Learning: Formal and Informal

Forman and informal learning are two classifications of learning: formal learning typically occurs under the direction of trained teachers in a school setting whereas informal learning occurs more spontaneously and unpredictably, often while individuals are engaging in some other activity.

Learning is often described as being either formal or informal. The typical type of formal learning is that which occurs in a classroom while a student is attending school, whether that is at the primary, secondary, or college level. Formal education may also occur during training workshops that take place outside the regular school curriculum, such as professional development programs for adults or in other venues. Typically, formal learning involves a planned curriculum that is delivered by a trained educators who have set objectives for student learning.

In another example of informal learning, children may be playing a game of pickup baseball at a park. A dispute ensues about whether a child has made it safely to first base or was tagged out. After having to stop play to argue about it, the children may collectively figure out how to negotiate so that they may resume play. Rather than calling this informal learning, some people may describe it as learning by experience or social learning. The latter involves learning that occurs in a social setting.

Self-teaching is also a form of informal learning. In this instance, no trained educators are directing the entire learning program. Instead the individual is exploring a topic of interest. This process may include seeking out experts to hear them expound on the subject, reading articles or books, or spending hours in practice. Using the example of fly fishing, self teaching may include joining a group of anglers, purposefully observing their techniques, and trying out those techniques to become more proficient at the sport. In this case, the learner sets out to gain knowledge, and this may be called intentional learning.

Another way of distinguishing formal from informal learning is to consider who is controlling the learning. If a teacher, whether the teacher is in a classroom or in a business workshop, directs the learning process, it is formal learning. If learners direct their own learning, it is informal learning. Therefore, individuals who take piano lessons are engaged in formal learning whereas individuals who teach themselves to play the piano are engaged in informal learning.

Formal and informal learning can also cooccur. For instance, a schoolteacher may have set objectives in mind and have a curriculum designed specifically to help the students learn certain material. This is formal learning. If the students show a particular interest in one portion of the curriculum, however, the teacher may show flexibility and allow the students to explore that topic on their own. As a result, the students may take any number of routes to learn, such as computer research, game playing, art projects, or other activities. This more organic, free-flow type of learning that branches off a formal curriculum can be considered informal. In both instances—formal or informal learning—the students gain knowledge.


Incidental learning—
A form of informal learning in which individuals pickup knowledge inadvertently.
Intentional learning—
A form of informal learning in which individual set out to learn something.
Social learning—
The process by which individuals learn something from others in a social setting. This often occurs informally (without the direction of a teacher).

At one time, formal learning was considered the primary avenue for learning. Experts came to realize the value of both forms of learning, and educators often seek out ways to incorporate informal learning in their classes and workshops.



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