Non-formal Learning in the Workplace 2

As discussed in a previous blog entry, one of the central components of the impact of non-formal learning (and specifically the development of knowledge workers’ expertise in organizations) is the context within which the learning takes place. A central pillar of this discussion is the type or format of the learning taking place.

Charting the Types of Learning

Charting the Types of Learning (Clark, D.)

In the literature, it is apparent that a dichotomy exists between the paradigms of formal, goal-directed training programs and informal – “learning at the watercooler” (Grebow, 2002) or what Michael Eraut (2000) describes as incidental learning that takes place almost as a side effect of work:

it is difficult to make a clear distinction between formal and informal learning as there is often a crossover between the two. (McGivney, 1999, p.1)

Another complexity in the discussion is where is non-formal learning located in relation to the diametric opposites? For much of the forty years since the term ‘non-formal learning’ was first coined (Coombs, 1968, p.1.) there has been a great deal of debate in the literature as to the nature of formal, informal and non-formal learning; the components of each of the paradigms, their boundaries and their overlaps. The locus of this debate is centered on arguments for “the inherent superiority of one or the other” (Colley, Hodkinson & Malcolm, 2002, p.2).

I support Alan Rogers’ (2004) view that a “new paradigm” for learning exists, in which “most programs will be partly formal and partly informal” going from formal to informal and from informal to formal in both directions along a continuum (see Figure 1) . “Both forms of education are important elements in the total learning experience” (Looking again at non-formal and informal education – towards a new paradigm, 2004).

The Learning Continuum

Figure 1 the Learning Continuum

Similarly, Hodkinson et al argue that focusing on the extent to which learning is planned and intentional may be a way of by-passing the distinction between formal, non-formal and informal altogether.” (Colley, Hodkinson & Malcolm, 2002).




Clark, D.R. Informal and formal Learning [Internet] Available from: http://www.knowledgejump.com/learning/informal.html [Accessed 8th October 2017]

Colley, H., Hodkinson, P., Malcolm, J. (2002). Non-formal learning: mapping the conceptual terrain. a consultation report. [Internet] Available from: http://www.infed.org/archives/e-texts/colley_informal_learning.htm [Accessed 28th March 2017]

Coombs, P. (1968). The World Educational Crisis, New York, Oxford University Press.

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

Grebow, D. (2002). At the Water Cooler of Learning [Internet] Available from: http://agelesslearner.com/articles/watercooler_dgrebow_tc600.html [Accessed 30th March 2017]

McGivney, V. (1999). Informal learning in the community: a trigger for change and development NIACE. Leicester.

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 March 2017]


  1. Water cooler learning and even the new learning paradigms assume a certain level of dialog between learners, the learner and content, the learner and instructor, and the learner and environment. Looking at the model you have, I am wondering if it would be appropriate to say that formal learning has low level of “conversation” or “dialog”, non-formal learning has more structured dialog, and informal learning has a high level of dialog, mostly unstructured?

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