Informal and formal learning

Educational spaces – be they formal institutions with physical locations or moments of time in which we do things that we might call ‘educational’ – have a peculiar manner of being in the world. They are about and for the world without quite being of that world. Their primary reason for being is outside of themselves. They are constantly referring to the world – now mountains, then the great deeds of famous people, then things that can be calculated. They shape human capacities, which can be used in the worlds of work, citizenship and community life. We call this ‘exophoric’ reference.

In language, an exophoric reference points out something. ‘Look at that,’ we might say in words, when both we and another are experiencing the sight of a mountain. The words mean very little without the shared experience, without our common under- standing of what the sentence is pointing out. Education makes no sense until we have developed a shared understanding of what we are pointing out. Science education points out the natural world; history points out the human past; literature points out the human condition; art points out perceptions; mathematics points out things that can be counted; and so on. In education, we are forever referring to things that exist beyond the classroom or the page or the screen. This is one of the peculiar things about education. It never exists for itself. It always exists for purposes beyond itself. It points out the world. Across the range of educational experiences, there is nothing in the world to which some bit of education does not point, or could not conceivably point. In these respects, there is nothing else quite like education. Of all the sciences and professions, education is uniquely ‘other-worldly’ and uniquely all-encompassing.

Everyday or informal learning, by comparison, is not so other-worldly. It happens anywhere and everywhere, anytime and all the time. It is folded into every aspect and every moment of our experience of the lifeworld. It is embedded in the world with such a pervasive subtlety that, much of the time, we are barely aware it is happening. After the event, we may be surprised when we think back and realise what we have learned. This learning becomes the stuff of judgement and intuition that lends strength to our convictions. The casual learning of the lifeworld is endogenous. It is intrinsic, arising from within the lifeworld to be found throughout the lifeworld. This kind of learning is sometimes called ‘informal’. It does not involve pedagogy, or curriculum. There are no social settings that might be called educational in the institutional sense. This learning is amorphous. It happens in a haphazard way. It is an unorganised process – incidental and accidental. Often you end up having learned something that you may not have expected to learn. Sometimes this learning is a roundabout process, when, in retrospect, you realise you could have learned something more directly and faster than you would if you had been instructed. This learning is often so endogenous, so embedded in the lifeworld, that you barely realise you have learned. It is organic, contextual, situational. The things you come to know this way mostly take the form of tacit, passive or background knowledge.

Education, by comparison, is more formal. It is deliberate, conscious, systematic and explicit. It sets out to be a more efficient way of acquiring knowledge. To this end, it is structured and goal-oriented. It is more analytical than everyday learning: abstracting, generalising and creating knowledge that will not only work for the setting in which it is found, but perhaps also be transferable. The first and most important of these transfers is from the activities of curriculum to useable knowledge in the world. Educational institutions also reflect a peculiarly focused kind of learning community, whose role, relationships and rules are directed in the first instance to learning, and only secondarily to the ends of this learning in the wider world.

Figure 9.1: Education is learning by design

Education is a peculiar form of learning that consciously separates the outside (the lifeworld) from the inside (the extra effort that is put into premeditated knowing). The two are intimately connected, to be sure. Everything in education refers to the world. But there are things about education that make it a different kind of learning from everyday learning in the lifeworld. One of the more obvious differences is tangible: we’re in this classroom (inside) speaking about the world (outside). Another is the mode of speaking – external reference that speaks in a necessarily abstracting way about general phenomena for which there may be numerous instances. So we speak about volcanoes in general, life-cycles in general, nouns in general. In the lifeworld, by comparison, we’re mostly interested in the instances that stand before us – that volcano we’re driving past, the life in this pond, or the name of something that only incidentally happens to be a noun. Education is also necessarily explicit. You can’t say ‘look at that’ as you can when the mountain stands before you as an awesome presence. Instead, you have to name or picture or simulate what you are talking about explicitly. This is so precisely because your referent is not there with you. The key to effective teaching and learning is how effectively you can bring the outside inside.

Today, the nature of inside/outside distinction that defines education is changing. In the past, it was spatially, temporally and institutionally defined – rigidly laid out between the four walls of the classroom and the bells that mark out the timetable. Today, education is becoming ubiquitous. A learner may be at home, engaged in an e-learning program. Or they may be involved in a mentoring program at work. Or they may be learning how to use a piece of software by using a help menu or tutorial that is built into the software. The sites of learning are becoming more dispersed. However, there’s something about the knowledge authority–novice relationship, about scaffolded learner activities and about the mode of inside-to-outside reference that still makes even these contemporary forms of learning specifically educational.

Informal learning occurs without conscious educational design. Formal learning or education is a process of learning by design. Learning communities that are specifically designed for that purpose may range from a traditional classroom to a mentoring relationship in a workplace, to an online program, to a school or a whole education system. They are unlike communities in which learning incidentally happens to occur. Educational communities establish carefully planned and monitored relationships between people and knowledge.




Knowledge based on experience (lifeworld)

All systematic, conscious and deliberate acts of knowing (our broad definition of ‘science’)


Everyday learning, an incidental consequence of living (informal learning)

Education – pedagogy, curriculum and educational communities (formal learning)

In this chapter, we identify different kinds of education communities, each with its own kind of inside/outside relations: bureaucratic, self-managing and collaborative. For each of these kinds of learning communities we analyse three dimensions of activity:

  • dimension 1: class management
  • dimension 2: curriculum planning and evaluation
  • dimension 3: educational leadership and management.