Informal interaction and professional learning: Considerations for higher education – CRADLE Seminar Series

A sold-out audience at Deakin Downtown and many more online joined us for our fascinating final CRADLE seminar of 2019. We heard from the University of Sydney’s Dr Kate Thomson as she discussed the influence of informal conversations on academics’ professional learning in higher education. And if you weren’t able to make the seminar on the day, a recording is now available!

Here, Chad Gladovic (CRADLE PhD researcher into work-integrated assessment) shares his key takeaways from Kate’s seminar. A recording of the seminar, along with links to Kate’s slides and references, is also available to view at the bottom of the page.

Kate’s seminar took a fresh perspective on learning and helped us to refocus our attention from university students toward educators. The central concept of this seminar was informal interaction and professional learning in academia. This concept of informal learning in academia resonates well with the majority of academics, who understand that informal and unofficial conversation among colleagues can be more beneficial than lengthy formal meetings. We can all imagine ourselves casually chatting about important academic matters around water coolers, coffee machines or somewhere in the corridors. In simple words, there is value in informal learning and consequentially, such value should be preserved and maintained. 

Dr Kate Thomson presenting her seminarAs educators learn and support each other in informal ways, students may follow the same pattern. Research like this will not only help us better understand how educators learn in informal settings but also how students learn in the same or similar environments. A challenges that Kate and other researchers in this space face is uncertainty over how we can research and measure informal learning. This phenomenon can be invisible, tacit, and difficult to explain outside the context in which it takes place, but understanding how it could be observed may have many benefits. Informal conversations:

  • May be used to raise, address and discuss complex and challenging issues;
  • Can serve as a driver for emotional support and collective sense-making; and 
  • Provide a space to ask questions and reflect on feedback within a friendly environment.

Kate pointed out some critical elements of why educators seek informal conversation:

  • To manage the teaching context; 
  • To improve teaching practices and student learning;
  • To reassure themselves about their teaching practices;
  • To vent about teaching and education-related issues; and 
  • To transform their thinking and practice of teaching (Thomson & Trigwell, 2018).

Dr Kate Thomson presenting her seminar to a large and attentive audienceThe most important takeaway from the seminar is that great and innovative ideas can be born in informal learning settings. An example is the idea of ‘common ground’, based on the notion that once educators establish shared ideas, it is more likely that they will talk informally and continuously about them. Such conversations may synthesise important ideas and transform informal discussions into formal meetings or events. On the flip side, we have to be cautious when transforming informal conversations into formal events as we may lose the foundational essence of the whole concept. Not every informal environment can be re-engineered into a formal one, as an organic development of relationships and trust works better than awkward and forced matchmaking. 

Kate wrapped up her talk by identifying three key camaraderie of learning through informal conversation with colleagues: 

  • Neighbours – characterised by proximity, in the sense that educators who are conducting informal conversation know each other’s availabilities, share certain experiences, and are from similar disciplinary backgrounds;
  • Friends – characterised by familiarity and mutual trust. These colleagues share common interests and values and, when required, will make time for each other; and
  • Comrades – solidarity is a key character. They are joined by shared responsibilities and visions.

In summary, informal conversations within academia, especially conversations about teaching and learning, have been identified as an effective strategy for workplace learning. Such conversations are authentic, naturally occurring and deeply engaging.


View slides from Kate’s seminar here.

View Kate’s reference list here.

Category list: CRADLE Seminar Series, News

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