By Dale A. Blyth, Ph.D., February guest blogger
In my earlier post this month I spoke of the necessity of equal learning opportunities in not only the formal but also the informal and non-formal learning approaches available to young people beyond the classroom. For more on that inequality theme you might want to read recent blogs by John Kuhn.
But today I want to ask whether all three types of learning opportunities are separate and equally important? Do the inequities in these informal and non-formal learning opportunities really matter? Briefly consider results from four studies:
- One found 75% of Nobel-prize winning scientists (PDF, 23 KB) first got excited and engaged in science in informal and non-formal ways — not in the classroom.
- Another estimates that over 25% of the achievement gap in 9th grade test scores can be explained by differences in learning opportunities before they started school (inequality in early childhood learning opportunities) while almost half can be explained by difference due to summer learning loss (PDF, 328 KB) (inequalities in informal and non-formal learning opportunities over the summer from first to sixth grade). The gap actually closed during the school year.
- Another study that beeped youth at different times during the day and asked whether they were concentrating and motivated (two important conditions for learning) found that youth in schools were concentrating slightly more but not very motivated, youth with friends were highly motivated but not concentrating, and only youth in non-formal learning opportunities were both concentrating and more motivated.
- Finally, when elementary and middle school youth who are typically on the wrong side of the achievement gap became engaged in quality non-formal afterschool learning opportunities, over two years their math achievement scores improved more than three times as much as seen in a study that lowered student teacher ratios in math classes.
Each approach to learning adds to both the learning process and its outcomes.
We often think about formal educational opportunities as the “engine” of learning — and rightly so. But what research shows us is that we need a car not just an engine if learning is to go anywhere.
Perhaps if we recognized that informal learning opportunities provide the structure that learning needs for an engine to deliver its power we would invest more in it.
Perhaps if we recognized that non-formal opportunities put wheels on learning that allows it to go, we would think more about the ways communities, including schools, support youth programs, camps, and other community learning opportunities beyond the classroom.
And, perhaps most importantly, if we recognized that a young person’s engagement and passion for learning provides the very fuel needed to drive learning anywhere, we would pay more attention and allocate more resources to understanding, assessing and improving how youth become engaged youth in their own learning in all these approaches.
Just like for effective transportation, we need a complete vehicle and road system to get anywhere. Learning requires more working “parts” than just an engine — no matter how powerful — that play separate but equally important roles in moving learning along. These parts need to come together in comprehensive systems as a recent report on supporting youth success (PDF, 1.9 MB) notes.
One final point on the “separate and equally important” idea — it also applies to what we must measure and monitor for success. Just as one cannot keep a car working and moving forward by only assessing the odometer that tells you how far it has gone (like achievement tests do for learning), if we want to close gaps in learning outcomes, we must find separate but important measures that tells us how our learning vehicle is working and how far it is getting in its journey.
While this must include assessing the effectiveness of the formal engine of schooling, it also includes monitoring the support from the people in our youths’ lives to make sure the appropriate lubrication is there and the “pressure” is there for performance. It includes a fuel gauge that monitors whether the young person is on empty or full of a passion for learning. It might mean assessing our communities to ensure they have multiple on ramps to learning through a systematic approach to informal and non-formal community learning opportunities.
Perhaps in the end it is important to simply recognize that a successful learning journey takes more than good schools. It takes many separate but equally important parts that come together effectively and interesting places to go. Perhaps as John Kuhn argues in the blogs noted earlier that it is time to recognize poverty and its effects on learning are not inevitable. Isn’t it time for policy “mechanics” to recognize that it requires more than tuning up schools to close the learning opportunities gap.