Informal learning

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  • The speed at which technology evolves today is increasing more than ever before and technology keeps offering new tools in order to simplify our lives. At the same time, teaching strategies are out of step with the times and students are not being taught how to adapt their learning to fit today’s complex work environment.
  • Although formal forms of instruction such as classroom lessons and e-learning will still be used for many years to come, it is becoming more and more more important to pay attention to the more informal methodologies that students are using.
  • The reasons why informal learning is becoming so popular have to do with immediacy and relevancy. Informal methods of learning are often found in the work environment as they are seen as techniques that a learner can take advantage of right away and with immediate application to their job. Another reason consists in the fact that learners can drive their learning in a more meaningful and self-directed manner. (Bob Mosher, 2004)

See also:


  • Informal learning can be defined as a particular way of learning which arises from the activities and interests of individuals and groups. After having identified and selected interests expressed by learners, informal-learning activities (discussion, talks or presentations, information, advice and guidance are ) are carried out in a flexible and informal way, in informal community locations. (Informal Learning)

  • According to Marcia Conner (Marcia L. Conner), "Informal learning accounts for over 75% of the learning taking place in organizations today. Often, the most valuable learning takes place serendipitously, by random chance."

Conner continues explaining that Informal learning is a "lifelong process" through which people acquire attitudes, values, skills and knowledge mainly from the mass media, from daily experiences, such as those made at work, at play, while talking with our neighbors and from various kind of interactions, in general. It is apparent that informal learning is rather related to incidental learning.

  • According to Mark K. Smith [1], informal education is based on conversation, exploring and enlarging experiences which can take place in any setting.

Formal vs informal

Hawkings (2004) states that “it is far too simplistic to assume that learning is either formal or informal. At the very least, both learner affiliations and teaching/learning activities may each be divided into formal and informal, providing a two-by-two matrixone”:

Affiliations   formal informal
formal Lectures for groups of students Free-choice exploration of exhibits
informal Adult education courses Interactions with gallery characters

Table 2.1 Simple analysis of formal/informal learning in museums (Hawkings, 2004).

According to Conner “most learning happens through processes not structured or sponsored by an employer or a school.” Informal learning is the term she uses to describe what happens the rest of the time. Conner differentiates between formal and informal and simplifies what is learned intentionally and what is learned accidentally.

Conner's informal learning scheme

The scheme above sums the distinctions between formal, informal, and non-formal. These concepts were first developed in the 1950s by people working in the area of international development.

  • Formal learning refers to hierarchically structured school systems; it runs from primary school through to university and organized school-like programs created on the job for technical and professional training.
  • Informal learning describes a lifelong process through which learners acquire attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experience.
  • Intentional learning is the process whereby an individual aims at learning something and goes about achieving that objective in any way necessary.
  • Accidental learning happens when an individual learns something by chance, without having planned or expected it.
  • Non-formal learning includes any kind of organized educational activity outside the formal system whether operating separately or as an important feature of some broader activity intended to serve identifiable learning objectives.” (Conner, 2004)

It is worth pointing out that learning informally can be very useful for some individuals. Introverted people, for example, might feel more confortable in an informal context and, consequently, learn more than in a formal context.

Literature on Informal Learning

There are many forms of Informal Learning discussed in the literature. Below are related articles:


There are several organizations that have studied informal learning and here it is worth pointing out at least:

  • The Teaching Firm: Where Productive Work and Learning Converge was a landmark 1998 study on workplace learning by Education Development Center (EDC) in Newton, Massachusetts. Based on research conducted at seven manufacturing companies, the EDC study found that informal learning takes place spontaneously and continuously, not just in times of crisis, but in the course of everyday activities and routine procedures.
  • The June 10, 2004 Economics Group (LEG) featured a presentation by Jeff Kelley. He referred to some of the research that he and Ted Kahn did on informal learning when they ran CapWorks.

Instruments to study formal learning


Organizations that promote informal learning
  • UnCollege (unschooling resource site, hacking your own education)
  • Schoolfactory non-profit organization that creates value-creating communities and spaces that transform education, e.g. hackerspaces, makerspaces, coworking spaces, and other places where diverse communities come together to build, make, and teach one another.


For now, please consult more specialized articles (e.g. follow links of various types of informal learning).

  • Bell, C. R. Informal Learning in Organizations. Personnel Journal, 56, no. 6 (June 1977): 280-283, 313.
  • Conner, Marcia L. "Informal Learning" Ageless Learner, 1997-2008. . Good article with pointers.
  • Hawkings, Roy (2004), Learning with Digital Technologies in Museums,Science Centres and Galleries, Futurelab SERIES, Report 9. HTML
  • Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1996) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Ticknall: Education Now.
  • Rodgers, Alain (2005). Non-Formal Education. Flexible schooling or participatory education ?, CERC Studies in comparative education 15. Kluwer.