Approaches_Informal Learning

Informal Learning



Informal learning can be defined as

  • Unofficial and unscheduled learning that takes place outside a dedicated learning environment arises from

               – the non course-based activities (which might include discussion, talks or presentations, information,  advice and  guidance) and

               – interests of individuals and group but may not be recognized as learning.

  • Or planned and structured learning such as short courses organized in response to identified interests and needs

               – but delivered in flexible and informal ways and in informal community settings.

 (Smith, 1999)


  • 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.

(Conner, 1997)

Figure 1. Diagram. Source:


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.

 (Conner, 2004)


Basic Assumptions and Principles

In general, informal learning

  •  works through, and is driven by, conversation.
  •  is spontaneous and involves exploring and enlarging experience.
  • can take place in any setting.

 ( Jeffs & Smith, 1997; 2005; 2011)


The origins of our theory of informal have been linked to related concepts, e.g.,

  • learning “en passant” (Reischmann, 1986)
  • social modeling (Bandura, 1986)
  • experiential learning (Boud, Cohen, and Walker, 1993; Kolb, 1984)
  • self-directed learning (Candy, 1991; Knowles, 1950)
  • action learning as a variant of experiential learning (Revans, 1982),
  • critical reflection and transformative learning (Mezirow, 1991),
  • tacit knowing (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995; Polanyi, 1967),
  • situated cognition (Scribner, 1986; Lave and Wenger, 1991)
  • communities of practice (Wenger, 1998)

(Marsick & Watkins, 1990; Garrick, 1998)


Marsick and Volpe (1999) concluded that informal learning can be characterized as follows:

  • It is integrated with daily routines.
  • It is triggered by an internal or external jolt.
  • It is not highly conscious.
  • It is haphazard and influenced by chance.
  • It is an inductive process of reflection and action.
  • It is linked to learning of others [p. 5].
  • Non-formal’ learning as implicit, reactive and deliberative

(Smith, 1999; 2008)


Classroom Implication and Teaching Strategies

Informal and incidental learning generally take place without much external facilitation or structure.

There are three conditions to enhance informal learning:

  • critical reflection to surface tacit knowledge and beliefs,
  • stimulation of proactivity on the part of the learner to actively identify options and to learn new skills to implement those options or solutions
  • creativity to encourage a wider range of options.

 (Marsick & Watkins, 2001)

A number of characteristics emerge in the application of informal learning:

  • place conversation at the centre of their activities.
  • operate in a wide range of settings – often within the same day. These include centres, schools and colleges, streets and shopping malls, people’s homes, workplaces, and social, cultural and sporting settings.
  • look to create or deepen situations where people can learn spontaneously, explore and enlarge experience, and make changes
  • place a special emphasis on building just and democratic relationships and organizations that allow people to share in community.

In addition, it was suggested to

  • use a variety of methods including group work, casual conversation, play, activities, work with individuals and casework. While their work for much of the time is informal – they also make use of more formal approaches to facilitate learning.
  • work with people of all ages although many will specialize around a special age range e.g. children, young people or with adults. In other words informal education is lifelong education.
  • develop particular special interests such as in children’s play and development; community development and community action; literacy and basic education; advice; outdoor and adventure activities; arts and cultural work; and youth work.

( Jeffs & Smith, 1997; 2005; 2011)

Key Resources


Introduction to Informal Learning 

[Online] (

Informal Learning Center

[Online] (

Informal Learning Experiences

[Online] (

Textbooks and other Introductions

Coffield, F. (Ed.). (2000). The necessity of informal learning (Vol. 4). The Policy Press.

Conner, M. L. (1997). Informal learning. Ageless Learner, 2005.

Cross, J. (2007). Informal learning: Rediscovering the natural pathways that inspire innovation and performance. John Wiley & Sons.

Gray, B. (2004). Informal Learning in an Online Community of Practice. Journal of Distance Education, 19(1).

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1997, 2005, 2011). ‘What is informal education?’, The encyclopaedia of informal education.

Smith, M. K. (1999). Informal learning. The encyclopaedia of informal education.

Garrick, J. (1998). Informal Learning in the Workplace: Unmasking Human Resource Development. London: Routledge.

Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. London and New York: Routledge

Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (2001). Informal and incidental learning. New directions for adult and continuing education89, 25-34.