Tony makes a distinction between directed learning goals (specific focus) and flow learning goals (non-specific, exploratory). Tony categorizes himself as a directed goal learner, while Michele shares her experience with the flow learning goal approach. Tony also seems to make the point that formal learning is better for directed goals, and informal learning is better for flow goals.
I see this differently. I think formal and informal learning are defined more by who sets the goals and designs the activity than by anything else. I set my own goals as a learner (directed or flow), and I look for ways to satisfy those goals. Sometimes I can engage with a formal learning event. But here’s a deep secret – I only take out of that event what I’ve chosen to learn (despite what the designer of the event thinks I should have learned from it). I also use informal learning strategies (reading, reflecting, talking to others) to achieve both types of goals.
Michele observes that social learning tools may be more appealing to people with flow learning goals, and I can certainly see that perspective. But I can also see the possibility of using social learning for some very directed goals. If I want to be able to “explain how <insert political persuasion> thinkers describe <pick an issue>,” I can follow and comment on (or ask questions on) their blogs. Specific goal – social learning tool.
I really like the distinction Tony makes between directed and flow goals, I’d just use it differently. Sometimes my goals are very specific… I need to learn how to use a software package, or I need to learn a new approach to my work. This is very directed stuff. I agree I’m more likely to use formal learning here, but informal is just as important. I may actually be quite planful about informal learning engagements (e.g. decide to observe some colleagues at work to discern an approach I might find helpful). I would argue, in fact, that unless we use informal means to support achievement of our directed goals, we’re going to be very disappointed in our progress (which is why I’m so interested in helping people learn how to learn through informal means).
Other times, my learning goals are more nebulous… I want to learn “something about….” or I keep my radar up on a number of topics of interest to me. These are what Tony might call my flow goals and are most often served by informal strategies. With flow goals, I don’t get too hung up on deciding exactly what I want to learn or how I’m going to apply it. I like having these flow goals articulated to some degree because it helps me to recognize learning opportunities that fortuitously cross my path. For example, this past weekend, I attended an event that I saw primarily as a networking opportunity and a chance to engage briefly with a topic that is on my radar. As it turned out, I was also able to quickly see how the event would help me in another area of interest and I engaged on that level as well (and learned more in that area than the other). If I had approached the event with only the formal goals in mind, I would have been disappointed.
Tony and Michele’s posts give me some insight into why business leaders can be so uncomfortable with informal learning. It’s hard for business leaders to imagine how directed learning goals (the ones they care about) can be achieved with an informal learning strategy. I would hate to see us begin to equate informal learning only with flow goals. I would argue informal learning is a critical strategy for achieving directed learning goals as well.