Non-formal Workplace Learning 1

Looking specifically at learning in the workplace, Michael Eraut in Non-formal learning, implicit learning and tacit knowledge (2000) makes a clear distinction between his interpretation of the term ‘non-formal learning’ and what others including Scribner (1988), Conner (2002) and Cross (2003) would call ‘informal learning’ – what Eraut terms ‘incidental learning’ or

the acquisition of knowledge independently of conscious attempts to learn and the absence of explicit knowledge about what was learned.

(Reber, 1993, quoted by Eraut 2000, p.12)

This is, he argues, because most workplace learning takes place outside formal learning contexts, and informal learning carries with it connotations of

so many other features of a situation, such as dress, discourse, behavior, diminution of social differences – that its colloquial application as a descriptor of learning contexts may have little to do with learning per se.


Not only does the term carry unwanted and confusing implications, but it is too vague to be of any real utility. For Eraut, an analysis of learning must focus on activities and the outcomes that that contribute to significant changes in capability or understanding. In a sense, Eraut does not define non-formal learning; rather, he defines the characteristics of formal learning (p.12) as:

  1. A prescribed learning framework
  2. An organized learning event or package
  3. The presence of a designated teacher or trainer
  4. The award of a qualification or credit
  5. The external specification of outcomes.

The implication of this categorization is that any learning that does not exhibit all of these characteristics should be classed as non-formal. Some reviewers (Colley, Hodkinson & Malcolm, 2002) make the point that Eraut does not make clear what the status is of learning in situations that meet some, but not all, of his ‘formal’ criteria. My interpretation of his characterization is that the very nature of a formal activity – “following or according with established form, custom, or rule” (Merriam-Webster Online, 2007) validates Eraut’s description.

Next time: More on non-formal learning



Colley, Hodkinson, Malcolm (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]

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