On Informal Learning, Informal Teaching, and Informal Education: Addressing Conceptual, Methodological, Institutional, and Pedagogical Issues

On Informal Learning, Informal Teaching, and Informal Education: Addressing Conceptual, Methodological, Institutional, and Pedagogical Issues

Daniel Schugurensky (Arizona State University, USA)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8265-8.ch002
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Informal learning has always been part of humankind, but only in recent decades has it attracted the attention of educational researchers. This chapter examines four challenges (conceptual, methodological, institutional, and pedagogical) related to informal learning. The section on the conceptual challenge addresses the distinctions between informal learning, informal teaching, and informal education, and identifies three forms of informal learning: self-directed, incidental, and tacit. The section on the methodological challenge discusses the difficulties of researching informal learning (particularly incidental and tacit forms), describes an approach to elicit informal learning, and presents a critical analysis of its strengths and limitations. The section on the institutional challenge discusses issues related to the assessment and recognition of informal learning. Finally, the section on the pedagogical challenge highlights the potential of informal education to nurture informal learning.
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Informal learning has always been part of humankind. For hundreds of thousands of years, before the relatively recent establishment of mass formal and non-formal education systems, it has been the only way of learning. Our hunter-gathering ancestors had to rely on informal learning to survive in hostile environments. Around 12,000 years ago, informal learning made possible the Neolithic revolution, arguably one of the most important social transformations that happened on this planet. Still today, after the significant expansion of formal and non-formal educational institutions that took place in the second half of the 20th century, most of the learning acquired in a person’s lifetime –from first language acquisition and internationalization of values and attitudes in early childhood to occupational skills and political knowledge in adulthood to hobbies after retirement- is in the informal realm. Today, immediate access to information and instant communication with local and distant communities provide unprecedented opportunities for informal learning.

Although informal learning has been with us for a long time, both the ‘naming’ of it and the interest in analyzing it are relatively recent. Although some authors have discussed the significance of experiential learning in the past (e.g. Dewey, 1916, 1938; Rousseau, 1762/1979), and others have used the concept of ‘informal education’ (e.g. Knowles, 1950), it was not until the publications of Phillip Coombs and collaborators in the late 1960s and early 1970s that the concept of informal learning became to be considered in the context of—more precisely, in contrast to—formal and non-formal education. This contribution helped to clarify what informal learning is not, but a negative definition was not very useful in articulating what informal learning actually is. Moreover, the names used in this typology suggest a hierarchy of learning modes in which ‘formal’ is at the top and ‘informal’ at the bottom. Although the term ‘informal learning’ has problems, we do not seem to have another term yet to capture all the learning that takes place outside formal and non-formal systems. ‘Experiential learning’ and ‘social learning’ could be considered as possible alternatives, but it could be argued that all learning (including the one that takes place in formal and non-formal education settings) is experiential and social.

In this chapter, informal learning refers to any learning experience that is not part of the curricula provided by formal and non-formal educational institutions and programs. Informal learning can take place in many different circumstances. For instance, it can be acquired through interactions in everyday life, be they social interactions with other humans (travels, conversations, observations, discussions, etc.), or interactions with flora and fauna (gardening, bird watching, etc.). It can also be acquired through participation in events (e.g. street demonstrations, public debates, theater, cinema, parades), or through social practices in institutions whose main goal is other than fostering learning (family, workplaces, political parties, government agencies, community organizations, sports and recreation clubs or arts and crafts societies. It can also be acquired through reading, listening to a song, fixing a car, helping in an emergency, and a myriad of activities outside of educational institutions and programs. Furthermore, as it will be discussed below, informal learning can also occur in educational institutions, and this calls for a distinction between sites and processes of informal learning. Learning is contextual, as it always occurs in social interactions (Bandura, 1977).

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