Informal learning is one of three forms of learning defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The other two are formal and non-formal learning. Informal learning occurs in a variety of places, such as at home, work, and through daily interactions and shared relationships among members of society. For many learners this includes language acquisition, cultural norms and manners. Informal learning for young people is an ongoing process that also occurs in a variety of places, such as out of school time, in youth programs at community centers and media labs.
In the context of corporate training and education, the term informal learning is widely used to describe the many forms of learning that takes place independently from instructor-led programs: books, self-study programs, performance support materials and systems, coaching, communities of practice, and expert directories. Informal learning for American indigenous children can take place in the community, where individuals have opportunities to observe and participate in ongoing community activities.
Informal learning can be characterized as follows:
- It usually takes place outside educational establishments;
- It does not follow a specified curriculum and is not often professionally organized but rather originates accidentally, sporadically, in association with certain occasions, from changing practical requirements;
- It is not necessarily planned pedagogically conscious, systematically according to subjects, test and qualification-oriented, but rather unconsciously incidental, holistically problem-related, and related to situation management and fitness for life;
- It is experienced directly in its "natural" function of everyday life.
- It is often spontaneous.
In international discussions, the concept of informal learning, already used by John Dewey at an early stage and later on by Malcolm Knowles, experienced a renaissance, especially in the context of development policy. At first, informal learning was only delimited from formal school learning and nonformal learning in courses (Coombs/Achmed 1974). Marsick and Watkins take up this approach and go one step further in their definition. They, too, begin with the organizational form of learning and call those learning processes informal which are non-formal or not formally organized and are not financed by institutions (Watkins/Marsick, p. 12 et sec.). An example for a wider approach is Livingstone's definition which is oriented towards autodidactic and self-directed learning and places special emphasis on the self-definition of the learning process by the learner (Livingstone 1999, p. 68 et seq.).
Other perspectives on informal learning
Merriam and others (2007) state: "Informal learning, Schugurensky (2000) suggests, has its own internal forms that are important to distinguish in studying the phenomenon. He proposes three forms: self-directed learning, incidental learning, and socialization, or tacit learning. These differ among themselves in terms of intentionality and awareness at the time of the learning experience. Self-directed learning, for example, is intentional and conscious; incidental learning, which Marsick and Watkins (1990) describe as an accidental by-product of doing something else, is unintentional but after the experience she or he becomes aware that some learning has taken place; and finally, socialization or tacit learning is neither intentional nor conscious (although we can become aware of this learning later through 'retrospective recognition') (Marsick & Watkins, 1990, p. 6)" (p. 36). More recently, Bennett (2012) extended Schugurenksky's (2000) conceptualization of informal by recommending four modes of informal learning: a) self-directed, which is conscious and intentional, b) incidental, which is conscious and unintentional, c) tacit, which replaces socialization and is both nonconscious and unintentional, and d) integrative, which is nonconscious and intentional. Drawing upon implicit processing literature, she further defined integrative learning as "a learning process that combines intentional nonconscious processing of tacit knowledge with conscious access to learning products and mental images" (Bennett, 2012, p. 4) and she theorized two possible sub-processes: knowledge shifting and knowledge sublimation, which describe limited access learners have to tacit knowledge.
American indigenous perspective
The way an individual learns, is specific to their culture and occurs through socialization processes within their community (Pewewardy, 2002). Informal learning through observation and participation in family and community settings is a complex educational practice seen in many indigenous communities of the Americas.  Children participate in the same activities of everyday life, of their family and community as adults do. An example is the process where children learn slash-and-burn agriculture by being present in the situation and contributing when possible. Both children and adults are actively involved in shared endeavors. Their roles as learner and expert are flexible while the observer participates in active concentration. Indigenous ways of learning include practices such as observation, experiential learning, and apprenticeship.
Work, alongside and combined with play, occupies an important place in American Indigenous children’s time and development. The interaction of a Navajo girl assisting her mother weaving and who eventually becomes a master weaver herself illustrate how the child presence and the availability of these activities allow the child to learn through observation. Children start at the periphery, observing and imitating those around them, before moving into the center of activities under supervision and guidance. Work is part of a child’s development from an early age, starting with simple tasks that merge with play and develop to various kinds of useful work. The circumstances of everyday routine create opportunities for the culturally meaningful activities and sensitive interactions on which a child's development depends.
Children in Nicaragua will often learn to work the land or learn to become street vendors by watching other individual’s in their community perform it. These activities provide opportunities for children to learn and develop through forms of social learning which are made up of everyday experiences rather than a deliberate curriculum, and contain ordinary setting in which children’s social interaction and behavior occur. Informal learning for children in American Indigenous communities can take place at work where children are expected to contribute.
People in indigenous communities of the Americas learn through observation and participation in everyday life of their community and family. Rogoff et al. describes the way children in indigenous communities, learn by observation, participation in the community and the child’s eagerness to contribute, belong and fulfill a role in the community. These learning experiences are mutually involved among each other and are illustrated by children’s incorporation in the community and the child’s attentiveness; allows the children to collaborate in social organization, which grants the child the opportunity to learn by pitching in.
Formal and nonformal education
To fully understand informal learning it is useful to define the terms "formal" and "non-formal" education. Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007), state: "Formal education is highly institutionalized, bureaucratic, curriculum driven, and formally recognized with grades, diplomas, or certificates" (p. 29). Merriam and others (2007), also state: "The term non-formal has been used most often to describe organized learning outside of the formal education system. These offerings tend to be short-term, voluntary, and have few if any prerequisites. However they typically have a curriculum and often a facilitator" (p. 30). Non-formal learning can also include learning in the formal arena when concepts are adapted to the unique needs of individual students (Burlin, 2009).
Research and data
Merriam and others (2007) state: "studies of informal learning, especially those asking about adults' self-directed learning projects, reveal that upwards of 90 percent of adults are engaged in hundreds of hours of informal learning. It has also been estimated that the great majority (upwards of 70 percent) of learning in the workplace is informal (Kim, Collins, Hagedorn, Williamson, & Chapman, 2004), although billions of dollars each year are spent by business and industry on formal training programs" (p. 35–36). Both formal and informal learning are considered integral processes for Virtual Human Resource Development (Bennett, 2009), with informal learning the stronger form.
Informal learning experiences and examples
Informal knowledge is information that has not been externalized or captured and the primary locus of the knowledge may be inside someone's head. (Grebow, David, "At the Water Cooler of Learning" in Cross, J., & Quinn, C. "Transforming Culture: An Executive Briefing on the Power of Learning", Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2002). For example, in the cause of language acquisition, a mother may teach a child basic concepts of grammar and language at home, prior to the child entering a formal education system (Eaton, Sarah (2011). "Family Literacy and the New Canadian: Formal, Non-Formal and Informal Learning: The Case of Literacy, Essential Skills and Language Learning in Canada"). In such a case, the mother has a tacit understanding of language structures, syntax and morphology, but she may not be explicitly aware of what these are. She understands the language and passes her knowledge on to her offspring.
Other examples of informal knowledge transfer include instant messaging, a spontaneous meeting on the Internet, a phone call to someone who has information you need, a live one-time-only sales meeting introducing a new product, a chat-room in real time, a chance meeting by the water cooler, a scheduled Web-based meeting with a real-time agenda, a tech walking you through a repair process, or a meeting with your assigned mentor or manager.
Experience indicates that much of the learning for performance is informal (The Institute for Research on Learning, 2000, Menlo Park). Those who transfer their knowledge to a learner are usually present in real time. Such learning can take place over the telephone or through the Internet, as well as in person.
A study of time-to-performance done by Sally Anne Moore at Digital Equipment Corporation in the early 1990s, (Moore, Sally-Ann, "Time-to-Learning", Digital Equipment Corporation, 1998) graphically shows this disparity between formal and informal learning.
In the UK, the government formally recognized the benefits of informal learning in "The Learning Revolution" White Paper published on March 23, 2009 (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2009). The Learning Revolution Festival ran in October 2009 and funding has been used by libraries—which offer a host of informal learning opportunities such as book groups, "meet the author" events and family history sessions—to run activities such as The North East Festival of Learning.
The majority of companies that provide training are currently involved only with the formal side of the continuum. Most of today's investments are on the formal side. The net result is that companies spend the most money on the smallest part—25%—of the learning equation. The other 75% of learning happens as the learner creatively "adopts and adapts to ever changing circumstances". The informal piece of the equation is not only larger, it's crucial to learning how to do anything.
Lifelong learning, as defined by the OECD, includes a combination of formal, non-formal and informal learning. Of these three, informal learning may be the most difficult to quantify or prove, but it remains critical to an individual's overall cognitive and social development throughout the lifespan.
See also↑Jump back a section
- Ainsworth, Heather L. and Eaton, Sarah (2010). "Formal, Non-formal and Informal Learning in the Sciences".
- Bennett, Elisabeth E. (2009). Virtual HRD: The intersection of knowledge management, culture, and intranets. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 11(3), 362-374. doi 10.1177/1523422309339724
- Bennett, Elisabeth E. (2012, June). A Four-Part Model of Informal Learning: Extending Schugurensky’s Conceptual Model. In the proceedings of the Adult Education Research Conference. Saratoga Springs, NY: AERC.
- Bersin, Josh (2005). The Blended Learning Book, Best Practices, Proven Methodologies, Lessons Learned. ISBN 0-7879-7296-7
- Coombs, P.H., & Ahmed, H. (1974). Attacking Rural Poverty: How Nonformal Education Can Help. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Coombs, P.H. (1985). The World Crisis in Education: A View from the Eighties. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Cross, Jay. (2006). Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
- Eaton, Sarah (2010). ""Formal, Non-Formal and Informal learning: The Case of Literacy, Essential Skills, and Language Learning in Canada".
- Eaton, Sarah (2011). "Family Literacy and the New Canadian: Formal, Non-Formal and Informal Learning: The Case of Literacy, Essential Skills and Language Learning in Canada".
- Grebow, David. (2002). At the Watercooler of Learning. Retrieved June 9, 2009.
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- Marsick, V.J., & Watkins, K.E. (2001). Informal and Incidental Learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 89, 25–34.
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- Schugurensky, D. (2000). The Forms of Informal Learning: Towards a Conceptualization of the Field. Retrieved October 15, 2010.
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- Gaskin, S. (2000). "Children's Daily Activities in a Mayan Village: A Culturally Grounded Description". Cross-Cultural Research 34: 375–389.
- Rogoff, B; L. Alcala, A. Coppens, A. Lopez, O. Ruvalcaba, K. Silva (2012). Pitching in and catching on: Learning through intent community participation.