What Can Classroom Teachers Learn From Informal Learning Environments?

“Describe your most memorable learning experience.”

How many of us, as educators, have been asked to ponder this? After a group discussion and a common list of indicators about memorable learning experiences we are then asked to consider the implications for our own classrooms. What elements can be replicated in our classroom? What makes lifelong learning? Why do we remember one learning experience over others? And why are so many other learning opportunities forgotten?

I always fall back on my one particular memory when asked to describe my most memorable learning experience. It was the Ramses II exhibition and I was 8 years old. I remember every detail about that day, the curiosity, the wonder, even the confusion I confronted learning something brand new.  I remember the desire I had to learn more. I remember taking home the exhibition catalog and reading and rereading it. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s lap teaching her about every object in the catalog, rereading label text and introductions with her and anyone else I could convince to sit down with me. Even now, 30 years later, in the gut of my stomach, I can feel what I felt then, that passion and drive to know more and that need to tell the world what you know. That feeling is the goal of all teachers, right? We want to ignite that fire in our students. We want them to want to learn. We want them to get lost in their learning.

But, why is it that my most memorable learning experience has nothing to do with a teacher or a classroom, a textbook, or an assessment? And, why should we pay attention to what the answer to that question means for our classrooms?

Lifelong learning happens not only in museums; it also happens on the baseball field, in our kitchens, in parks, and on playgrounds. It’s all around us, and sometimes not in formal environments.

So, what is it about informal learning that leaves such a lasting impression?


This weekend I was in Washington, D.C. It was blistering hot outside and the line for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History was wrapped around the building. Families and individuals standing in the sun waiting to get in. Maybe they were looking for a reprieve from the heat, but I like to think it was more than that. In a place where there are plenty of museums, historic sites, and monuments to visit, these people were choosing their learning path for the day or afternoon. And, once inside, they would be able to choose what exhibits they viewed, their path through the museum, how long to read a label, and which programs to participate in. Their choices would most likely be influenced by their backgrounds, their interests, and their curiosity. How often do our students self-select the content they want to learn? Do they have opportunities to choose their individual learning paths? How often are the choices we give them dictated by our curriculum? And how much flexibility do they have in the pacing of their learning?


I know the phrase “authentic learning” gets thrown around a lot. But, I think there is some value in considering authenticity as it relates to informal learning. There is magic when a student interacts with the “real thing.” Magic also happens when we interact with the unknown, the faraway, and the fantastic. This is one reason I am so sold on object-based learning. At the beginning of every class I start with an object-based learning activity. Almost always, it is tied to the content for the day. The first job of my students for the day is to question, infer, and reflect on what the object is. The more unique the object, the better. Figuring out what the object is and why it is important is our first journey as a class each day.  In our classrooms do our students get to interact with objects? And how often are they exposed to unusual or hard to describe objects? How often do they interact with unknown, faraway, and fantastic objects? How can teachers guide students to understanding the “stuff” they aren’t familiar with?


Falk and Dierking have written extensively about the Contextual Model of Learning and the effects of social interactions in free-choice learning environments. The way we connect with others in informal learning environments has a profound influence on our learning. I don’t remember the conversations I had with my family in the Ramses II exhibition, but I remember the discussions I had after. I realize now it was my little 8 year-old brain’s way of processing new information. I was quite obsessed with Ancient Egypt for a long time and my excitement consumed me. I have seen that same excitement in students when they are asked to talk about their passions and when they share new discoveries that have come from deep immersion in a topic. It is so easy to cut out discussion time in the classroom when we have standards and curriculum to cover. But, think of how much we can learn about our students from class and group discussions. Think of the insight we will gain as teachers by providing our students time to share what they are experts on.

I could go on and on about why informal learning is often long-term learning. I haven’t even gotten into the experiential nature of informal learning, or how it is spontaneous, transferable, organic, and unforced. With the beginning of the school year upon us I am wondering what we can do to tap into the beauty of informal learning in our classrooms and schools. What commitments can we make to incorporate just a small piece of this into our daily lessons and into our curriculum?

I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter at @JCrossEdu





One thought on “What Can Classroom Teachers Learn From Informal Learning Environments?

  1. Pingback: Museum Monday: Cincinnati Plate – #BLOG365 Day 33 | Jill Cross

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