Open Recognition and its Enemies (2) — No Informal Learning without Informal Recognition

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: By my faith! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing anything about it, and I am much obliged to you for having taught me that.
The Middle Class Gentleman (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme). Molière

In the previous post, I (briefly) explored the dangers associated with the formalisation of informal learning, how these dangers might be increased with the use of the first generation Open Badges, in particular how the Mozilla Backpack in that context “reduced individuals to the submissive puppets of institutional ventriloquists.” In this post and the next, I would like to expand the exploration of informal learning recognition, more precisely, how does informal learning operate within the informal space and from here imagine the tools that might contribute to making informal recognition visible, valuable. If Open Badges made informal learning visible, what could make informal recognition visible?

Recognition of vs. recognition within

Searching Google for “recognition of informal learning” then “recognition in informal learning” (with the quotes), the first query returned approximately 50,700 entries, the second only 1: “Course in Assessment of Informal Learning” © State of Victoria. It is a very comprehensive and well structured document containing a full description of the outcomes and competencies with performance criteria, range statements, etc. —I am personally indebted to Australia, especially the State of Victoria, for the many excellent resources on competency frameworks they have produced and used in my work. I wish that more course descriptions were just half that good. Despite the great quality and value of this document it is not what I was looking for. What I was looking for is information on how recognition operates within the world of informal learning.

Removing the quotes from “recognition in informal learning” produced 5,680,000 results, the first ones linking to documents from OECD and one from Unesco with the title: Recognition, Validation and Accreditation of Non-formal and Informal Learning in UNESCO Member States. Again, this document does not address recognition within the non-formal and informal sectors but from the perspective of the formal sector:

“Recognition, validation and accreditation (RVA) refers to the establishment of arrangements to make visible and value all learning outcomes (including knowledge, skills and competences) against clearly defined and quality-assured standards. RVA covers the whole process, including identification, documentation, assessment and accreditation of learning outcomes from different settings.” [my highlights]

NB: “including knowledge, skills and competences”: does UNESCO have a special definition of “competence,” one that does not include “knowledge” and “skills”? In my world, competencies are defined as a combination of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values (KSAV), which would make skills and competences appear twice in the definition above…

Beyond the wording used in the definition of the central concept of this document, there is a more fundamental problem:

“As the value of the qualifications and/or documents lies in social recognition, it seems most satisfactory to talk of recognition of non- formal and informal learning as opposed to validation or accreditation which only cover the technical aspects.” [my highlights]— Patrick Werquin, Recognition of non-formal and informal learning in OECD countries: A very good idea in jeopardy? 2008.

Patrick Werquin puts the finger where it should hurt (and unfortunately doesn’t). Taking the concept of recognition on its own, independently from the modalities of its implementation is not just “more satisfactory” from an intellectual perspective, but essential to prevent us from being at risk of insulting logic or constructing systems —representational or actual— that behave like the proverbial dog’s tail: if it cannot be assessed, nor accredited, then it cannot be recognised, which is unfortunately the sub-text in this document and many others regarding recognition of informal learning.

The problems generated by the conflation of validation and accreditation with recognition into one lexical unit are extremely serious as it is the foundation of most policies regarding the recognition of informal learning. Policies that do not work:

“recognition of non-formal and informal learning is high on many countries’ agenda. These systems, despite being rather convincing in theory, seem to have trouble taking off and reaching cruising speed. On the positive side, there is room for recognition systems and there are islands of good practice. On the negative side, there is little evidence that these systems work, and they seem to be mostly based on faith.” (ibid) [my highlights]

There are of course “islands of good practice” but that is all you will ever get, at best. And there is a very good reason for that, beside policies, mind state, habits, power, appetite or lack of professionals with the right competencies as described in the  “Course in Assessment of Informal Learning” referenced above.

The reason why formal recognition policies will fail: numbers!

Can any state provide 100% of its citizens with an opportunity of formal recognition of their non-formal and informal learning? If not, how many?  50%? 10%? 1%? The point is that the condition for current formal recognition systems to function is being dysfunctional, i.e. when the majority of those who could profit from it are discouraged from doing so. This is not unique to formal recognition systems. There are many other systems that only survive by being dysfunctional. In France, the famous Centre National d’Education à Distance (CNED) who touted nearly half million participants a few years ago (not anymore…), could only survive if a significant number of those abandoned their study after a few weeks. Had all students gone to the end of the programme, the institution would have collapsed — or would have had to raise the fees. It is the same in France regarding social benefits: 50% of potential beneficiaries do not claim their due for reasons ranging from bureaucracy to stigmatisation.

So, the “trouble taking off” might not the be symptom of a faulty recognition system, but the expression of its very nature. The good news is that there is a cure: cut the tail of the dog!

Informal recognition is recognition

In search of the prose of recognition
Only do I find its versified version

The world of recognition is similar to the world of Monsieur Jourdain, Molière’s Middle Class Gentleman. Monsieur Jourdain is all excited when he discovers that there is no other way to express oneself than with prose or verse and that all his life he has been unwittingly practicing the former. The world of recognition has its own prose and verse versions: they are called informal and formal. What is the difference? We have been practicing the former our whole life and we simply could not live, learn, work or entertain without the ability to recognise and be recognised. Recognition is an ability that comes even before that of reading, hearing or writing prose. Formal recognition is simply a reified version of recognition into a more or less powerful social construct. Moreover, while the versification of expression aims at reaching the depth of our soul, the versification of recognition (increasingly) aims at reaching the depth of our pockets.

The use of the concepts of informal recognition vs formal recognition could also be misleading as it tends to place them at the same conceptual level. The same story goes for informal learning vs. formal learning. In reality, there is recognition and formal recognition, learning and formal learning, full stop. Formal recognition is a very narrow subset, yet socially powerful, of recognition. Informal learning is not a subset of learning, it is the part of the learning territory that has not been yet conquered by institutions of formal education. Without formal learning the term informal learning would not exist, just as without colonists there would be no word for the colonised — while there are plenty, many of them derogatory and abusive.

My guess, is that the concepts of informal recognition and informal learning are inventions of the proponents of formal recognition and formal learning, with the sub-text: formal is serious, informal not, so you should better conform to the social norm or you won’t exist—which is what is more or less happening… Moreover, formal learning and recognition can be turned into profitable businesses.

Recognition, is not just a “nice to have” or “must have,” it is central to our very existence, starting with knowledge and identity construction:

“Knowledge is not an object (or objective), it is not discrete, it is not a causal agent. It is emergent, which means that it exists only by virtue of a process of recognition, as a matter of subjective interpretation.”

—Stephen Downes. “The New Nature of Knowledge”. in “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge.”

“Thus my discovering my own identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation, but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others. That is why the development of an ideal of inwardly generated identity gives a new importance to recognition. My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others.”

—Charles Taylor, Politics of Recognition

And if we invite in our conversation Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher, for whom without a theory of recognition, there is no theory of action, then we have the basic blocks for building a comprehensive view of the place of (informal) recognition in our lives.





Person / Community





Local visibility



Global visibility

Low to high

High to low


Continuous / Organic

Episodic / Artificial





Can be

Cannot be


Can be

Must be




Can live without it



An attempt at identifying differentiating criteria for informal and formal recognition

Although I find the addition of ‘informal’ to ‘recognition’ formally redundant, despite the way informal recognition is being often used to refer to mundane, weaker or sub-standard versions of formal recognition, I will occasionally use this expression as a support to an emancipation message: we have the power to make informal recognition as potent if not even more potent than formal recognition! We need the will…

No (informal) learning without (informal) recognition

Since a few years a number of competency standards and frameworks related to key/core/life/21st Century/employability/essential competencies have started to appear (or ‘skills’ when knowledge, attitudes and values are probably not that important!). For example, the European framework defines 8 “key competences for life-long learning”:

  1. Communicating in a mother tongue
  2. Communicating in a foreign language
  3. Mathematical, scientific and technological competence
  4. Digital competence
  5. Learning to learn
  6. Social and civic competences
  7. Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship
  8. Cultural awareness and expression

Independently from any specific framework, the questions relative to those competencies include: How are they acquired? How are they recognised—by oneself and others? How does the relationship between acquisition and recognition work?

A set of responses can be found in a European policy document: Assessment of Key Competences in initial education and training: Policy Guidance (2012). What I find striking in that document is that I cannot find anything that could not apply to any other subject matter or discipline. It is a mere compilation of assessment methods, a pot pourri, from high stake and accountability to peer and self assessments sprinkled here and there with the words “key competences.” They could just as well have been replaced with history, gymnastics, cooking or home economics — I consider cooking and home economics as core/key/essential/life competencies, the massive lack of which can be easily assessed looking at the contents of supermarket trolleys while waiting at the cashier…

The closest I could get to the idea of learner agency in that document was the phrase: “the results of effective peer and self-assessment are committed, effective and independent learners.” The problem is that it displays a challenging sense of causality. Why not: the result of nurturing committed, effective and independent learners is effective peer and self-assessment. In fact, I remember a study quoted by John Hattie in Visible Learning, that reached a similar conclusion: the more autonomous and confidents learners are, the more honest their self-assessments are. While the relationship is probably systemic, both being the cause of the other, yet there must be a reason why a policy document only mentions the former proposition and not the later.

The advantage of the former proposition is that it can be read as a recipe to be applied almost mechanically: If I want independent learners, I need to add a bit of peer and self-assessment here and there. One could imagine that, the more peer and self-assessment, the more effective and independent learners will become. The other proposition does not offer a recipe, but an invitation to reflect: how can I get committed, effective and independent learners that will be able to be effective peer and self-assessors? And if the only response that comes to mind is “peer and self-assessment” then you might want to reflect a bit more, and consider that independent learners could have their say on the curriculum and the syllabus, the relevance of summative assessments and national accountability and international comparison tests, the recognition of teachers and peers, the place of the school within the community, to mention a short sample of subjects that might be of interest to them.

Are you ready to welcome the reflective rebel that does not care about grades and exams (and badges!)? Or the one who believes that cooking and home economics are part of their own life competencies? Are you ready to give a badge to students who have organised the boycott of exams for their sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, communicating in mother tongue and digital competencies for their use of social media, cultural awareness and expression for the posters and banners they have produced?

This might be an extreme situation, but the point I want to make is that key competencies could have been the opportunity to explore new paths for learning and recognition, providing learners with greater opportunities to gain a sense of agency. We have done the very opposite with the creation of a new prescriptive syllabus and its paraphernalia of standards, tests and accountability procedures. Instead of inviting students in initial education to discover (recognise) the competencies needed to nurture an open society, identify (recognise) those they want to develop and to recognise the contributions of others to that goal, we are asking them to faithfully conform to the eight commandments written with the finger of the European Commission. While the theme of key competencies could have been the object of discussions, research and experimentation lead by pupils and students with the support of their teachers, parents and community, we are asking them to reflect on how to conform and help others to conform to the norm, using peer and self-assessment as a means to enforce that goal. That kind of peer and self-assessment should be called for what it is: peer and self conformance enforcement. Final nail on the coffin, while one of the key competencies is related to science, regarding key competencies as a whole we demand pupils and students to abandon the scientific method and replace it with faith.

Another path was possible, had we recognised that recognition is the ability underpinning all learning and competencies. But opening recognition for key competencies might have opened a Pandora Box, it was therefore essential to secure it. This has been achieved successfully. Until now.

Next post: Open Recognition and its Enemies (3) — Informal recognition in the Walhalla of Badges

Previous post: Open Recognition and its Enemies (1) — The genesis of Open Badges

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