Probably as soon as we can move any muscle in the womb of our mother, we start to learn. We go through 500 million years of stages of evolution that led to our species in just about 3 months and the remaining 6 months we spend there growing and learning. And learning we continue after that from birth till death. Be it in the later years, often learning not to trust others, not to trust our perceptions, not to trust our memories, not to trust ourselves. But we are not going deeper into that today 🙂
Organized education usually starts with kindergarten. When I formally visit the teacher in kindergarten – twice a year that is – she presents me an entire evaluation report, a check-list of what kids this age must be able to do and what not. They don’t get a certificate, but a curriculum exists, and there are conditions to be satisfied if the child wants to move on to primary school. Being present 220 half days during the last year of kindergarten is one of them. So in my country kindergarten is already part of formal education. But it is not strictly formal.
By definition a formal education program is the process of training and developing people in knowledge, skills, mind, and character in a structured and certified program. Kindergarten here seems to be quite formal, although not entirely satisfying its definition. The children are taught what manners are, although most of them already know from their upbringing at home (but some don’t).
In primary school and secondary school we see formal education at its best. There is structure and certification, and it is organized often by a state or country, sometimes by certified private organizations. The formal education slowly moves from conformist (adherent to the program) education to meritocratic (a system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement) education. The latter gives more freedom and responsibility to the student.
Beyond high-school, in many colleges and universities, the student can define her own program (usually this is in time and in subjects of secondary importance). But even here, most courses are taught in classrooms or auditoria, and there is less than often a dialogue with all participants. Two or three assertive individuals ask questions, and the otheres remain silent and keep hiding in the background.
Informal education tries to get rid of these walls of silence. The initiative comes from the student. We could call informal education perhaps assisted self study, which is of course a contradictio in terminis. The student creates her own program, and looks for a coach and teachers by herself. Creating a program is not even easy, but finding the right and affordable coaches is even more difficult.
However, formal education must precede informal education. Those basic subjects that you can get certified in, in a simple way, shouldn’t be attempted by informal education. It will take more resources than necessary on the side of the student, and gaps in the foundations might later paralyse advancement.
On the other hand, informal education is very important to feed creativity and a thorough understanding in the student. The student should not get too attached to the words of the coach/teacher/author. After an informal talk, she should write down her own digest of the matter. This digest becomes her interpretation, the product of her own creative mind. It is usually spiced up with own experiences and correlated knowledge, and often followed by deep questions, research and insight in the matter. This digest could later be read, if necessary anotated by the teacher. The learning process will gradually become more and more a dialogue, improving creative thinking in both student and coach.