Informal Vocational Education and Training

Article by Dr Richard Evans CGLI

Learning occurs everywhere and at all times; people acquire new skills, knowledge and competences just by the virtue of their existence and experience e.g. it is truly inclusive. Learning can occur in a number of different ways largely determined by the context and resources available whether they are physical, human or financial. The OECD identifies three kinds of learning namely: formal, non-formal and informal.

‘Formal learning is always organised and structured and has learning objectives. From the learner’s standpoint, it is always intentional: e.g. the learner’s explicit objective is to gain knowledge, skills and/or other competences.’

(Characteristics of current formal learning: highly institutionalised, hierarchically organised, managed with heavily prescribed curricula and dominated by examinations and tests).

‘Informal learning is never organised, has no set objective in terms of learning outcomes and is never intentional from the learner’s standpoint. It is often referred to as learning by experience or just as experience.’

(The learner creatively adopts and adapts to the changing situations and circumstances in everyday life’).

According to the OECD ‘non-formal learning is the mid-way between the other two.’ (Non-formal learning provides more flexibility between the other two modes of learning).

This article will focus on informal learning. The distinctions and relationships between informal, non-formal and formal learning can be complex and only understood within particular contexts and situations.

One of the interesting and fascinating features of informal learning is that the learning can be deliberate or unintentional; knowledge and skills can develop consciously and also through partial awareness. Research has shown how important informal learning is and its outcomes are increasingly seen as having significant value in employment and society in general. The research has shown that approximately 70% of learning in the workplace is informal, and is the most predominant learning mode for the majority (approximately 90% of adults). Most of workplace learning takes place through self-discovery and interaction with colleagues, associates and friends without an education or training institution in sight!

The expression ‘sitting next to Nellie’ has in the past been used to describe this process. Clearly in some workplace contexts a guide/mentor can greatly assist the learning process mirroring the approach used in the master/apprentice model, albeit in an unstructured way. The value of workplace learning is clearly evidenced by the value of work experience for learners at school, college, training providers or university.

The informal learning process involves observation and trial and error in order to perfect vocational, technical, manual, cultural, linguistic and behavioural skills.

Key factors involved in informal learning and the resultant acquisition of skills have been identified and include:

  • Experiences in the workplace
  • Networking in the workplace and in society in general.
  • Using museums, libraries and cybercafés etc.
  • The role of colleagues acting as mentors/coaches in the workplace Consulting instruction manuals etc.
  • Through domestic, voluntary, cultural activities etc.
  • Travel and interaction with other people of diverse experience

There are a number of distinct advantages to informal learning that make it relevant to vocational, technical and commercial disciplines particularly where resources are limited e.g. in developing countries. Some of these advantages include:

  • Learners are more likely to be motivated and prepared to learn due to their curiosity to find out information and develop new skills in the workplace
  • Overall it is more efficient and effective in terms of time and cost when compared to formal learning.
  • Provides a less stressful experience in comparison to a formal learning environment.

Admittedly, there are some downsides to informal learning namely:

  • Time consuming: it can take up colleague and supervisor time, usually asked for when the learner needs it and not when it is convenient for the colleague who is acting as an unofficial mentor/coach.
  • Lack of structure: some of the learning and learning process can be inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate or misunderstood.

These factors can make informal learning the most elusive and difficult to define and validate, but its importance must not be underestimated or undervalued. It must be recognised that informal learning is of critical importance to a person’s intellectual and social development throughout their lives.

Currently many countries are emphasising the urgent need to recognise individual’s knowledge, skills and competences irrespective of how it was acquired. This measure highlights their recognition of the importance of informal learning.

Credible mechanisms to identify, record, assess and validate the experiences, skills and competences acquired need to be developed. Such recognition and validation could facilitate progression for further studies and/or in work. The success of Assessment of Prior Learning/Assessment of Prior Experience and Learning (APL/APEL) using such tools as portfolios/records of achievement/critical diaries could be further refined to accredit and validate informal learning.

City and Guilds has a very credible track record in developing portfolios in order to assess prior experience/learning. At this time of recession and the need in many to countries to rebalance their economies the value of informal learning could be recognised motivate the existing workforce and assist more people to make significant contributions to sustainable growth.

Finally to reinforce the role, centrality and importance of informal learning, the OECD’s definition of lifelong learning comprises all three learning modes: formal, non-formal and informal.


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