The Necessity of Informal Learning

The Necessity of Informal Learning

The Necessity of Informal Learning

The Necessity of Informal Learning


The structure below the surface:
reassessing the significance of
informal learning

Frank Coffield

If all learning were to be represented by an iceberg, then the section above the surface of the water would be sufficient to cover formal learning, but the submerged two thirds of the structure would be needed to convey the much greater importance of informal learning. That, briefly, is the growing conviction of a subgroup of researchers within the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) programme of research into The Learning Society. When the programme was first commissioned in 1995, none of the 14 projects was funded to study informal learning as its central focus. However, as internal meetings of the project directors got underway and debates began, it became increasingly clear from an examination of the data from a number of projects that informal learning was much more significant than many of us had previously recognised. So a conference dedicated to this theme was organised, papers were presented and this report is the outcome of those endeavours.

However, there has been no parallel shift in the thinking of government, employers, practitioners or most researchers. This report, unashamedly more historical and more theoretical than its three predecessors in this ESRC Learning Society series from The Policy Press, is dedicated to encouraging a deep change in attitude.

The two most relevant government reports–The Learning Age (DfEE, 1997) and Learning to succeed (DfEE, 1999)–both ignore informal learning and continue their heavy emphasis on formal provision, qualifications and accountability. The nation’s progress towards creating a learning society is therein measured by National Learning Targets, which are defined by the percentages of individuals attaining particular qualifications, and by the ability of education institutions to widen access, improve retention and increase the proportion of students who complete courses.

In a similar vein, the language of employers refers to the need for “a skills revolution” (CBI, 1989), “world class targets” (CBI, 1991) and a “skills passport” (CBI, 1995). These reports argue for “core” and “transferable skills”, for a “coherent qualifications framework” and for changes in the funding regime. Again, exclusive attention is paid to the provision of formal education and training.

This report, in contrast, breaks away from the standard, mainstream approach to learning and argues instead that formal education and training represent only a small part of all the learning that goes on in schools, colleges, at work, at home and in the community. It goes further by claiming that, although informal learning is routinely ignored by government, employers and most researchers, it is often necessary, whereas formal training is often dispensable. The five chapters in this report explore different aspects of the submerged and neglected world of informal learning. Taken together, they amount to a plea for a fundamental reassessment of its significance.

However, this report should not be misinterpreted as claiming to be the first to have ‘discovered’ the significance of informal learning. The long tradition of anthropological studies of informal, everyday . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.