The Potential of Informal Learning

Children, and most other young animals, have a natural inclination to explore their world, test whether new objects can be eaten, find new spaces and possibilities, and this curiosity is important in driving learning (Day, 1982). We retain some of this tendency to explore as we get older, and most of us like the idea of travelling to new places, tasting different foods, trying out new pastimes etc. However, we don’t always associate these informal experiences with learning, and indeed many of us, after years of compulsory schooling, may deliberately shun the idea of associating ‘real life’ experiences with learning. But actually, learning which is unplanned and unconscious may be as important as the more formal learning that comes from a training course or curriculum: it got us from crawling to walking, it ensures that we don’t persist with sampling mud or caterpillars, and it allows us to communicate with one another.
Some of what we learn in this way has been referred to by Polyani (1967) as ‘tacit knowledge’: we have knowledge or abilities but may not be able articulate what they are. Rogers (2003) differentiates an awareness of tasks that have been mastered (eg. parenting), and used the term ‘Task-conscious or acquisition learning’ to describe this. However, in many cases, we are not aware of what we know: it takes a metacognitive step to become mindful of our knowledge and skills, and to register new information that we might come across. As an example, I happened to hear about a bird called a quelea on Radio 4 one morning last week, and was interested to discover that it is the most numerous bird on Earth. I later looked up further information about the bird on the web, and seeing a picture of it, and its name spelt correctly, has helped me be aware that I have learnt something about this bird. Furthermore, noting all of that here has helped to consolidate that learning (possibly shunting information from working to long-term memory). I thus added a snippet to my ‘life-long learning’!

This example of learning only took place because there was a source of information that was stimulating, and I was motivated enough to find out more (last week there was a lot on the radio about banks and politics, too, but I didn’t trouble myself to look up anything about them!).  It could be argued that a key role of education in general, and adult education in particular, is to make individuals aware of what is, or might be, stimulating, and to motivate them to find out more. This is education in its truest sense, ie. a ‘leading out’ .  Educational institutions generally translate this into programmes of accredited formal learning with detailed curricula (and fees!), but unless these maintain an appropriate level of stimulation there is a danger of a drop in motivation. This is particular danger for part-time and distance programmes. For adult learners, there may also be a lack of confidence about their ability to engage with future learning, and whether their past learning has any value.
Taking the last point first, adult and workplace learners may have learnt a great deal informally, or in a ‘task-conscious’ way, and it can be highly motivating for them to become aware of what they have already learnt, and recognising its value: this is the basis of APEL (Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning). But how do they continue to be motivated, and how do we maintain stimulation particularly for part-time and distance learners given their potential remoteness?

Part of the answer lies in continued communication and feedback, as indicated in a previous blog, and a key tenet of Gilly Salmon’s writing (Salmon, 2013). Both communication and stimulation can, to an extent, be addressed using technology: some of this may have been part of the domestic scene for some time (eg. TV and radio), and some, such as mobile phone applications, may be a lot more recent. All have the advantage that they are already part of the scenery of informal learning for many people.
Examples include Twitter, and though this can be annoyingly trivial at times, it is a constantly available means of communication. Following key individuals or organisations can provide a great deal of information, and use of hashtags allow for searching and exploration of themes. Another example is Google maps, which not only give information about roads and terrain, but also names of businesses, restaurants, train stations etc. Moving a step further, applications such as Layar  allow you to use your camera to give information about the buildings etc around you, indicating shops, pubs, bus-stops etc. If QR codes are available (eg. on museum exhibits), detailed information may 
be readily accessed.

All these examples require an internet-enabled mobile phone (or smartphone) which may be a barrier to some, but increasingly, these tools are part of what we carry around with us, and as educators, we need to make full use of the increasing range of mobile-based tools to augment informal learning, reinforce formal learning, and help learners to become more self-reliant.

  • Day, HI (1982) Curiosity and the interested explorer. Performance and Instruction, 21, p19-22
  • Polanyi, M. (1967) The Tacit Dimension, New York: Doubleday.
  • Rogers, A. (2003) What is the difference?  a new critique of adult learning and teaching, Leicester:  NIACE
  • Salmon, G. (2013). E-tivities: The key to active online learning (2nd ed.). London and New York: Routledge
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