Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.3, 362-368
Published Online June 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s .
Building Relationships between Schools and Communities’
Agencies: Crafting a Programmatic Proposal
Imran Shaari, Shu-Shing Lee
Office of Education Research, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technol ogical Universi ty,
Singapore City, S ingapore
Email: {imran.shaari, shushing.lee}
Received April 26th, 2012; revised May 24th, 2012; accepted June 8th, 2012
Building relationships are increasingly important because schools cannot act alone in the 21st Century to
make learning relevant to learners. It is also pointed out that a good education requires diverse environ-
ment—where learners can benefit from its unique qualities. In order to understand how relationships can
be established without diluting the qualities, this paper proposes research collaborations between schools
and communities’ agencies. Three sub-units that focus on research, policy and social are proposed. They
are intended to co-inform schools and communities’ agencies in preserving unique qualities afforded by
the entities for learners to benefit.
Keywords: Programmatic Proposal; Relationships; Schools; Communities; Formal-Informal Learning
Introduction: Research Aim and Background
This paper proposes future directions pertaining to bridging
learning within schools and communities’ agencies with the
view to benefit diverse learners. Diverse learners include learn-
ers with different talents and learning abilities (for example,
low or high abilities). The Ministry of Education’s (MOE),
Singapore, definition of diverse learners: Special, Express,
Normal (Academic) and Normal (Technical) (MOE, 2011a) is
used. The definition is suitable because it emphasizes custom-
ized curricular that matches individual learning abilities and
interests. The definition has provisions in extending the cus-
tomized curricular to include activities valued by the larger
communities. School environments include classroom and ac-
tivities spearheaded by schools or the schools’ agents, such as
the MOE and schools’ departments. Communities’ agencies are
associated with out-of-school environments where they are
largely about communities and activities generated outside
classroom time—for example Co-Curricular Activities (CCA)
(MOE, 2011b)—where schools or their agents have less influ-
ence on learners’ participation, performance, and assessment.
Learning in school environments focuses on structured content
(explicit knowledge), extrinsic motivation, and strict assess-
ments while learning in out-of-school contexts is characterized
by less structured activities and opportunities to develop tacit
understandings by allowing more exploring, messing around,
and tinkering.
For ease of discussion, we adopt Thomas and Brown (2011)
broad definition that associates school environments with for-
mal learning and out-of-school environments with informal
learning. These connotations are used interchangeably in this
paper. Importantly, the assumption is that both formal and in-
formal contexts have relative benefits and it is important to
preserve their uniqueness. The focus is on structural relation-
ships that link learning in formal and informal contexts to bene-
fit diverse learners. Structural relationships refer to linkages
between schools and external entities and how they are organ-
The focus on structural relationships is motivated by trends
generated in education research and research grant proposals in
Singapore. The unique opportunities of collating and analyzing
about 120 research proposals from 2009-2011 provide insights
of researchers’ and schools’ interests and practices. These re-
search proposals are administrated by the Office of Education
Research Office in Nanyang Technological University, Singa-
pore. Although schools have tried to embed 21st century lite-
racy and dispositions into the curriculum through CCAs (MOE,
2011b), our findings suggest that there is an overemphasis on
content knowledge in classroom learning. The instructional
orientation used in schools is inconsistent with the softer skills
of 21st century literacy (Hargreaves, 2003). In-schools and out-
of-school learning are parts of Singapore’s education curricu-
lum but these components are mostly seen as disparate. Few
attempts are made to understand the dialectics between them to
achieve holistic learning. Furthermore, existing studies also
tend to focus on either learning in formal or informal contexts
without investigating how learning in both contexts co-informs
to provide different learning opportunities for diverse learners.
Hence, there is a need to research into how bridges can be
formed between in school and out-of-school learning by lever-
aging on structural affordances that schools may establish with
communities. The focus on structural relationships between
schools and external entities tries to achieve holistic learning by
Opportunities to leverage strengths from schools and out-
of-schools contexts;
New research paradigm as knowledge intertwined from
both contexts;
Unique learning experiences such that the sum is greater
than the total of the parts.
These benefits are fitting for the current global environment.
Particularly, in some local contexts where a vision such as the
one below takes center stage:
Between academic achievements and values, it must not be
either/or. We should strive to achieve both. Heng Swee Keat,
Singapore Education Minister (Ng, 2011).
From this excerpt, it can be inferred that learning in the 21st
century is not about focusing on either academic achievements
or developing 21st century dispositions. Rather, 21st century
learning needs a holistic, student-centered approach that em-
braces both academic achievements (content knowledge) as
well as soft skills.
To balance content knowledge with the learning of 21st cen-
tury literacy and dispositions, propositions are made to bridge
students’ learning in classroom with learning in out-of-school
contexts (Thomas & Brown, 2011), such as sports activities and
learning with communities. The benefit of bridging formal and
informal learning includes holistic learning experiences that
embrace a range of dispositions, attitudes, skills, and know-
ledge. It is about offering our learners with opportunities of
expanded learning spaces that are boundary-less and diverse-
abilities centric. While schools have the infrastructure (for ex-
ample, pedagogy content knowledge, information and commu-
nications technology) in propelling students to excel in aca-
demic achievements, the communities may offer contexts in
which that academic excellence can be practiced in-sync with
society expected values. By establishing links with external
entities, community direct participation and ownership of stu-
dents’ outcome are attainable.
While schools have their traditional mandates, opportunities
in out-of-school learning can be brokered by schools. Thus, this
paper envisages a set of principles that different stakeholders,
like educational practitioners, policy makers, parents, and the
wider communities, could use as guides to understand and build
upon the learning that occurs from both contexts. It would like
to explore how relationships between formal and informal con-
texts can offer alternative opportunities, expanded learning
contexts, and broaden participation for diverse learners. The
different avenues of learning, as evidenced by the following
findings, can be viewed as impetus in moving an education
system from great to excellence (Barber, Chijioke, & Mourshed,
2010)—because of these encouraging findings:
1) The relationships between formal and informal learning
environments have assisted in engaging learners to the formal
academic concepts taught in schools (National Research Coun-
cil, 2009). They have increased students’ motivation to acquire
knowledge from outside school boundaries. This is particularly
critical in teaching subjects that require a more holistic expo-
sure compared to just memorizing facts (Kytta, 2002). If deliv-
ery methods have factored different contexts and multiple sce-
narios, learners’ experiences are enhanced (Nasir & Hand, 2008;
Kapur, 2008). To achieve this, active involvement by commu-
nities are important in offering authentic environments—where
interest and engagement in learning can be sustained (Barron et
al., 2010).
2) The relationships have assisted in developing dispositions
desired by contemporary organizations (Brown & Thomas,
2008). In game-based learning, for example, students are ex-
posed to skills such as team bonding, developing strategies on
the fly, filtering critical information, and making the best of a
situation (Barab & Duffy, 2000). Since schools may have con-
straints and it is not realistic to assume that teachers are able to
teach all the skills needed, partnerships with practitioners and
communities can assist in acquiring these skills through learn-
ers’ self-initiated and interest-driven learning (Shaffer et al.,
3) The relationships may create opportunities to network
among learners, schools, and communities. For schools, the
benefits include access to communities’ infrastructure (that is,
experts, established connections, specialized technology and
techniques). In turn, early exposure to practitioners’ artifacts is
increased. Importantly, by interacting with practitioners, stu-
dents can observe passion and excellence directly—a critical
process in acquiring tacit knowledge (Nonaka & Konno, 1998).
For communities, the relationships are a resource to identify
budding talents. Identified talents can be groomed to ensure
communities’ continued success and existence. Thus, the rela-
tionships assist in retaining talents locally and enable commu-
nities to contribute back to the society.
Thus, we agree that understanding relationship building is a
resource (Jensen, 2003). While there are studies on formal and
informal learning environments, only recently have researchers
begun to analyze the connections among learning experiences
in different contexts (Banks et al., 2007; Bell et al., 2009). To
understand the relationships and for the benefits to be realized
further, first, we highlight some trends identified in our educa-
tio n system.
Evidence from Existing Projects: Trends of
Formal and Informal Education in Singapore
The trends reported are partly informed by literature and
largely influenced by our projects administered by the Office of
Education Research in Nanyang Technological University, Sin-
gapore. The projects investigate integration of formal and in-
formal learning environments in Singapore. Range of local and
overseas participants from education administrators, teachers,
principals, coaches, students, and parents were interviewed.
Additionally, joint events were observed and study visits were
conducted. From preliminary evidence collected, we discovered
the following trends in Singapore pertaining to how formal
education orientates itself with informal education and vice
versa. For our analysis, we view CCA as a form of informal
There were tendencies of cramming informal activities in
the already compact formal activities. For instance, it was
not uncommon that schools had extended hours (that is, af-
ter schools hours and during schools holidays) to conduct
CCA activities. This approach might not be productive be-
cause staff and students were overtaxed which reduced
learners’ holistic experience. Rather than integrating CCA
activities into the normal school hours. CCA activities ap-
peared to be an “add on” component. However, we also
recognize that some CCA activities, such as dance and
sports, need to be conducted after school hours and during
holidays to ensure students are ready for competitions and
There were tendencies in filtering informal activities and
choosing those that conformed or “fitted” with schools
ethos. The filtering processes were performed on the basis
of a set of values determined by the schools. Thus, learners’
and communities’ wants were overshadowed if they were
misaligned from the schools’ vision. For instance, schools
formulated niche CCA programs in attracting the “right”
types of students to increase academic performance indica-
tors were noted. There were also instances when schools
only conducted CCAs where they had sufficient resources,
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 363
such as teachers-in-charge, facilities, and coaches. CCAs
offered are, hence, not considered from the perspective of
students’ interests. This leads to a misalignment between
CCAs offered in schools and the ones that students are in-
terested in.
There were tendencies to formalize informal activities to
draw maximum quantifiable benefits from them. Atten-
dance taking and rote instructions approaches, for example,
in perfecting specific parts of the activities were not un-
common. The assumption was if these approaches worked
effectively in formal settings, they might also work in in-
formal settings. However, caution is needed because such
approaches may actually dilute informal settings’ benefits
as learners’ learning trajectory in the contexts differs (Barab
& Duffy, 2000). The social construals afforded by the for-
mal and informal settings are for learning skills and experi-
ences that are complementary but not similar.
There were tendencies to assess informal education activi-
ties by using formal benchmarking systems. The assess-
ments included points systems and tangible rewards. The
assessments were meant as motivational factors and extrin-
sic rewards (for example, grades, medals, money) to moti-
vate learners to some degree (Lepper et al., 1973). However,
they must not be viewed as the ultimate objective, which
appeared to be the case now because there is lack of conti-
nuity in some of the informal programs. For example, in-
terests nurtured in schools are not pursued as a lifelong en-
deavor when students graduated. Furthermore, excellence
achieved in informal activities can become one of the crite-
ria for admission to schools. In this manner, the intrinsic
motivation of participating in informal activities becomes
diluted. Students, encouraged by their parents, begin to par-
ticipate in informal activities that award them with more
In summary, the trends suggested that schools have tried to
subsume informal activities by treating them as formal. Like-
wise, out-of-schools activities appeared to be more formalized.
This is a healthy indicator because it suggests that values af-
forded from both contexts are appreciated. However, if left
unchecked, the trends may lead to over-institutionalization.
These practices in informal contexts may also imply that al-
though schools recognize the usefulness of informal learning,
they seem unsure about how to manage or maximize learning
experiences afforded in the informal context. Thus, they begin
to use familiar practices from formal learning and impost them
on the informal. This may not be the best approach because the
objectives of learning in formal and informal contexts are dif-
We envisage that it would be beneficial to understand pro-
ductive relationships between formal and informal learning
where values from both contexts are not diluted and hence be-
coming unproductive, but leverage upon instead. We hope to
avoid obscuring the values in one context when pursuing for
excellence in the other. We are cautious to prevent the values
becoming diluted as a result of heavy handedness on one con-
text at the expense of the other by different stakeholders (that is,
parents, policy makers, schools).
Research Questions: Reflections of the Trends
and Theoretical Grounding
From the above trends, some practical questions are: “Do we
want the trends to continue? Do we believe that they are the
best way forward in improving Singapore education further?”
Bowen and Bok (1998) and The Life Center (2007) insightfully
point out that a good education requires a diverse environ-
ment—where learners can benefit from its unique qualities. In
the context of Singapore’s education system, its unique quality
relates to having both a formal and informal learning compo-
nent as part of its curriculum. If the trends are institutionalized,
then, “How convinced are we that the distinct values afforded
from the contexts will be preserved?” Thus, the paper is seek-
ing ways forward to address this overarching key question:
What are the guiding principles in establishing productive
relationships between formal and informal contexts? Pro-
ductive refers to:
o Ensuring values afforded by the contexts are preserved;
o Enabling diverse learners to synthesize the values af-
forded by the contexts and to make the best out of them.
From our pilot projects, we noted that the phenomena of es-
tablishing bridges between learning in school and out-of-school
contexts generated interest and participation from the larger
communities (for example, service providers, practitioners) and
stakeholders beyond the formal education systems (for example,
MOE, schools). Thus, another overarching key question is:
How should we appropriate the principles to benefit differ-
ent stakeholders (that is, schools, ministry, researchers,
parents, teachers, learners and communities)?
Research on learning in formal settings is maturing and has
enabled the production of an authoritative document (Duschl et
al., 2007). In contrast, it would be difficult to locate a similar
authoritative document on informal education (Bransford et al.,
2005). There are several proponents of informal learning like
John Seeley Brown but study on informal learning settings is
still in its infancy. Fortunately, in Singapore, we witness admi-
rable efforts of learning in the formal (that is, schools) and in-
formal (for example, CCAs) contexts that contribute to learn-
ers’ experience. However, we are not sure how to strike a bal-
ance between the two contexts. Learning in formal and informal
settings promotes different values and approaches, and their
activities are organized in distinctly different ways. Hence, the
difficulty of investigating relationships between the contexts
appears daunting. One could wait till the study on informal
learning contexts becomes widespread and then investigate how
the relationships between the two contexts manifest. This may
not be the best approach because the trends on relationships
between formal and informal learning are already prevalent.
Without proactive initiatives, misguided principles might be-
come ingrain which in turn make reversing them (if needed to),
a difficult task.
We propose qualitative empirical data to be collected first.
An induction approach is preferred because Singapore educa-
tion system of integrating comprehensive set of out-of-schools
activities (that is, different CCA types) as part of structured
formal curriculum is unique. A theoretical understanding emer-
ging from the data through several rounds of pilots study would
likely be more effective than to develop hypothesis from litera-
ture. The literature might be less relevant to Singapore context
(for example, multicultural, tripartite systems, CCA). Never-
theless, we are aware that informal learning may manifest in
different approaches, such as incidental learning (Harrison,
1954), non-formal learning (Hager & Halliday, 2009) and ex-
periential learning (Evans, 1993). They are useful approaches,
which provide different insights on how informal learning can
be enacted. These approaches focus on learning experiences
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 365
and techniques used, most often, from the non-traditional edu-
cation institutions, and how they can assist in translating les-
sons learnt as utilities for formal settings. We would like to
adopt a broader approach.
learning experiences across contexts and may not differentiate
students’ abilities.
Extending Barron’s concept (See Figure 2), our key compo-
nents are: structural relationships and dive rse students . The key
study area would be in determining how the former influence
diverse groups of students. To do so, it is important to investi-
gate influential elements (that is, shared resources, ideological,
affective, and funding) (Johnson & Chrispeel, 2010)—that bind
the relationships because schools and the communities serve
different goals (Winston, 1998). While schools’ purpose is to
increase literacy and to promote desirable social values (Wins-
ton, 1998), communities (for example, vendors) may seek ma-
terial wealth and have different agendas from schools (Ireland
& Hitt, 2005). Additionally, while the Ministry has direct ad-
ministration responsibility over schools, diverse stakeholders in
the formal-informal contexts propel the communities’ interest.
By investigating the relationships’ elements, it is an important
step towards understanding how structural relationships be-
tween schools and communities operate, which in turn influ-
ence the diverse learners.
To start, we follow Barron’s (2006) concepts of learning
ecology, which is defined as the set of contexts found in physi-
cal or virtual spaces that provide opportunities for learning (see
Figure 1). “Each context is comprised of a unique configura-
tion of activities, material resources, relationships, and the in-
teractions that emerge from them”, (p. 195). Barron’s concept
suit us because our objective is to investigate issues pertaining
to bridging learning between school and out-of-school envi-
ronments with the view to benefit Singapore’s diverse learners.
In that regard, out-of-school includes the life spaces of home,
school, community, work and the neighborhood. Importantly,
Barron’s concept emphasizes individual differences in learning
outcomes and their relationships to access and use of resources
across contexts. Similarly, we believe that diverse learners re-
quire different degrees of attention by schools and out-of-
school agents. For instance, in the Singapore context, “express
[academic stream] students need less scaffolding in relation to
content subjects and have more time in appreciating the CCA
activities as opposed to the normal stream students,” claimed a
teacher. And “supporting parents will definitely make a differ-
ence with regard to CCA participations”, she continued.
Methodology: Formal/Informal Research
To confront the phenomena (Figure 2) directly, we propose
research collaboration. The purpose is to develop and test prin-
ciples about structural relationships between formal and infor-
mal learning systems with the view of enabling productive
outcomes for diverse learners. The collaboration envisages:
Unfortunately, manifestation of the relationships formed be-
tween formal and informal contexts is not well understood. Are
we to assume that the degree afforded by the relationships in
enhancing our diverse learners is the same across different con-
texts? The first formal/informal learning collaboration in Asia that
brings together representatives from a broad range of fields
to interact (within Singapore and across the region) and
raise current issues for t he collaboration to address to remain
relevant. It maintains a web of eco-systems in formal-in-
formal contexts to anticipate change and address anomalies
that are aligned with global and local circumstances.
The assumption is that, at the least, there is a set of two dis-
tinct arrows in operation for each context: one at structural and
the other at micro level, and the “thickness” or the degree of
these arrows varies from one context to another and is influ-
enced by the type of learners. Experiential, incidental, and
non-formal learning are viewed as micro level interventions.
They are teacher intensive and attempt to transfer cognitive
Figure 1.
A learning ecology (adapted from Barron, 2006).
Figure 2.
A framework showing a set of relationships plus related activities that influence diverse learners in a learning ecology system.
A collaboration effort is appropriate because Singapore’s
education curriculum is unique as it has an integrated in school
and out-of-school learning component. The effort would be a
mechanism to:
1) Investigate different methodological approaches that em-
phasize participation from multiple stakeholders. Scenarios
where out-of-school practitioners lead the research with con-
sultation from the researchers are not impossible.
2) Derive empirical based findings for translation to policies
in emerging manner that appreciate operational dynamic con-
cerns without compromising long term strategic objectives. The
collaboration would assists to promote flexible policies that are
sensitive to the needs of diverse learners with the view that no
students should be left behind.
3) Establish ecology of stakeholders in school and out-of-
school contexts to enable bridges between learning across
school and out-of-school environments. The collaboratio n would
act, as facilitator that linked different contexts that otherwise is
Many centers in the National Institute of Education-NTU,
Singapore exist, but most of them concentrate their work on
one particular field. For instance, Centre for Research in Peda-
gogy and Practice (CRPP) (CRPP 2011) is focused on peda-
gogy and practices related to curriculum, instruction, assess-
ment, teachers’ professional development, and students’ char-
acteristics. Whereas Centre for Arts Research in Education
(CARE) (CARE 2011) aims to promote education in and
through the arts in partnership with like-minded individuals and
We propose collaboration efforts that work closely with di-
verse communities to include individuals and organizations that
are both like-minded and otherwise. The collaboration will
devote itself in offering pragmatic help that truly benefit di-
verse learners. It recognizes individuals’ talents and values
divergent participation from the communities. Thus, for the
collaboration to be operationally effective, three interrelated
foci are proposed: Research, Policy and Eco-Systems.
Research Focus
It aims to develop multiple methodologies to investigate how
links between formal and informal learning environments can
be synthesized and established. Rationale for developing
methodologies can be informed by literature and understanding
how people learn across different formal-informal contexts and
domains. Some relevant guiding questions (but not limited) to
What roles do organizations, educational institutions, and
communities play to enable research about learning in for-
mal and informal environments?
How do research about relationships between formal and
informal environments impact students?
How do theories and methods drawn from either or both
formal and informal environments inform models of rela-
tionships between both environments?
Policy Focus
It aims to foster connections between research and policy to
enable collaborations with individual s and institut ional part ners
as well as promote evidence-based improvements (both theo-
retical and practical) enabled by policies to meet diverse learn-
ers’ needs. Some relevant guiding questions (but not limited) to
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
How do policies informed by research define and appropri-
ate relationships between formal and informal learning en-
vironments to address different stakeholders’ expectations?
How do policies informed by research enable interventions
to occur in schools to translate, experiment, and validate
school practices that are enabled by relationships between
formal and informal learning?
How do policies informed by research spread evidence-
based practices across schools to enable holistic learning in
both formal and informal environments? How do these evi-
dence-based practices impact student outcomes?
Eco-Systems Focus
It aims to collaborate and congregate multiple stakeholders in
formal and informal learning environments to establish a com-
mon belief that balanced learning approaches are critical in
educating learners for the contemporary society. Multiple stake-
holders collaborate and work together as a functional whole to
enable mutual benefits for diverse learners. Some relevant
guiding questions (but not limited to) include:
How do relationships between stakeholders in formal and
informal environments evolve to establish a balanced and
common belief about learning in both environments?
How are relationships between stakeholders in formal and
informal environments negotiated to enable productive de-
signs for balanced learning?
How do the attributes, strengths, and characteristics of for-
mal and informal environments co-inform each other to
transform teaching and learning practices?
How do the attributes, strengths, and characteristics of rela-
tionships between formal and informal environments shape
the learning experiences and outcomes of diverse learners?
How can relationships between stakeholders in formal and
informal environments enable transformations to assess-
ment systems that recognize different learning experiences,
achievements, and outcomes?
Together, the foci synthesize to create a participatory re-
search culture between researchers, policy makers, schools, and
other stakeholders in communities to establish relationships and
a balanced learning experience in formal and informal envi-
ronments. The foci collectively work towards an evidence-
based transformation of teaching and learning practices that
concentrate on developing diverse students’ content knowledge
and dispositions.
Expected Deliverables
The collaboration expected deliverables include:
A set of principles for schools and communities in estab-
lishing productive relationships that benefits diverse learn-
ers and provide holistic learning experiences that emphasize
literacy and dispositions .
A set of principles in guiding researchers, schools and
communities to develop inclusive, long-term relationships
that appreciate contributions beyond research, policy, and
A set of mechanisms in enabling schools and communities
to customize their efforts for diverse learners’ needs and
A set of principles that systematically guides how schools
can benefit from the communities and vice-versa (Mulford,
2008). Past study has focused on uni-directional of schools
benefitting from the community. The collaboration would
like to follow Mulford’s suggestions to include how com-
munities can benefit from schools by the relationships.
Education needs to consistently evaluate itself to stay rele-
vant to changing times. As we move into the 21st century, there
are increasing efforts to provide students with holistic education
that focuses on values and character development. In line with
the vision of holistic education (MOE Speech, 2011), we rec-
ognize that one way to prepare students for the 21st century is
to engage schools, researchers, policy makers, and communities
in understanding the value of learning in formal and informal
contexts to develop base literacies and dispositions. We recog-
nize that balanced participation in classroom learning and in-
formal activities, such as CCA, can be one means of achieving
this kind of balanced learning. Productive linkages can be
formed to enable different learning experiences for diverse
Education is accountable to many stakeholders. Thus, in the
proposal for this research collaboration, specific foci by differ-
ent stakeholders, like researchers, policy makers, schools, are
synergized to create a multi-prong participatory research effort.
Hopefully, by engaging different stakeholders in research, an
effective strategy that embraces different views of formal-in-
formal relationships is developed to move towards a balanced,
holistic way of learning.
We thank Professor David Hung (Office of Education Re-
search, National Institute of Education, Singapore), Professor
Bill Mulford (University of Tasmania, Australia) and Professor
Kristiina Kumpulainen (University of Helsinki, Finland) for
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