Informal education

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Main Page - Educational approaches - Informal education

Related terms

implicit learning; situated learning; self-directed learning; incidental learning; Informal and lifelong learning


The term ‘informal learning’ is often used in educational literature as part of a three-way division of education into formal learning, non-formal learning and informal learning. It is most widely used to denote a particular form of adult education, and yet the development from baby to child to adult owes as much to informal learning as it does to more formal methods.

The nature of informal learning is diverse and complex. The key points appear to be that informal learning is mainly individualistic in approach, though this does not exclude participation in group activities, largely non-structured, takes place outside dedicated educational institutions, is non-accredited and often has no clearly defined outcome. It can cross a broad spectrum of activities and contexts, from acquiring the skills necessary to survive and adapt in a changing world, through hobbies and leisure pursuits for fun, to deliberate improvement in a specific field of knowledge with the purpose of advancement in both employability and social standing.

Coombes and Ahmed (1974) produced a comprehensive definition of informal learning as “the lifelong process by which every individual acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills, attitudes and insights from daily experiences and exposure to the environment [...] generally it is unorganised, unsystematic and even unintentional at times, yet it accounts for the greater bulk of any persons lifetime learning” (p.8).

With the increasing interest in widening participation and life-long learning, informal learning is gradually being accepted as ‘fundamental, necessary and valuable in its own right’ (Coffield 2000 p.8) and not merely as a poor alternative to formal learning.

However, the use of the word ‘informal’ in association with learning has sparked a great deal of debate about the key elements of this type of education. Smith (1999) believes that the central feature of informal learning is its location. He links formal learning to schools and training institutions and non-formal learning to community groups and other organisations thus leaving informal learning to cover everything else that is left, for example, interactions with family, friends and work colleagues. Fordham (1979) and Simkins (1977) consider the extent to which the experience is learner-centred, flexible and relevant, while Beinhart and Smith (1998) look at outcome, by defining informal learning as “deliberately trying to improve your knowledge about anything, or teach yourself a skill without taking part in a taught course” (p.438).

Eraut (2000), however, warns against using the term informal at all, because of its association with dress or behaviour, suggesting that “its colloquial application as a descriptor of learning contexts may have little to do with learning per se.” (p.12).

There is relatively little research available which focuses on informal learning. This is due in part to the difficulty of collecting reliable unbiased data:

  • The obvious and orthodox techniques of observation are often not available
  • If information is collected through educational institutions then there is a body of people who are immediately excluded, i.e. those who have not had access to such institutions
  • People's different perception of the nature of learning e.g. while one person may believe that by watching a quiz on television they are learning, another person may regard this as relaxation.


BEINHART, S. and SMITH, P. (1998) National Adult Learning Survey 1997. Sudbury. DfEE Publications. In GORARD, S., FEVRE, R., and REES, G., (1999) The Apparent Decline of Informal Learning. Oxford Review of Education, Volume 25 No. 4 1999 (pp.437-454)

COFFIELD, F. (2000) The Necessity of Informal Learning. Bristol. The Policy Press.

COOMBES, PH. and AHMED, M. (1974) Attacking Rural Poverty. How non formal education can help, Baltimore. John Hopkin University Press. As quoted in SMITH, M., (1999) op cit.

CULLEN, J., BATTERSBURY, S., FORESTI, M., LYONS, C., and STERN, E. (2000) Informal learning and widening participation, DfEE.

ERAUT, M. (1997) Perspectives on defining ‘The Learning Society’, Paper prepared for ESRC Learning Society Programme Institute of Education. University of Sussex. As quoted in MCGIVNEY, V., (1999) op cit.

ERAUT, M. (2000) Non formal learning, implicit learning and tacit knowledge in professional work, As quoted in COFFIELD, F. (2000) op cit.

FORDHAM, P. (1979) The Interaction of Formal and Non formal Education, Studies in Adult Education, 11/1, pp.1-11 . As quoted in MCGIVNEY, V., (1999) op cit.

MCGIVNEY, V. (1999) Informal Learning in the Community, Leicester: NIACE.

SIMKINS, T. (1977) Non formal Education and Development, University of Manchester. As quoted in MCGIVNEY, V. (1999) op cit.

SMITH, M. (1999) Informal Learning, (Visited 26-June-05).

Useful links

Ageless Learner
This web page offers a brief introduction to informal learning, its forms and its occurrence. It has links to a number of articles and web pages. (Visited 1-July-05)

e-Learning Centre
While a large percentage of this site focuses on e-learning in the workplace, for professional development, and in Further and Higher Education, its library page on informal learning provides links to many recent articles on the importance of informal learning. (Visited 20-June-05)

This is an open, independent and not-for-profit site offering access to a wide range of resources on informal education. It has a themed searchable database and comprehensive archives containing full texts and reports. (Visited 13-June-05)

Non-formal education
This web site is designed for those interested in an understanding of the key concepts of non-formal education. It has a links to a number of research articles and reports, including community education, mentoring, non-formal education from a Christian perspective, and its place in the school curriculum. (Visited 4-July-05)