Learning in, and out, of school

April 19, 2023

Learning is not limited to school and school is not the only avenue to learn new things. Yet these two are often conflated, with school being labeled as the “best” place to learn, especially for children.

I keep returning to the idea that in-school learning struggles to provide authentic experiences because it often strips important context from the content (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). When the language, behaviors, and attitudes of practitioners of a particular skill are missing, the learning experience is sanitized in a way and students only get a portion of the potential learning. School also continues to emphasize the individual performance which misses the value in shared knowledge and growth as a result of participation. Ultimately, it is up to the learner on whether or not to engage. Schools can adapt and evolve to become more authentic, but at the end of the day, we have to be ready to engage in topics which might not initially grab our attention.

For me, the more compelling argument for formal schooling is teaching students to transfer skill to novel situations. Resnick (1987) notes that schooled individuals are better at forming strategies to novel situations which use their training whereas unschooled individuals, who have well-developed similar skills, are worse. There are cases where subject-specific training is critical and school is the best mechanism in which to learn requisite skills (Resnick, 1987). Formal education has a role, but the continued focus on individual achievement perpetuates the “school” vs “real-world” myth. Learning in schools provides collective opportunities for students to grow with one another in a safe, supportive environment. As a result, learners more readily engage in the process because it is learning with an end goal, not learning for the sake of learning.

To drive engagement in schools, it is incumbent on the teacher to know their students and to empower them to incorporate outside knowledge. Gee (2004) calls these open forums for sharing “affinity spaces”: physical or digital gatherings where all members - from novices to experts - are contributors and learners together. Our opportunity in schools is to create spaces which acknowledge the diversity of experience and curiosities to drive learning.

Calvin and Hobbes author Bill Watterson explored this idea in a strip from 1989. Calvin’s family has just returned from a trip to the natural history museum where he spent much of the visit explaining dinosaurs to his parents. That evening, his dad is wondering why he doesn’t like school when he obviously likes learning. Calvin responds to the question, “So why don’t you like school?” with “We don’t read about dinosaurs.”

This response is supported by Fallik, Rosenfeld, & Eylon (2013) observing that students who show low interest in science in school often choose to participate in out-of-school science experiences. Their recommendation is to do more to engage students in their background knowledge to drive engagement during in-class activities.

This can be transferred into any area. The students are ultimately the ones who decide whether or not to engage in learning. They hold the power regardless of the context. Since there is evidence that learning is not dependent on location (school vs out of school) (Bybee, 2001; Walton, 2000 as cited in Fallik, Rosenfeld, & Eylon, 2013) as teachers, we need to consider the wider aspects of learning which will have long-lasting effects on students above specific content whenever possible.