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Informal learning

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Informal learning

Lao villagers assemble jigsaw maps of Southeast Asia. These maps were made by Big Brother Mouse, a literacy project in Laos. It was the first time any of them had seen a jigsaw puzzle of any sort.
Informal learning is, by default, any learning that is not formal learning or non-formal learning. Informal learning is organized differently than formal and non-formal learning because it has no set objective in terms of learning outcomes and is never intentional from the learner’s standpoint. Often it is referred to as learning by experience or just as experience. For all learners this includes heuristic language building, socialization, inculturation, and play. Informal learning is a persistent and pervasive ongoing phenomena of learning via participation or learning via knowledge creation, in contrast with the traditional view of teacher-centered learning via knowledge acquisition.

The term is often conflated, however, with non-formal learning, and self-directed learning. It is widely used in the context of corporate training and education in relation to return on investment (ROI), or return on learning (ROL). It is also widely used when referring to science education, in relation to citizen science, or informal science education. The conflated meaning of informal and non-formal learning explicates mechanisms of learning that organically occur outside the realm of traditional instructor-led programs, e.g., reading self-selected books, participating in self-study programs, Kitchen Table science, navigating performance support materials and systems, incidental skills practice, receptivity of coaching or mentoring, seeking advice from peers, or participation in communities of practice, to name a few. Informal learning occurs in community, where individuals have opportunities to observe and participate in social activities.[1]


Informal learning can be characterized as follows:

  • It usually takes place outside educational establishments;
  • It does not follow a specified practical requirements;
  • It is not necessarily planned pedagogically, systematically according to fixed subjects, test and qualification-oriented, but rather, either unconsciously incidental or consciously intended intuition, holistically problem-related, and related to actual situations and fitness for life;
  • It is experienced directly in its "natural" function of everyday life.
  • It is often spontaneous and creative.
  • It is a key component to an alternative learning system coined, Learning by Observing and Pitching-In (LOPI),[2] which is highly used by the indigenous of the Americas, but not by all.


In international discussions, the concept of informal learning, already used by 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

People in many Indigenous communities of the Americas often learn through observation and participation in everyday life of their respective communities and families. Barbara Rogoff and her colleagues describe the ways in which children in Indigenous communities can learn by observing and participating in community endeavors, having an eagerness to contribute, fulfilling valuable roles, and finding a sense of belonging in their community.[3] These learning experiences are mutually involved among each other and are illustrated by children’s incorporation in the community and the child’s attentiveness. This form of informal learning allows the children to collaborate in social organization, which grants the child the opportunity to learn by pitching in.

Learning occurs through socialization processes relative to one's culture and community.[4] Learning by observing and pitching in is an Informal learning model often seen in many Indigenous communities of the Americas. [5] Children can be seen participating alongside adults in many daily activities within the community. An example is the process where children learn slash-and-burn agriculture by being present in the situation and contributing when possible.[6] 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.[7] Indigenous ways of learning include practices such as observation, experiential learning, and apprenticeship.[8]

Child 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 illustrates how the child's presence and the availability of these activities allow the child to learn through observation.[9] 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.[10] The circumstances of everyday routine create opportunities for the culturally meaningful activities and sensitive interactions on which a child's development depends.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13]

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 late 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.

Business perspective

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

Additional reading

  • 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.
  • Livingstone, D.W. (2001). Adults' Informal Learning: Definitions, Findings, Gaps and Future Research. Retrieved October 15, 2010.
  • Livingstone, D.W. (2002). Mapping the Iceberg. Retrieved October 15, 2010.
  • Marsick, V.J., & Watkins, K.E. (2001). Informal and Incidental Learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 89, 25–34.
  • Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.) New York: Wiley.
  • Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development / Organisation de Coopération et de Développement Economiques (OECD). (n.d.) "Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning - Home"
  • Overwien, B. (2000). Informal Learning and the Role of Social Movements. International Review of Education, 46(6), 621–640.
  • Schugurensky, D. (2000). The Forms of Informal Learning: Towards a Conceptualization of the Field. Retrieved October 15, 2010.
  • Sommerlad, E., & Stern, E. (1999). Workplace Learning, Culture and Performance. London.
  • Watkins, K., & Marsick, V. (1990). Informal and Incidental Learning in the Workplace. London.


  1. ^ Paradise, Ruth; Barbara Rogoff (2009). "Side by side: Learning by observing and pitching in". Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology: 102–138. 
  2. ^ Rogoff, Barbara. "Learning by Observing and Pitching-In Overview". Retrieved M ay 22 2014. 
  3. ^ Rogoff, B; L. Alcala; A. Coppens; A. Lopez; O. Ruvalcaba; K. Silva (2012). "Pitching in and catching on: Learning through intent community participation". 
  4. ^ Pewewardy, Cornel (2002). "Learning styles of American Indian/Alaska native students: A review of the literature and implications for practice". Journal of American Indian Education 41 (3): 22–56. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Gaskins, S (2000). "Children's Daily Activities in a Mayan Village: A Culturally Grounded Description". Cross-Cultural Research 34: 375–389.  
  7. ^ Paradise, R; B. Rogoff2 (2009). "Side-by Side: Learning by Observing and Pitching In". Journal of the Society for Psychology and Anthropology: 102–138. 
  8. ^ Hart, M (2007). "Indigenous Knowledge and Research: The Mikiwahpa as a Symbol for Reclaiming Our Knowledge and Ways of Knowing". A Journal of Innovation and Best Practices in Aboriginal Child Welfare Administration3 3 (1): 83–90. 
  9. ^ Göncü, A. (1999). "Children’s and researchers’ engagement in the world". Library of Congress Catalog: 3–23. 
  10. ^ Bourdillon, M.; D. Levison; D. White; W. Myers (2009). "A place for work in children’s lives?". Plan: 1–37. 
  11. ^ Farver, J.A.M. (1999). "Activity setting analysis: A model for examining the role of culture in development". Press syndicate of the university of Cambridge: 99–127. 
  12. ^ Liebel, M. (2001). "The dignity of the working child: What children in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala think about their work". Working children’s protagonism: social movements and empowerment in Latin America, Africa and India: 53–66. 
  13. ^ Gaskin, S. (2000). "Children's Daily Activities in a Mayan Village: A Culturally Grounded Description". Cross-Cultural Research 34: 375–389.  

External links

  • infed - the encyclopaedia of informal education
  • Informal Learning blog
  • Teacher Blog about Informal Learning
  • Learning Revolution White Paper
  • North East Festival of Learning
  • Validation of self-aCquired learning and cREdits trAnsfer in web design and compuTEr animation /CREATE/
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