3.2.6 Theories of Informal Learning

In Unit 1 of Learning to Learn you were introduced to the difference between formal and informal learning. Look back at your answer for Activity 3.11. Did your examples show a mixture of informal and more formal ways of learning? The informal ways would include those where you involved people without a formal certification to teach you what you learned. These informal examples of learning would also be more likely to happen in a variety of situations where learning is not the main purpose. In contrast, formal learning tends to take place when people with special qualifications provide learning at places such as schools or colleges whose main business is teaching and learning.

Coombs and Ahmed describe informal learning as:

… 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 unorganized, 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)

The nature of informal learning is that it can happen almost anywhere and involve the widest range of people. For example, a huge amount of informal learning goes on at work. Boud and Middleton point out that:

There is a diverse range of people that we learn from at work, very few of whom are [recognized] by the employing [organization] as people with a role in promoting learning …

(Boud and Middleton, 2003, p. 201)

By contrast, formal learning includes the structured, authorized courses and workshops that take place in dedicated educational institutions such as schools, colleges, and training departments. These units and workshops often include assessments, such as exams, and lead to certificates, degrees, or qualifications. (So studying Learning to Learn is actually an example of formal learning.) You will probably find that when you are involved with formal learning, other, more informal learning takes place. Coombs and Ahmed (1974) suggest that we are continually learning. They also suggest that the distinction between formal and informal learning is not the only difference. They suggest that we sometimes deliberately set out to learn new things. This is referred to as deliberate learning. In contrast, other learning may be accidental, occurring as a result of something that has happened. For example, if your house is burglarized, you will learn a lot about how the local police force works. Each experience will be a different mixture of these different aspects—each will lead to a different form of learning.

3.2.5 An Alternative Perspective: The Importance of Other People in Our Immediate Social and Learning Environments A Celebrity Informal Learner