The difference between formal and informal learning

Although the two terms “formal learning” and “informal learning are now quite commonplace, they still seem to be causing some confusion.  So let’s look at some definitions from CEDEFOP  – the European Centre for Vocation and Training.

Formal learning is defined by the CEDEFOP Glossary as follows:

“Learning typically provided by an education or training institution, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification.  Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective.”

In other words, this is things like courses, classes, face-to-face workshops, other training or educational events that lead to some “certification” or validation.

“Informal learning” is usually taken to mean all learning that takes place outside formal learning. However, many people – including CEDEFOP – actually break down “informal learning” further into “non-formal learning” and “informal learning” as follows:

Informal learning is therefore:

“Learning resulting from daily work-related, family or leisure activities. It is not organised or structured (in terms of objectives, time or learning support). Informal learning is in most cases unintentional from the learner’s perspective. It typically does not lead to certification.”

That is learning that happens doing your daily tasks as you do your job, e.g. reading stuff or observing activities, or in conversations with people.

Non-formal learning is

“Learning which is embedded in planned activities not explicitly designated as learning (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support), but which contain an important learning element. Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s point of view. It typically does not lead to certification.”

So for instance, this includes discovering new things, keeping up to date with what’s happening inside and outside the organisation, as well as interacting with people (e.g. in your professional networks) to learn from them.

Factors that differentiate formal, non-formal and informal learning

In terms of the INTENTION of the individual; both formal and non-formal learning is intentional (i.e. the individual sets out with the intention of learning something), whereas with informal learning it is (mostly) unintentional (i.e. it happens as a consequence of doing something else). With informal learning, the individual may be aware s/he has learned something, but in some cases may be totally unaware of it.

This does not negate the power of informal learning, it just makes a difference how L&D supports these different types of learning. In particular whereas formal learning (which is under the control of L&D) can be designed and managed, non-formal and informal learning can not, since it is under the control of the individual.

It also means that using or incorporating social media (eg a YouTube video) in a formal learning solution does not mean it becomes informal learning. Additionally,  systems cannot “manage informal learning” – all they can do is manage access to or use of any social media by individuals – which is not quite the same thing! Once again, this may seem pedantic, but it is important to be clear with the terminology.

But the more significant point, is that the research has shown that the vast majority of what an individual learns in the workplace is informal or non-formal, and that this happens continuously, in the flow of work as people do their jobs. Whereas formal learning takes place intermittently – often in a different physical place –  and/or usually requires time out of the workflow. Here is a graphic that illustrates the difference between formal, non-formal and informal learning.

So what does this mean for L&D? Here are just three key reminders:

  1. It means that “informal learning” is not something to be designed and managed, but rather is something that needs to be supported and enhanced as it occurs naturally in the workflow – in order to help people learn to do their jobs (better) – a very different way of operating! Trying to control informal/non-formal learning simply turns it into formal learning  – or at least it’s not informal/non-formal learning any longer!
  2. It means that L&D needs to think more about helping individuals and teams to use social media to enhance the naturally occurring social learning that takes place in the organisational workflow. As we have seen many individuals are already doing this for themselves and in doing so are actually working around L&D, so it is more about building on the social learning that is already taking place and encouraging others to do so too.
  3. It means ensuring that the social tools and platforms that support learning within the organisation are the very same ones that individuals make use of in their daily work (as explained in A seamless working and learning environment.

Finally, another word that needs to be used very carefully in the context of all this, is the word “learner” itself.

⇒ Stop referring to your people as “learners”

Last updated: May 14, 2019 at 14:33 pm

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