Before you ever go to school or take part in a Mom-and-tot program, informal learning starts the day you are born and continues on until the day you die. Here are the characteristics of informal learning:
1. Informal learning is never organized.
There are no set formulas or guidelines. Examples of informal learning include activities such as teaching your child the alphabet, or how to brush his or her teeth. There is no prescriptive program of study for this.
2. Informal learners are often highly motivated to learn.
Unlike the formal learning environment of school, informal learners are often eager and attentive. A teenager showing a friend how to find an “Easter egg” in a video game is an example of informal learning. The gamer really wants to find out how to achieve his goal, so he embarks on a journey to figure out how. His friend becomes his teacher.
3. Informal learning is often spontaneous.
Learning happens anywhere, any time. The learner is inspired to learn because of an immediate desire to know how to do something or understand a topic. Or an informal “teacher” sees an opportunity to share their knowledge or wisdom with someone else. For example, we were recently standing in line at the airport waiting to go through security. There was a family in front of us. The father, who was holding the hand of his young son, who was about seven or eight, used the posters on the wall of the security area to teach the boy to read new words. The boy sounded out the words and they talked about the content of the poster. This not only helped to pass the time during a long wait, it was a great example of spontaneous informal learning.
4. There is no formal curriculum.
There is no program of study or prescriptive methods. Whatever methods used are the one that the person teaching knows how to teach… often based on their own experience.
5. The “teacher” is someone who cares – and who has more experience than the learner.
Even the word “teacher” here is a bit of a misnomer because professional teachers all have credentials, certificates or a teaching license. In the informal learning context, those leading the learning are likely to be emotionally close to the person who is learning, such as a mother, father, grandparent or other caregiver. An adult child teaching an older parent how to use new technology is an example.
6. The world is your classroom
It is a myth that learning happens in a school or in a classroom. With informal learning, there is no classroom. Your home, the neighborhood park, the community and the world are the classroom.
7. Informal learning is difficult to quantify.
There are no exams and informal learning is difficult to quantify.
8. Often dismissed by academics and skeptics as being worthless.
Informal learning is often overlooked and not regarded as particularly valid learning. Some researchers and academics (though not all of us!) have the opinion that informal learning is less valuable than formal, prescriptive learning (due, in part, to the fact that it is difficult to quantify… and they believe that if it can not be quantified, it has no value).
9. Essential to a child’s early development.
Learning your mother tongue is an excellent example of informal learning. Imagine if a child were not exposed to any language for the first 5 years. How difficult would that child’s development become? It is an experiment that, as far as I know, has never been done. It would be considered too risky and unethical. Everything a young child learns at home is informal learning, from how to brush their teeth to how to say the alphabet to good manners. Without informal learning, we would never be able to cope in a formal learning environment.
10. Essential to an adult’s lifelong learning.
Informal learning is a lifelong process. It does not end when a child enters school and the formal system “takes over”. On the contrary, children continue to learn at home. As we get older, we learn from our friends. As we enter the workforce, we learn from our co-workers. Into retirement, we still learn from friends and also from those younger than us. An adult learning to read and write from a volunteer literacy tutor is one example. A retired office worker learning from her grandson how to use an iPad is another example.
Informal learning is what keeps us vibrant, mentally active and interested in the world around us, as well as our own development. Just because informal learning can not be quantified easily does not mean that it is not worthwhile – or even essential to our development and growth as human beings.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.