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Informal Learning

The idea that all learning activities may contain elements of formality or informality to a greater or lesser degree is developed in the summary research report Informality and informality in learning by Colley, Hodkinson and Malcolm (2004) (the full report is also available). The attempt to link more informal and formal learning is often framed by concerns of how to mobilise the full resources of learners: for example, see Recognition of tacit skills and knowledge: sustaining learning outcomes in workplace environments by Karen Evans and Natasha Kersh (2004). The importance of social relationships and mutual support in enhancing individual performance at work was one of the outcomes of Exposing learning at work: results from a recent survey by Alan Felstead, Alison Fuller, Lorna Unwin, David Ashton, Peter Butler, Tracey Lee & Sally Walters (2004). Jim McNally (2006) in From informal learning to identity formation: a conceptual journey in early teacher development (Scottish Educational Review Special Edition Volume 37, 79-89) attempts to advance the search for a deeper understanding of informal learning, for beginning teachers in particular and in the wider context of early professional or occupational learning, and argues that the early experience of teaching is largely informal with strong emotional and relational dimensions associated with identity formation.

Informal learning at work involves the processes by which people learn in their workplaces outside the realms of formal education and training. Whilst informal learning still recognises the social significance of learning from other people, it does not go so far as socialisation; there is still great scope for individual agency. A useful conception of this informal learning is as a complementary, but distinct, partner to learning from experience; the distinction lies in the emphasis that learning from experience places in personal over inter-personal learning. One paper which pays great attention to this topic is Informal Learning in the Workplace (Eraut, 2004). The paper is based on several funded research projects focused on the workplace learning of professionals, technicians and managers; some focused on learning during their first years of employment, some on mid-career learning. In all cases the majority of the learning in the workplace itself was informal, and involved a combination of learning from other people and learning from personal experience, often both together. The paper utilises two different theoretical frameworks to understand and investigate informal learning in the workplace researched in these projects. One facilitates the deconstruction of the 'key concepts' of informal learning, learning from experience, tacit knowledge, transfer of learning and intuitive practice which in turn discloses the range of different phenomena that are embraced by these popular terms. The second allows three questions central to learning research to be addressed; what is being learned, how is it being learned, and what are the factors that influence the level and directions of the learning effort.

The formality of learning is a continuum "informal learning is simply learning that comes closer to the informal end...Characteristics of the informal end of the continuum of formality include implicit, unintended, opportunistic and unstructured learning and the absence of a teacher. In the middle come activities like mentoring, while coaching is rather more formal in most settings." A typology of Informal Learning (Eraut, 2004), slightly modified from Eraut's (2000) version, is reproduced in the Figure below.

Time of Focus

Implicit Learning

Reactive Learning

Deliberative Learning

Past Episode(s)


Implicit linkage of past memories with current experience

Brief near-spontaneous reflection on past episodes, events, incidents, experiences

Discussion and review of past actions, communications, events, experiences

Current Experience


A selection from experience enters episodic memory

Noting facts, ideas, opinions, impressions

Asking questions

Observing effects of actions

Engagement in decision-making, problem-solving, planned informal learning

Future Behaviour


Unconscious expectations

Recognition of possible future learning opportunities

Planning learning opportunities

Rehearsing for future events

"The columns distinguish between three levels of intention. Implicit learning was defined by Reber (1993) as “the acquisition of knowledge independently of conscious attempts to learn and in the absence of explicit knowledge about what was learned”." Eraut later argues that awareness of explicit learning does not necessarily exclude the possibility of implicit learning occurring simultaneously, and consequently most learning from experience has some implicit aspects. "Moreover, outside formal education and training settings, explicit learning is often unplanned." Hence Eraut divides explicit learning into two distinct types; reactive or opportunistic learning that is near-spontaneous; and deliberative learning that is more considered. Eraut "uses the term “reactive learning” because, although it is intentional, it occurs in the middle of the action, when there is little time to think. In contrast, deliberative learning includes both “deliberate” learning (Tough, 1979), where there is a definite learning goal and time is set aside for acquiring new knowledge, and engagement in deliberative activities such as planning and problem solving, for which there is a clear work-based goal with learning as a probable by-product. Because most of these latter activities are a normal part of working life, they are rarely regarded as learning activities, even though important learning often occurs."

"The three rows indicate the possible temporal relationships between a learning episode and the experiences that gave rise to it. Schon (1983) distinguished between reflection during an action and reflection after an action, but tended to confuse the context of reflection with its focus (see Eraut, 1995). In the Figure above the context in which learning occurs is always the present, but the focus of the learning can be in the past, present or future. While the planning of future learning opportunities is often informal, the opportunities themselves could be either formal or informal." Eraut acknowledges that aspects of his terminology are open to challenge because he focused on finding appropriate terms to describe reactive learning as a consequence of its previous absence from the literature. For example, he concedes where 'discussion' and 'review' are used to describe deliberation on the past, the term 'reflection' could have instead been employed, in the form advocated by Dewey (1933).

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