31 August 2012

About formal and informal (non-formal) learning

Discussions abound about how to properly differentiate formal and informal learning. To make things even more complicated, some throw in the notion of non-formal learning as a further refinement. On the one hand, the distinction has been made loosely to differentiate between learning in schools (formal) and all the other learning (informal). As long as you don't think to deeply, this works. However, now that some want to start theorizing about informal learning (workplace learning, professional learning, ...) and environments are claimed to be developed for it (such as MOOCs), too loose a definition won't do anymore. I will make a suggestion here for a sharp distinction that is simple to apply yet allows us to continue most of the conversations about formal and informal learning that we have engaged in.

Although my intention is to make things simpler, I want add one more term before tackling the formal and informal divide. I want to distinguish between learning that is intentional and learning that isn't. The latter kind I call accidental learning, it is the kind of learning we cannot refrain from doing even though we do not set out explicitly to learn something. It refers to for instance making a mental map of a route you are walking in an unknown city or to picking up some interesting tidbit while overhearing a conversation. It is the kind of learning that made us as a species successful (in terms of sheer numbers, not necessarily in any other sense). Formal and informal learning are both intentional because people explicitly want to learn something and make a conscious effort to do so. Eraut (2004, Informal learning in the workplace) calls this implicit learning.

Now on to the formal. Formal learning is all learning that involves a (social) contract between a learner and an (educational) institution. This could be a school (if it is about pupils and students) or a training institute (if it is about professionals). The contract implies that the learner hands over her responsibility for her learning trajectory to another party. That party employs people (teachers) and has all sort of policies in place (curricula, assessment routines, remediation rules, etc.) to honour the contract. Crucially, the contract only means that the institution will make a sincere effort to let the contractee (student) learn, it gives no guarantees about learning outcomes in terms of diplomas, etc. Finally, it is a social contract as other parties tend to be involved, such as governments who take an interest in providing an initial education for  their young people and lifelong learning opportunities for the labour force; or a company or association of companies in a particular sector which wants to provide training opportunities to its employees. Informal learning now is defined by exclusion: all intentional learning that is not formal is informal. From this it already follows that informal learning comes in many kinds, some of which will resemble formal learning more than others. However, it is the absence of a contract - implicit as at schools or explicit as often with training - that makes the difference.

Informal learning thus includes learning that professionals do at their workplace, that students do at university next to their curriculum-based lecture sessions, that ordinary people do when surfing the web for information on a medical condition, that ... I'm not sure it makes sense to subdivide informal learning, but time will tell. Oh, and non-formal learning is synonymous with informal learning, at least for the time being.

Strictly distinguishing formal from informal learning implies that I disagree with Eraut (2004) who maintains that all dichotomies are signs of lazy thinking; many are but certainly not all. It also follows that I disagree with the 2003 report by Colley, Hodkinson & Malcom  (Informality and formality in learning: a report for the Learning and Skills Research Centre), who see formal and informal as attributes of situations. This too would result in a continuum of informal and formal. However, I do agree with them that the distinction does not extend to theories of learning or kinds of knowledge. The formal-informal dichotomy is about learning situations or settings, in which either the responsibility for one's learning trajectory is contractually handed over to others or isn't. The way people learn (learning theories) and what it is they learn (conceptions of knowledge) are independent of this. The benefit of this way of differentiating formal from informal learning is that it does not affect our theories nor our epistemologies, we may keep theorizing about learning irrespective of the setting. So we may remain seeing learning as a mix of knowledge acquisition through transfer and through participation, even though emphases may differ.

Some consequences. Is Connectivism about formal or about informal learning? Assuming that we exactly know what Connectivism is and in so far it is a learning theory, it would be equally applicable to formal and informal learning. And, indeed, we see that Connectivism is embraced by teachers who want to set up PLEs for the students, or help them do so. In connectivist terms, the PLE is what they have learnt. But equally, cMOOCS are being set up by George Siemens and Steven Downs where people from all over the world learn together without any institutional ties. How about xMOOCs, are they then environments for formal learning? My guess would be that they are, although the ties between the student and the institution (Coursera, Udacity, MIT, ...) are very loose indeed. From this it follows that the even broader category of networked learning suits both formal and informal learning, although the way it is implemented in a particular situation of course differs between both learning settings.

Comments added after publication:
  • I wrote a follow-up post in which I also react to the comments by Jay and Nick. (September 6, 2012)
  • "But Eric Roberts, professor of computer science [at Stanford] and a frequent critic of online learning, said there might not be as much enthusiasm [for online learning] as has been suggested, and he said he feared the innovations could "change the nature of the social contract" of the university." From meeting notes at Stanford on online learning. What is relevant in the present context of course is the mentioning of a social contract. (October 28, 2012)


  1. Peter, I've been exploring and writing about informal learning for years and I can't agree that formal/informal is either/or. It's both/and.

    Learning is a continuum of degrees of formality. The challenge is choosing among shades of gray.

    Learners can have a social contract with an institution but if it's a contract for independent study, is the learning really formal? At the very least, it's less formal than a typical lecture-oriented course.

    In business school, I learned more in my study group than in class sessions. Thus, my learning was a mix of formal and informal.

    George and Stephen's MOOC were largely informal. The learner was given a menu of resources and activities and chose her own path. Many people got lost but that's another issue. Listening to a video of a lecturer at MIT is formal: the institution controls the subject matter. If the learner reinforces those lessons with self-selected outside reading or chats with friends, that's informal.

    It's not elegant, but I think of informal learning as Pull and formal learning as Push. All learning is Push and Pull.

    Some of us engaged in a shouting match on this issue a few years back.

  2. Hi Peter - I would agree with you, but am inclined to be slightly less diplomatic: formal learning is a cultural artifact, a norm arisen through historical accident for a practice which has little to do with learning, bar the name. I take this to be your intent in defining formal learning as that covered by a 'social contract'. Informal learning is learning, period. It is only defined by exception in the sense in which all animals are, by exception, non-unicorns. Informal learning may take many 'shades of grey' but these are not really on a spectrum from formal to informal - except in the trivial sense in which we may say that (informal) learning happens as part of formal learning events (i.e. incidentally). How could it not?

    I agree with Jay that coming up with a definition is troublesome. Even the push/pull distinction falls apart quickly: incidental learning is informal, but not 'pull' (as when I observe you subjected to the exploding coffee machine and decide not to use it myself).

    I would argue that at the heart of the problem lies our inability to give a good account of how learning works; without this it is hard to come up with a defensible taxonomy. Under such conditions the categories we come up with are simply reflections of our culture or preconceptions.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful and useful reactions. When writing a comment, this quickly turned into a full blog post and even that was not enough to address all you raise here. So please check my latest post


Please, leave your comments. I do moderate comments, only in an effort to blog spam. That's all. So rest assured, I'll only weed out off-topic comments but emphatically I will not block comments that are critical or negative. The one exception to that rule is if the commentator hides in anonymity. I see this blog as a way to air my views and engage with others on them. But what is the point of a discussion if you don't know with whom you are talking?