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Informal learning: a discussion around defining and … - importance of informal education

Informal learning: a discussion around defining and …-importance of informal education

Australian Journal of Adult Learning Informal learning 35
Volume 49, Number 1, April 2009
Our paper proceeds from a brief review of definitions of informal
learning to examine and focus on the conceptual terrain and power
relations surrounding learning in/formality. At its core is a critical
reflection and discussion of our role as researchers into informal
learning. Our essential argument in this paper, using insights from
other researchers and reflections from our own research, is about
power relations and the central role power plays in the value and
identity of both formal and informal learning (with an emphasis on
the latter).
Informal learning: a discussion around defining and Power is a central concept in understanding the formations of
researching its breadth and importance social difference and inequity. Power is connected to meaning-
Barry Golding, Mike Brown and Annette Foley making, social relations and the ways in which certain discourses
School of Education, University of Ballarat gain hegemony, the formation of policy and the ways that certain
identities are legitimated and privileged over others and valued
across educational contexts (Burke & Jackson 2007). Power operates
Informal learning has often been seen as formal learning's `poor across all levels of social life - individually, institutionally, regionally
cousin'. Our paper explores and discusses new and different ways of and nationally. Identities are always tied to shifting power relations.
thinking about defining, valuing and researching the breadth and For this purpose, we find Foucault's (1977) theory of power useful
importance of informal learning in diverse national and cultural in understanding and conceptualising power as discursive. As
contexts. This includes a consideration of the power relations educational researchers, we are interested in the way power is linked
that can act to devalue informal learning. It is underpinned by to wider structural inequities in education and what we see as adult
a recognition that not only do a relatively small proportion of educational hierarchies or power differences. We also recognise
adults currently engage in formal learning, but those who do tend that, as researchers in the field of higher education, when we work at
already to be dedicated and successful lifelong learners. It leads to a defining informal learning, we take up a complex and a contradictory
discussion about how informal learning might be framed as part of position. While we provide evidence in our paper that academic
the solution to adult exclusion, seen to be aggravated by unnecessary and practical opportunities for informal learning through adult and
adult educational hierarchies, accreditation, assessment and community education (ACE) are shrinking in Australia, we highlight
formality. the need for greater acknowledgment of the value of informality in
36 Barry Golding, Mike Brown and Annette Foley Informal learning 37
Defining and theorising informal learning presentations, information advice and guidance) provided or
From the 1960s, Tough (1967, 1971) began working in Canada with
facilitated in response to expressed interests and needs of people
from a range of sectors and organisations (health, housing,
the notion that adults can teach themselves, what he originally called social services, employment services, education and training
self-teaching, and published as Learning without a teacher: a study services, guidance services) (McGivney 1999: 1-2).
of tasks and assistance during adult self-teaching projects. Basically,
Tough showed that most adults set themselves projects to undertake The conceptual terrain around learning in/formality
and, as part of these projects, need to learn new things which they Colley, Hodkinson and Malcolm (2002) provide a particularly rich
very often do without recourse to a teacher. This form of learning is and comprehensive analysis of the Anglophone literature of the
both intentional and unintentional and occurs as a by-product of the conceptual terrain surrounding learning in/formality. It is important
project-orientated activities. His research into this idea spread over from the outset to acknowledge the impact of positivist and rationalist
two decades as he sought evidence and began to theorise what became thinking (well before the recent debates about the value or otherwise
one of the most cited threads of informal learning. of informality) that led to the valuing of formal, structured learning
over what was perceived as common, simple or everyday informal
Coming from a United Kingdom perspective, McGivney (1999: 1) in learning. Formal learning, as Bernstein (1971) noted, opened up
Informal learning in the community, determined that: high status knowledge, particularly if it was located within schools
There is no single definition of informal learning. It is a broad or universities, and especially if it was seen to be propositional,
and loose concept that incorporates very diverse kinds of accumulative and generalisable. Non-institutional learning, even if it
learning, learning styles and learning arrangements. Informal was formal, tended to be overlooked or dismissed. Colley, Hodkinson
learning can be unpremeditated, self-directed, intentional and and Malcolm (2002: 2) observe that very few authors feel the need to
planned. It can be initiated by individuals (for example in the explicitly define the terms, nor view them as problematic.
home, in the workplace); it can be a collective process (arising
from grassroots community action or social protest), or it can Table 1 is drawn from the extensive literature review by Colley,
be initiated by outside agencies responding to perceived or Hodkinson and Malcolm (2002) which contrasts characteristics and
expressed needs, interests or problems. These may include features of both formal and informal learning. Many are presented as
educational providers who wish to offer previously excluded
groups learning experiences in their own environment. binary opposites.
Having acknowledged many different definitions, McGivney broadly
defined informal learning for the purposes of her report as:
Learning that takes place outside a dedicated learning
environment, which arises from the activities and interests
of individuals or groups but which may not be recognized as
learning (learning by doing, listening, observing, interacting
with others, and so on). Non-course-based but intentional
learning activities (which might include discussion, talks or
38 Barry Golding, Mike Brown and Annette Foley Informal learning 39
Table 1: Possible ideal types of formal and informal learning
(Colley, Hodkinson and Malcolm 2002, Table 7, pp.14-15)
Formal Informal
Teacher as authority No teacher involved
Educational premises Non-education premises
Teacher control Learner control
Planned and structured Organic and evolving
Summative assessment/accreditation No assessment
Externally determined objectives/ Internally determined objectives
Interests of powerful and dominant Interests of oppressed groups
Open to all groups, according to Preserves inequality and sponsorship
published criteria
Propositional knowledge Practical and process knowledge
High status Low status
Education Not education
Measured outcomes Outcomes imprecise, unmeasurable
Learning predominantly individual Learning predominantly communal
Learning to preserve status quo Learning for resistance and
Pedagogy of transmission and control Learner-centred, negotiated pedagogy
Learning mediated through agents of Learning mediated through leader
authority democracy
Fixed and mediated timeframe Open-ended engagement
Learning is the main, explicit purpose Learning is either of secondary
significance or is implicit
Learning is applicable on a range of Learning is context specific
UNEVOC (2008) has gone further to distinguish informal learning
from other forms of learning, namely formal and non-formal
education as presented in Table 2.
Table 2: An overview of different conceptions of `formal', `non-formal' and `informal', as applied to
education and learning (UNEVOC 2008, Table 1: 6)
Formal education Non-formal education Informal learning
Green, `"organised" and `results from organised activities within `that which occurs "unintentionally" or
Oketch & "intentional" learning or outside the workplace which involve as a by-product of other activities OECD
Preston whose outcomes are significant learning which is not accredited' (2003). New classifications of learning
(2004) accredited' activities are currently being developed for
the EU Adult Education Survey and these
will form a good companion to ISCED
definitions for informal and non-formal
learning, especially for the developed
world.' (see below)
Tight `Formal education is that `any organised, systematic, educational `The life-long process by which every
(2002) provided by the education activity, carried on outside the framework individual acquires and accumulates
and training system set of the formal system, to provide knowledge, skills, attitudes and insights
up or sponsored by the selected types of learning to particular from daily experiences and exposure to
state for those express subgroups in the population, adults as the environment - at home, at work, at
purposes' (Groombridge well as children. Thus defined, non- play: from the example and attitudes
1983: 6) formal education includes, for example, of family and friends; from travel,
agricultural extension and farmer training reading newspapers and books; or by
programmes, adult literacy programmes, listening to the radio or viewing films or
occupational skill training given outside television. Generally, informal education
the formal system, youth clubs with is unorganised, unsystematic and even
substantial educational purposes, and unintentional at times, yet it accounts for
various community programmes of the great bulk of any person's total lifetime
instruction in health, nutrition, family learning - including that of even a highly
planning, cooperatives, and the like.' "schooled" person.' (Coombs & Ahmed
(Coombs & Ahmed 1974: 8) 1974: 8)
`education for which none of the learners is
enrolled or registered' (OECD 1977: 11)

What are the advantages of informal education? Advantages of Informal Education :-. 1. There are no strains of any type on the mind of the learner. 2. It is a natural way of teaching learning. 3. The leaner is self-motivated in the process of learning. 4. Most of the learnt things are situational as they are learnt in one situation or the other.