Informal learning

Informal learning

=Definition=

Combs (1985) defines informal learning as "the spontaneous, unstructured learning that goes on daily in the home and neighborhood, behind the school and on the play field, in the workplace, marketplace, library and museum, and through the various mass media, informal learning is by far the most prevalent form of adult learning" (p.92).

Informal learning is semi-structured and occurs in a variety of places, such as learning at home, work, and through daily interactions and shared relationships among members of society. For many learners this includes speech acquisition, cultural norms and manners. Informal learning for young people is an ongoing process that also occurs in a variety of places, such as out of school time, as well as in youth programs and at community centers.

Characterizations

Informal learning can be characterized as follows:
* It does not take place in special educational establishments standing out from normal life and professional practice;
* It has no curriculum and is not professionally organized but rather originates accidentally, sporadically, in association with certain occasions, from changing practical requirements;
* It is not planned pedagogically conscious, systematically according to subjects, test and qualification-oriented, but rather unconsciously incidental, holistically problem-related, and related to situation management and fitness for life;
* It is experienced directly in its "natural" function as a tool for living and survival.

History

In international discussions, the concept of informal learning, already used by John Dewey at an early stage and later on by Malcolm Knowles, experienced a renaissance, especially in the context of development policy. At first, informal learning was only delimited from formal school learning and non formal learning in courses (Coombs/Achmed 1974). Marsick and Watkins take up this approach and go one step further in their definition. They, too, begin with the organizational form of learning and call those learning processes informal which are non-formal or not formally organized and are not financed by institutions (Watkins/Marsick, p. 12 et sec.). An example for a wider approach is Livingstone's definition which is oriented towards auto didactic and self-directed learning and places special emphasis on the self-definition of the learning process by the learner (Livingstone 1999, p. 68 et seq.).

Another Perspective

Merriam and others (2007) state: "Informal learning, Schugurensky (2000) suggests, has its own internal forms that are important to distinguish in studying the phenomenom. He proposes three forms: self-directed learning, incidental learning, and socialization, or tacit learning. These differ among themselves in terms of intentionality and awareness at the time of the learning experience. Self-directed learning, for example, is intentional and conscious; incidental learning, which Marsick and Watkins (1990) describe as an accidental by-product of doing something else, is unintentional but after the experience she or he becomes aware that some learning has taken place; and finally, socialization or tacit learning is neither intentional nor conscious (although we can become aware of this learning later through "retrospective recognition") (Marsick & Watkins, 1990,p.6)' (p.36).

Formal and Non-formal Education

To fully understand informal learning it's useful to define the terms "formal" and "non-formal" education. Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007), state: "Formal education is highly institutionalized, bureaucratic, curriculum driven, and formally recognized with grades, diplomas, or certificates" (p.29). Merriam and others (2007), also state: "The term non-formal has been used most often to describe organized learning outside of the formal education system. These offerings tend to be short-term, voluntary, and have few if any prerequisites. However they typically have a curriculm and often a facilitator" (p.30).

Research and Data

Merriam and others (2007)state: "studies of informal learning, especilly those asking about adults'self-dircted learning projects, reveal that upwards of 90 percent of adults are engaged in hundreds of hours of informal learning. It has also been estimated that the great majority (upwards of 70 percent) of learning in the workplace is informal (Kim, Collins, Hagedorn, Williamson, & Chapman, 2004), although billions of dollars each year are spent by business and industry on formal training programs" (p.35-36).

Informal Learning Experiences

Informal learning is what happens when knowledge has not been externalized or captured and exists only inside someone’s head. To get at the knowledge, you must locate and talk to that person. Examples of such informal knowledge transfer include instant messaging, a spontaneous meeting on the Internet, a phone call to someone who has information you need, a live one-time-only sales meeting introducing a new product, a chat-room in real time, a chance meeting by the water cooler, a scheduled Web-based meeting with a real-time agenda, a tech walking you through a repair process, or a meeting with your assigned mentor or manager.

Experience indicates that almost all real learning for performance is informal (The Institute for Research on Learning, 2000, Menlo Park), and the people from whom we learn informally are usually present in real time. We all need that kind of access to an expert who can answer our questions and with whom we can play with the learning, practice, make mistakes, and practice some more. It can take place over the telephone or through the Internet, as well as in person. Informal access is not built into the formal learning process, the chances of getting past knowing to doing will be difficult at best.

A study of time-to-performance done by Sally Anne Moore at Digital Equipment Corporation in the early 1990s, (Moore, Sally-Ann, "Time-to-Learning", Digital Equipment Corporation, 1998) graphically shows this disparity between formal and informal learning.

Examples of Informal Learning

To illustrate the difference between formal and informal learning, consider the game of golf. If you want to learn to play golf, you can go to a seminar, read a book about the history and etiquette of golf, watch a videotape of great golfing moments, and then you can say you know something about golf. But have you really learned to play golf? You can then buy and enjoy a great e-golf game, find a golf pro, take lessons, take a simulated swing on a simulated golf course, practice putting, slice and dice balls at the driving range all weekend. After all this, you think you can do it, but have you really learned to play golf?

From your first tee shot on your first hole, it takes hours of adopting and adapting, alone and in a foursome, in all sorts of weather and conditions. You discover what you know and can do, swing all the clubs, ask all sorts of questions, fail and succeed, practice and practice some more, before you have really learned to play golf. Real learning, then, is the state of being able to adopt and adapt what you know and can do—what you have acquired through formal learning—under a varying set of informal circumstances. As shown in the above graph, it accounts for about 75 percent of the learning curve.

Business Perspective

The majority of companies that provide training are currently involved only with the formal side of the continuum. Most of today’s investments are on the formal side. The net result is that companies spend the most money on the smallest part - 25% - of the learning equation. The other 75 percent of learning happens as the learner creatively adopts and adapts to ever changing circumstances. The informal piece of the equation is not only larger, it’s crucial to learning how to do anything.

ummary

In terms of learning in the workplace, where everything is focused on performance and performance is everything, the informal element of learning needs to be factored into the equation for any real learning to take place. Companies need to add those accidental, informal intersections of learning and performance into the process. They need to understand that the informal side of the equation requires real people in real time: mentors, coaches, masters, guides, power users, subject-matter experts, communities of practice. What needs to happen is that companies and schools need to foster informal moments of knowledge transfer.One way to accomplish this is to create collaborative learning environments, where the formal and informal learning are seamlessly knit together. Technology can also be used to facilitate the informal as well as the formal transfer of knowledge by including expert locators, e-mail connections with instructors, real-time Internet meeting places, virtual-learning support groups, instant messaging, expert networks, mentor and coaching networks, personal e-learning portals, moderated chats, and more. The goal would be to create the 100 percent learning solution, in which the proscribed formal learning events and the serendipitous learning moments are given equal value.

ee also

* Informal education
* [http://www.informallearning.net Teacher Blog about Informal Learning]

Additional reading

* Coombs, Ph.; Ahmed, H. (1974): Attacking rural Poverty. How nonformal education can help. Baltimore
* Coombs, P.H. (1985). The World Crisis in Education: A View from the Eighties. New York: Oxford University Press.
* Cross, Jay. (2006) : Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
* Grebow, David. (2002): From the Watercooler of Learning. The Darden School Foundation, Batten Institute. Reprinted here with permission of the Author.
* LIVINGSTONE, D. W. (2001): Adults’ Informal Learning: Definitions, findings, Gaps and Future Research. Toronto: NALL Working Paper 21/2001. Auch: http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/depts/sese/csew/nall/res/21adultsifnormallearning.htm (30.8.03).
* LIVINGSTONE, D. W. (2002): Mapping the Iceberg. NALL Working Paper # 54 – 2002.
* Merriam, S., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, 3rd edition. New York: Wiley.
* Marsick, V. J./Watkins, K. E. (2001): Informal and Incidental Learning. In: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education Nr. 89, S. 25-34
* Overwien, Bernd: Informal Learning and the Role of Social Movements. In: International Review of Education, Vol. 46, 6, November 2000, S. 621-640
* SCHUGURENSKY, D. (2000): The Forms of Informal Learning: Towards a Concep-tualization of the Field. Draft Working Paper October, NALL Working Paper 19/2000. http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/depts/sese/csew/nall/res/ (August 2003).
* SOMMERLAD, E. & STERN, E. (1999): Workplace Learning, Culture and Performance. London.
* Watkins, K./Marsick, V. (1990): Informal and Incidental Learning in the Workplace. London


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