An exercise in informal learning

East View of the Gateway of St Bennet's Abbey. John Sell Cotman, etching, 1813

Formal education refers to the institutional ladder that goes from preschool to graduate studies. This system has the following features:

a) it is highly institutionalized;

b) it includes a period called 'basic education' (which varies from country to country, and usually ranges from 6 to 12 years) which is compulsory, implements a prescribed curriculum --approved by the state-- with explicit goals and evaluation mechanisms, hires certified teachers, and institutional activities are highly regulated by the state.

c) each level prepares learners for the next one, and that to enter into a certain level it is a prerequisite to satisfactorily complete the previous level.

d) it is a hierarchical system, usually with ministries of education at the top and students at the bottom

e) at the end of each level and grade, graduates are granted a diploma or certificate that allows them to be accepted into the next grade or level, or into the formal labour market. Under this conceptualization, adult basic education programmes that follow the prescribed curriculum and employ certified teachers can also be understood as part of formal education, although some people prefer to call them 'paraformal' (in the sense that they are in between the realm of the formal and the non-formal systems).

In constrast, Iinformal learning can be defined as "any activity involving the pursuit of understanding, knowledge or skill which occurs outside the curricula of educational institutions, or the courses or workshops offered by educational or social agencies. Put it in other words, the category of informal learning includes all learning that occurs outside the curriculum of formal and non-formal educational institutions and programmes. If we define informal learning as something that takes place outside formal education and non-formal education, a few words about these two concepts are needed.

Informal learning requires a focus for personal enquiry, such as a text, or a physical object to serve as an icon. St Benet's Abbey deep in Norfolk's Broadland is such an icon. The abbey was originally founded on an island called Cowholme in AD 800. The current remains are part of the Benedictine foundation that was endowed in 1020 and was combined with the Bishopric of Norwich in 1539. These remains include a 14th century gatehouse encased in an 18th century windmill tower, parts of a precinct wall and ruins of a church. The church was extensively rebuilt in the 14th and 15th century. There are also earthworks of monastic buildings south of the church, an earlier monastic boundary, a series of elaborate fishponds and a range of monastic buildings on the edge of the river. Cropmarks of further buildings at the site are visible on aerial photographs.

The abbey and windmill were first brought into informal education because they were a common subject for painters of the Norwich School in the early years of the 19th century.

St Bennet's Abbey,John Sell Cotman, Watercolour (1831)

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