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3 Formal or informal?

When people write about the way we learn, there is often a distinction made between what is known as ‘formal’ learning and ‘informal’ learning. I expect you can guess roughly what is meant by these terms. Here are some definitions – see if they mean what you thought.

Formal learning mostly refers to the structured courses and workshops that take place in educational institutions such as schools, colleges and universities – where the main business is teaching and learning. People, usually with special qualifications, provide learning which often leads to assessments – such as exams – and in turn leads to certificates, degrees or qualifications.

Informal learning is more difficult to define because it covers so many aspects of our lives – like the example of being a parent mentioned earlier. Bringing in some of those people who, like Jarvis, have already thought extensively about this might help. So here is one definition. Informal learning is:

… the lifelong process by which every individual acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills, attitudes and insights from daily experiences and exposure to the environment – at home, at work, at play: from the example and attitude of families and friends; from travel, reading newspapers and books; or by listening to the radio or viewing films or television. Generally informal education is unorganised, unsystematic and even unintentional at times, yet accounts for the great bulk of any person’s total lifetime learning – including that of a highly ‘schooled’ person.

(Coombs and Ahmed, 1974, p. 8)

Formal learning has the advantage of offering a structure that can be reassuring to learners, and qualifications that can be useful for gaining work. Some people, though, find a formal structure stifling and relish the opportunity to explore aspects of a topic in their own way and at their own pace.

So, even if they want a qualification, they may choose an online course like this one which provides a combination of the two – a formal course with a badge to recognise an achievement, but one that can be studied at their own pace and away from a formal institution.

‘Deliberate learning’

Once you start to look at learning in more detail, you can see that there may also be other differences in the types of learning we do. Sometimes, for example, we set out intentionally to learn new things – to enrol for a course, start an apprenticeship or teach ourselves a language in preparation for a holiday. Coombs and Ahmed call this deliberate learning.

‘Accidental learning’

In contrast, other learning could be called accidental – occurring as a result of something that has happened and where you had no intention of learning at all. An example of this would be if your house was broken into – you may learn ‘accidentally’ about how the local police force works.

Although formal learning is often given a higher status than informal learning, one great advantage of informal and accidental learning is that it can take us in unexpectedly interesting and productive directions.


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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