Informal learning is key to honing skills of trade

Journalists have always learnt informally – probably more so than the practitioners of any other trade.

That’s partly because journalism is a trade and not a profession, pseudo-profession nor anything like one. There are no entry qualifications, no certificates to practise and, thankfully, no professional register from which the errant or under-achieving can be struck off.

‘It is,’as the one-time editor of the Los Angeles Times, John Carroll, put it, ‘the constitutional right of every citizen, no matter how depraved, to be a journalist”.

It’s also something to do with the character of those who become journalists. Self-confidence, arrogance even, has never been unhelpful. Nor has the ability to go from ignorance to expertise off the back of a single press cutting.

The trade’s detractors have a point when they say you can’t teach a journalist very much. Except journalists are great learners.

The job is about learning: Even the simplest journalistic enquiry ends with the journalist knowing at least one thing they didn’t before they asked the question. Developing the most basic journalistic instinct – curiosity – means learning very quickly how to make sense of unfamiliar facts.

When it comes to the skills of the trade and the ‘big things’– those moments of deep learning that turn the merely competent into the master – journalists learn best informally and from each other.

In the pre-web age, informal learning happened in seminar rooms called ‘The Yorkshire Grey’or ‘The Crown and Sceptre”, or late at night in foreign hotel bars. Teachers were senior subs and reporters who’d be avuncular, patronising, dismissive and sarcastic according to mood.

Now, of course, we’re working out how news organisations can use wikis and blogs, ‘informal narratives”, ‘experience dumping’and social networking to achieve the same ends.

But organisations are very bad at recognising the value of informal learning. It’s maybe not that surprising: It challenges control and invites dissent; it’s hierarchy-unfriendly and beyond the wit of conventional management to measure.

Typically, organisations spend 90 per cent of their learning budgets on formal teaching. Typically 90 per cent of learning happens outside the classroom.

If the message is ‘it only counts if the accountants can count it”, then informal learning opportunities will not be the ones taken, even if they’re offered.

And the raw material of informal learning – the knowledge and experience walking around the newsroom – is never assigned a value by the accountants.

One influential author on informal learning, Jay Cross, describes it as: ‘learning without borders. Organisations improve it by removing obstacles, seeding communities, increasing bandwidth, encouraging conversation and growing networks”.

‘Removing obstacles’includes removing the impression that only formal learning counts.

‘Seeding communities’means making an organisational effort to gather and realise the wisdom of the newsroom, and an equally positive effort to put it in front of those who can benefit.

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