End to the formal informal divide? Not quite yet.

Posted by
Alan Friedman
November 30, 2010

Dear CAISE Colleagues and ISE Friends,

I thought you would find this bit of news amusing and/or horrifying. It is an ETS newsletter which came in the mail, and is downloadable for free from Now the Educational Testing Service is a bulwark of formal education. I’m working with them regularly since they are prime contractors on much National Assessment of Educational Progress work, and I’ve been very impressed with their imagination, rigor, and care. So I was thrilled to get the latest issue of their “Policy Notes” newsletter and discover that it is devoted to the topic “After the Bell Rings: Learning Outside the Classroom and Its Relationship to Student Academic Achievement.” Wow, if ETS is taking informal learning seriously, maybe the divide between formal and informal education is finally being erased. What great colleagues they will make!

Well, it is a bit to early to declare victory. As you read the newsletter you seem to be entering a twilight zone in which “outside the classroom” is being examined in an alien civilization. First indications are the absence of certain words, like “informal” and “free-choice.” “ISE” and “NSF” are similarly absent. Ditto for “museum,” “zoo,” “aquarium,” “4H,” “Scouts,” “NOVA,” “Science Friday” “planetarium” or “science center.” Not once do any of these words appear.

Dozens of names of researchers are cited. I had heard of exactly one of them. Now I may not be up to date with formal education researchers, but I did expect to find names like Allen, Bell, Borun, Crowley, Dierking, Falk, or Screven, or someone connected with CILS, the Exploratorium, ILI, or VSA. But no, none of those appear. Surely the NRC’s Learning Science in Informal Environments would be there? Nope. There is one mention with no citation to “…a University of Pittsburgh study [which] concluded that 57 percent of achievement stems from non-school factors….”

So what is that world “outside the classroom” discussed in these 12 pages? There are some programs dating to the 60’s, like Upward Bound. Sesame Street is mentioned a couple of times, as well as a few more recent educational television activities. Also much about NCLB-required tutoring. That’s about it. The preface describes the scope of outside-the-classroom learning this way: “…the many varieties of out-of-school learning—tutoring, summer school, even educational television.”

There are a precious few links to the world of ISE we all know and love. The After School Corporation was one of the organizers of the conference this newsletter describes (thanks for getting a toe in the door, Lucy and Saskia). The Mott Foundation, Harvard Family Research Project, National Urban League, and La Raza all make brief appearances.

Since “Informal” and “Free-Choice” do not exist as terms in this alternative civilization, they do look for something to call outside-the-classroom learning that is a little less cumbersome. You can deduce one contender from a policy document described as being in draft form from the “National Study Group on Supplementary Education.” Supplementary? That should set us back about half a century.

I conclude the gap between the formal and informal education establishments is just as wide as ever. Should CAISE organize an expedition to ETS to see if some sort of exchange of views and confidence-building exercise are possible? Or is this like Earth and Pandora, where it might be dangerous to have much contact with the other planet?

Cheers, Alan