Is Informal Learning the Way Forward?

Informal learning should no longer be regarded as an inferior form of learning whose main purpose is to act as the precursor of formal learning; it needs to be seen as fundamental, necessary and valuable in its own right, at times directly relevant to employment and at other times not relevant at all.

(Coffield 2000, p8)

Given the ease of access to publicly available information and knowledge via channels including YouTube, the ‘Wiki’ family (-pedia, -How, and so on), there’s an understandable rise in interest in organizations’ exploration of ‘learning beyond the classroom.’ This is usually called informal learning: I have some doubts as to whether the activities associated with informal learning are the best way forward in the 21st Century workplace.

Michael Eraut has contributed one of the most helpful discussions of ‘informal learning’. He has suggested that the use of such a catch-all term is not very helpful (2000, p.12); he considers the concept of ‘non-formal learning’ to be a more accurate reflection of the activity. One interesting socio-cultural aspect of his argument is that the term ‘informal’ is, like the word ‘digital’, loaded: it’s associated with so many other features of situations – such as dress, behavior, discourse –

that its colloquial application as a descriptor of learning contexts may have little to do with learning per se

(Eraut 2000, p.12).

As an aside, the the term ‘non-formal learning’ in itself may not be any more helpful than informal learning (and I will discuss this in a forthcoming blog post).

Eraut’s looks at the level of intention in learning. Similar to Rogers’ learning continuum (2004), Michael Eraut establishes a matrix to identify varying types of non-formal learning, based on the timing of the stimulus (past, current, future) and the extent to which such learning is implicit, reactive or deliberative (see Table 1).

Table 1. Michael Eraut’s typology of Non-Formal Learning

Time of StimulusImplicit LearningReactive LearningDeliberative Learning
Past Episode(s)Implicit linkage of past memories with current experienceBrief near-spontaneous reflection on past episodes, communications, events, experiences.Incidental noting of facts, opinions, impressions, ideasReview of past actions, communications, events, experiences. More systematic reaction. Engagement in decision-making, problem-solving, planned informal learning
Current ExperienceA selection from experience enters the memoryRecognition of learning opportunitiesPlanned learning goals
Future BehaviourUnconscious effects of previous experiencesBeing prepared for emergent learning opportunitiesPlanned learning opportunities

According to Eraut, there is a distinction between implicit (informal) learning, which has a metacognitive component, deliberative learning (where the worker schedules time to learn), and reactive learning (where learning is explicit but almost takes place spontaneously, in response to recent, current or imminent situations but without any time being set aside for it). I would suggest that these categories align closely with Kolb’s 4-Stage Experiential Learning Cycle. Similarly, we can draw a link between synchronous and asynchronous learning delivery mechanisms, and Eraut’s Timing of Stimulus category.

Next time: Early History of Informal Learning in the Workplace Context

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References:

Coffield, F. (2000) The Necessity of Informal Learning, Bristol: The Policy Press.

Eraut, M. (2000) Non-formal learning, implicit learning and tacit knowledge, in F. Coffield (Ed) The Necessity of Informal Learning: Policy Press. Bristol

Rogers, A. (2004) Looking again at non-formal and informal education – towards a new paradigm. [Internet] Available from: http://www.infed.org/biblio/non_formal_paradigm.htm [Accessed 30th January 2018]