informally, through experience; 20 percent from interactions with others; and only 10 percent by tangible coursework and training. Currently there is debate around the exact percentages, and I am sure that there is no bulletproof formula for every situation; but this 70-20-10 model makes me think that we really need to look at the whole learning spectrum if we want to support our kids in the best way possible. We can’t play it safe. We can’t miss 90 percent of their learning. 

Balancing Formal and Informal Learning

I have three children (almost 8, 10, and 12). Learning is truly infused into every moment of my family’s daily life. We are all curious lifelong learners. We travel, we discover, we read a lot, and we have amazing conversations about interesting topics at the most unexpected times of the day.  

As a formal structure, we use Clonlara School’s Full Circle Learning (FCL) Model. This model doesn’t only focus on the content; it puts the child and their whole learning process in the center. Yes, we have formal plans for each of our children, and they also get grades at the end. But at the same time, this framework allows me to help my kids become conscious about their learning process, including the whole spectrum of formal and informal learning.  

Field trips, deep conversations at the dinner table, the youngest’s stone collection in his pocket, cooking together—these can all count as learning.  

Still, at first, making sense of these experiences with my young kids wasn’t as easy for me as you might think.  

Honestly, informal learning experiences like listening to a song can feel really fragile. It is amazing when you see that a melody truly touched your kid. But sometimes, if you try to grab the moment and intentionally insert it into her curriculum, the whole magic can immediately dissolve into molecules.  

If your youngest finds a beautiful feather in the forest, he may want to know to whom it belonged, but sometimes he will simply roll his eyes if you start talking about it instead of letting him play with it. 

I would say the most challenging part as a parent is that there is no rule about when we can start a meaningful conversation about an experience with the kids, and when it is better to step back, simply be present, and forget about metacognition. The good news is that we can always be authentic and our attachment to our children will always support us in experimenting with this process. 

Tools for Making Learning Visible

The summary, portfolio, presentation, and reflection segments of the FCL also helped me a lot. Does your daughter like Vasarely’s Zebras? Did she have an exciting field trip to an open-air museum like Greenfield Village

Yes, you can always talk about experiences like these with children on the spot or later, to help them make the learning conscious. But there are other creative methods to discover as well, and you can select what suits the situation and your child best.  

Children can explain how something felt in the form of a poem or a short story, they can create a video, take a photo, draw a picture, join a club—anything can work. I usually let them come up with their own ideas or suggest some and let them decide. 

Creating Summary Cards

Our latest creative project was creating summary cards. We fell in love with watercolors recently, and I think we all needed a reason to paint more after running out of wall space and storage areas. 

Some of these cards (currently we have 39 of them, and they live in a nice wooden box) are rooted in our formal learning experiences, but we always spice them up with other memories connected to the topic. For example, the card about “air” does not only show the figures we saw in the kids’ textbooks. My daughter drew Szilárd Suhajda (whose sad story we heard about in the news last May) on the top of the mountain, she put our family hiking in the forest, and she included a little reminder of a local event where a lady was experimenting with surgical gloves in a vacuum. (That was a really funny experiment, by the way!)  

These cards tell stories. They evoke our memories of smells, tastes, feelings, sounds… For us, they are way more than just illustrations or learning tools. 

As a bonus, the laminated card format proved to be really durable and allowed us to play with the cards freely. They sparked great conversations while we were sitting on the carpet together looking at them. It was a bit like looking at family photos together. The kids discovered connections and analogies between different topics, they used critical thinking, and they naturally practiced interlinking learning. They also presented their own topics to each other, and they discovered why it is necessary to have a certain vocabulary if you want to explain things well for others. 

Obviously, copying images from books did make it easier for my kids to recall the tiniest pieces of information, as well. No wonder research also proves that projects like this make learning more effective! But I don’t only want to give you another effective way to learn. 

My hope with sharing our project is that looking at these cards will bring you joy, like it brought us joy to make them. I also hope they will inspire you to make your invisible, informal learning experiences visible—in ways that fit YOU the best. 

What tools does your family use to make learning visible? Let us know in the comments below!

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