Another dot in the blogosphere?

Learning is not formal or informal

Posted on: April 22, 2015

In conversations I participated in #asiaED last week, I detected some confusion about “formal” and “informal” learning.

If I talk and write about “formal learning” or “informal learning”, I am not thinking about different thought processes. Learning is learning; it is neither formal nor informal. Instead I am thinking about formal or informal contexts for learning. These might include places, spaces, and circumstances.

Places might include the school (typically but not always formal) or the home (typically but not always informal).

Spaces might include a classroom in school (where a teacher instructs formally) or a bathroom in school (where kids share information informally). An online space like Edmodo can be used formally (e.g., teacher sets a curriculum-defined task for students) or informally (e.g., kids talk about hobbies, ask for homework help).

Places and spaces do not define formality or informality.

If Person A (teacher or student) shows Person B (another teacher or student) how to troubleshoot a technical problem while in school but not during class or professional development time, is that formal or informal? If a parent arranges home-based remedial tuition using school textbooks and worksheets, is that formal or informal?

It is the circumstances that might define formality or informality. The place and space alone do not. Learning can happen in any context. Learning is learning; it is neither formal nor informal.

Teachers might equate formal contexts with formal learning. Teachers might also like to think that formal teaching leads to learning, but there is no guarantee of this because such teaching is not always meaningful, just-in-time, or just-for-learners.

Learning does not need a formal invitation to learn, a defined set of objectives, clearly delivered content, or even well constructed tests.

Learning happens when the learner is ready. Learners are most ready when there is a need to learn or when there is cognitive dissonance. This then affects motivation and curiosity.

Simply consider how people learn from YouTube when they are driven to learn a new dance move to show off, to play the guitar to impress someone, to try a new recipe to improve their repertoire, or to try a new gaming strategy to outwit an opponent.

A skillful and caring teacher can create this same drive in class. A group of boys exchanging tips in a school bathroom on how to bring and hide cigarettes creates the same conditions.

When I shared the tweet above in response to a question about designing “modern learning environments”, I was not being flippant. I was trying to send a message.

Focusing only on classrooms or schools so that they become “modern learning environments” is misguided practice. It might not recognize that learning happens everywhere and anywhere.

Students can and do learn while they are on public transport, waiting in a queue, or seated on a “throne” at home. They typically do this with a smartphone in their hands.

Google knows how important mobile access and resources are so much so that it is changing search returns to favour mobile-enabled sites. Do schools recognize the importance of mobile access and contexts? Or are schools still concerned about the physical classroom instead of enabling learning with mobile devices?

School authorities and vendors can do all they can to make schools and classrooms safe for learning and to simulate “informal” spaces, and they should for the good of learners and learning. But they should not do this under the guise of the false dichotomy of formal or informal learning.

I would rather time and resources be spent helping teachers reconnect with what learning is like and how learning takes place than creating “special rooms” for teaching. Learning is learning; it is neither formal nor informal.

3 Responses to "Learning is not formal or informal"

GreyMattersEducation: RT @ashley: Is there a difference between formal & informal learning? I say no. #edsg via


Mary Henningsen: RT @ashley: Is there a difference between formal & informal learning? I say no. #edsg via


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