Myth #4 (of 12): Formal, non-formal and informal learning

^^^Note: A review of Myth #1 and Myth #3 may be helpful at this point.

Myth #4 (of 12): Formal, non-formal and informal learning 

Learning is learning is learning.

I, like Billet (Infed)* see learning as ubiquitous in human activity. The only thing that changes is the context or setting. This idea flies in the face of much hype these days about informal learning, (not to mention my own Master’s work), but the issue of conceptual learning taxonomy is important in the 21st century. It has huge implications about one’s epistemology and ontology. How we as individuals define (whether implicit or explicit) learning will influence assumptions we make about how others ‘make-sense’ in any situation.

Have you ever tried to ‘teach’ someone to parallel park? Better yet, have you ever tried to ‘teach’ someone to parallel park who ‘learns’ (make-sense) differently than you? Chances are it was a disaster. Now think about how you ‘learned’ to parallel park. Think about when you ‘GOT IT!’. Where you alone? With someone? With an instructor? In a classroom? Could have even been different contexts with different size vehicles. The bottom line is, our view of how people learn, impacts our approach in many aspects of life.

Michael Eraut has produced some of the seminal work on learning in the workplace.

Eraut’s Traditional definitions are:

  • Formal learning: learning typically provided by an education or training institution, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification.
  • Non-formal learning: learning that is not provided by an education or training institution and typically does not lead to certification. It is, however, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support).
  • Informal learning: learning resulting from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification. Informal learning may be intentional but in most cases it is non-intentional (or “incidental”/ random)

Livingston developed this further. But notice the difference in wording between ‘education’ and ‘learning’:

  • Formal education occurs ‘when a teacher has the authority to determine that people designated as requiring knowledge effectively learn a curriculum taken from a pre-established body of knowledge…whether in the form of age-graded and bureaucratic modern school systems or elders initiating youths into traditional bodies of knowledge’
  • Non-formal education or further education occurs ‘when learners opt to acquire further knowledge or skill by studying voluntarily with a teacher who assists their self-determined interests, by using an organized curriculum, as is the case in many adult education courses and workshops’
  • Informal education or training occurs ‘when teachers or mentors take responsibility for instructing others without sustained reference to an intentionally-organized body of knowledge in more incidental and spontaneous learning situations, such as guiding them in acquiring job skills or in community development activities’.
  • Informal learning is ‘any activity involving the pursuit of understanding knowledge or skill which occurs without the presence of externally imposed curricular criteria…in any context outside the pre-established curricula of educative institutions’.

The Infed report authors compile a number of other learning concepts and reorganize the information into four clusters:

  • Process. This includes learning activity, pedagogical styles and issues of assessment: that is, the learning practices, and the relationships between learner and others (tutors, teachers, trainers, mentors, guides).
  • Location and setting. Is the location of the learning within a setting that is primarily education, community or workplace? Does the learning take place in the context of: fixed or open time frames; is there specified curriculum, objectives, certification; etc.
  • Is the learning secondary to other prime purposes, or the main purpose of itself? Whose purposes are dominant – the learner’s, or others’?
  •  This covers issues about the nature of what is being learned. Is this the acquisition of established expert knowledge/understanding/practices, or the development of something new? Is the focus on propositional knowledge or situated practice? Is the focus on high status knowledge or not?

From both a research and instructional design (ID) mindset, I have come to greatly appreciate this cluster approach. For researchers, it provides yet another option for deconstruction of learning phenomena. Within ID, it allows for a flexible design of how, when and where content/activity is delivered, as well as being able to build in time for individual purposes and processes.

Final Thought: What assumptions do you make about how people learn?

*An excellent summation of all of the references can be founds at: Infed

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