Informal and lifelong learning

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written by Amanda French


There is plenty of educational research, which shows that humans are learning all the time in many different ways and in an endless variety of settings. Informal learning can take place at work, at home, for leisure purposes or out of a need to develop a skill like driving or using a new remote control ! It may emerge out of other activities, not undertaken as learning, such as volunteering, where the learning can be accidental or unintentional. Often those participating in informal learning do not recognise that they are learning activities because learning is often seen purely as a formal, structured activity that takes place in schools, colleges and universities or on training courses designated for the purpose of acquiring a particular skill. (see Schuller, T. & Field, J. 1998)

A progressive view takes the act of learning itself as central as well as the context. Policy makers and academics increasingly argue that we are learning from the moment we are born, to be in the world, to take our place in society and adapt to change as we pass through the different stages in our life.(see Dfee (1998) The learning Age : A Renaissance for a New Britain and Hodgson (ed) (2000) ). There has been increasing global political interest in the idea of ‘learning societies’ and ‘learning organisations’, which seeks to reflect a commitment to encouraging and celebrating learning (see Field. J and Leicester, M. 2000 for international and theoretical perspectives).

Lifelong Learning is a concept that recognises the importance of encouraging learning both formal and informal throughout life. (see and for international perspectives and and for British background information). Lifelong Learning has been called a variety of names including liberal education, adult education, and continuing education and continuing professional development. It can be interpreted ideologically in different ways. On one hand lie the central tenets of personal development, inclusion, equality of opportunity in society. Seen this way informal and lifelong learning may be personally rewarding for the participants but have no direct economic benefit to wider society. Alternatively there is a more instrumental and internationalist approach that seeks to make explicit the links between learning and the economic health of the nation by focusing on outcomes such as employability and productivity and efficiency. In Britain the high-profile ‘Skills for Life’ campaign has sought over the last ten years to promote language, literacy and numeracy development to the population in an attempt to drive up participation in learning in order to improve skill levels and progress Britain’s international education and economic performance (see and for more information and related documents).

Participating in informal learning has been linked to increased levels of practical community involvement such as participating in tenant’s boards, becoming a school governor and engaging in voluntary work. It is also felt to positively encourage ‘citizenship’ another popular policy initiative (see Crick Report 2000). The latter links participation in learning to a greater involvement in aspects of social life such as political awareness, respect for the law and a heightened sense of moral responsibility.

Given the increased interest in lifelong and informal learning it is not surprising to find that it has been explicitly linked at policy level to other recent community/social initiatives in the UK such as neighbourhood renewal (see Testbed Learning Communities ( and early years strategies such as Sure Start (see All these different strands of policy are designed to involve specific groups of people such as parents, volunteers and tenants with a range of educational providers and community based agencies in a interconnected network of learning, both formal and informal.


Crick,B. (2000) Essays on Citizenship, London: Continuum

Dfee (1998) The Learning Age : A Renaissance for a New Britain, HMO Publications.

Field, J. and Leicester, M. (eds) (2000) Lifelong Learning - Education across the Lifespan, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Hodgson, A. (ed) Policies, Politics and the future of Lifelong Learning, London: Kogan Page.

Schuller, T. & Field, J. (1998) Social capital, human capital and the learning society in R. Edwards., N. Miller., N. Small & A. Tait (eds) Supporting Lifelong Learning Volume 3 Making Policy Work , Open University Press.

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