Non-formal learning: mapping the conceptual terrain. a consultation report

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In this piece Helen Colley, Phil Hodkinson & Janice Malcolm provide a very helpful overview of different discourses around non-formal and informal learning and find that there are few, if any, learning situations where either informal or formal elements are completely absent. Boundaries or relationships between informal, non-formal and formal learning can only be understood within particular contexts. They conclude that it is often more helpful to examine dimensions of formality and informality, and ways in which they inter-relate with each other; and that attention should be paid to the wider historical, social, political and economic contexts of learning, and to the theoretical view of learning that is held by the writer.

contents: introduction · executive summary · formal and informal learning as competing paradigms · models of formal, non-formal and informal learning · dimensions of difference · informal learning within formal programmes in further education · informal and formal workplace learning: secondary school-teachers · community education and learning · formalising informal learning? mentoring for disadvantaged young people · conclusion · appendix: literature identified thus far · how to cite this piece

It is difficult to make a clear distinction between formal and informal learning as there is often a crossover between the two. (McGivney, 1999, p1)

The research upon which this Consultation Report is based was commissioned by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA).  The intention was to examine and analyse a wide range of relevant literature about formal, non-formal and informal learning, in order to provide greater conceptual clarification.  At the time of writing, this work is just over half way through.  Built into the research design are three consultation workshops, where those with an interest and expertise in these issues, be they researchers, policy makers, practitioners or others, could help us in the refinement of our thinking and in the production of our final report.  This Consultation Report has been produced to facilitate that process.  In it, we share our thinking at the time it was written (November 2002), and ask readers to give us their reactions to it.  Some of what is included is tentative, and some not yet fully researched or thought through.  In particular, work on adult and community education and learning began later than the rest, when Janice Malcolm joined the team in August 2002.  This part of the report is consequently less well developed than the rest.  There are other gaps and omissions, some of which we know about.  As you read the Report, we ask you to focus upon the following questions:

To what extent do you find our overall argument convincing?  Where are its strengths and weak-points?

What are the serious omissions from the Report, in terms of important literature, evidence to further refine our position, or arguments, ideas and positions that are unjustly neglected? (Please remember that more is being done on adult and community education and learning.)

Are there any elements in our argument that could be further strengthened, or where significant nuances, angles or implications have been neglected?

Are there any significant losses entailed in viewing the issues as we are coming to do?  If so, what are they, and how significant are they for our eventual final analysis?

In the light of your reactions to the earlier questions, what are the main implications of our analysis for future research, and for policy and practice? 

How can the complex ideas presented here, together with further additions and changes resulting from earlier questions, be best presented to maximise their value to a non-research audience?

The writers welcome critical comments on this report, for example in response to some or all of the questions in the introduction (p1).  Comments should be sent to:

Professor Phil Hodkinson
The Lifelong Learning Institute
Continuing Education Building
The University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT


Executive summary

There are three broad approaches to the nature of formal, non-formal and informal learning in the literature.  Many texts use one or more of the terms without any clear definition.  In an arguably even larger number, issues involved are either assumed or addressed, but without the explicit use of the terms at all.  A smaller, but still considerable and growing body of writing sets out definitions of one or more of the terms concerned.  Within that third body of literature, there is little agreement about how these terms should be defined, bounded or used.  There is often considerable overlap, but also considerable disagreement.  Pulling these texts together as best we can, there are somewhere in the region of 20 different but overlapping factors, used by one or more writers, to help draw up the relevant boundaries.  We have been able to find no objective means of narrowing this list down, for example to focus upon a smaller group of factors which most writers would be likely to agree upon.  There are three further problems with many of these competing classifications.  Firstly, in many of them (but not all), informal learning is defined by what it is not – formal. Secondly, many of the lists (but not all) carry value assumptions, implicit or explicit, that one form or another is inherently superior – sometimes morally, sometimes in terms of effectiveness.  Thirdly, there is an overlapping body of writing about non-formal and informal education, which cannot be easily or clearly separated off from learning.  All this throws serious doubts about the possibility and advisability of seeking clear definitional distinctions between these different types of learning or education.

To further clarify these issues, we have devoted considerable attention to the uses and meanings of the terms in three boundary arenas. Firstly, we focussed upon a growing and influential body of theorising about learning, from a participatory perspective, and used it to interrogate data from two on-going research projects – one into school-teachers’ workplace learning, and the other into learning cultures in Further Education (FE).  This revealed that, in what would almost always be assumed to be formal educational settings (FE courses), informal learning was very important, whilst for school-teachers’ workplace learning, normally regarded as informal, some formal elements were present.  In both cases, it was the blending of formal and informal that was significant, not their separation. Secondly, we examined community education and learning.  This highlighted the significance of the relationship between informal learning and informal education, but also showed that, by many definitions, informal community education and learning had significant formal elements. Thirdly, we examined mentoring, in business and in relation to socially excluded young people.  By many definitions, mentoring is a clear example of either informal or non-formal learning.  Yet, within the literature that explicitly addresses mentoring, we find debates about the differences between informal and formal mentoring, which replicate and parallel the wider debates about formal and informal learning.  These are brought into particularly sharp focus since mentoring has been increasingly formalised in a range of contexts.  This raises issues about the consequences of policies seeking to transfer informal practices onto a more formal plane, which are also highly relevant to other types of informal learning in the current climate.  These three combined approaches strongly suggest that there are few, if any, learning situations where either informal or formal elements are completely absent.  [page 6] Therefore, looking for clear boundaries between them may not be the most profitable way forward.

Our third main argument underpins the other two.  All the evidence we have analysed suggests that either the boundaries between formal, non-formal and informal learning or education, or the relationships between them, can only be understood within particular contexts.  There are significant differences, for example, between learning and mentoring in the workplace, as part of youth work, in community-based programmes, or in further education.  These differences are deep-seated, involving historical, economic, social and political dimensions.  For example, the uses of terms like informal education or informal learning in predominantly adult and community education sectors can only be understood in the context of the long and often radical traditions of professional practice in these fields.  In the case of youth mentoring, wider policy contexts, driven by assumptions about the instrumental and economic purposes of mentoring and learning, discourses about disaffection, and the perceived need to help young people do those things that government decides they should do, penetrate the ways in which informal or formal mentoring are understood and operationalised.  A key dimension in many contexts is, therefore, the significance of unequal power relations, and the pervading influence of politics – both micro and macro.

Based upon these three over-lapping lines of analysis, our provisional conclusions are as follows:

Boundaries between formal, non-formal and informal learning can only be meaningfully drawn in relation to particular contexts, and for particular purposes.

Both with regard to specific situations and more generally, it is often more helpful to examine dimensions of formality and informality, and ways in which they inter-relate with each other.

Regardless of which of these two things is done, due attention should be paid to the wider historical, social, political and economic contexts of learning, and to the theoretical view of learning that is held by the writer.

It is our belief that a combination of these three things, but most especially a recognition of the last two, will have valuable implications for further research, and for the improvement of policy and practice towards learning and education.  However, these have not been worked through, at the time of writing. [page 7]

Formal and informal learning as competing paradigms

The use of the terms informal and formal learning have a fairly long history.  At the centre of these debates lie conflicting claims about the inherent superiority of one or the other.  According to Scribner and Cole (1973), much of the research and theorising about learning in advanced industrial societies, prior to the date when their paper was written, focussed primarily upon the formal.  As enlightenment-based rationality and science were applied to learning, ways were sought and developed to improve upon the supposedly more primitive and simple everyday learning.  Formal learning, when effectively provided, was assumed to have clear advantages.  It opened up the accumulated wisdom of humankind, held in the universities.  This sort of accumulated, recorded and propositional knowledge allowed each generation to know more and better than their predecessors, as science (or art) advanced.  Furthermore, such knowledge was generalisable – it could be used or applied in a wide range of contexts and circumstances.  In contrast, everyday knowledge was believed to be context-specific.  Thus, the principles of mathematics can be used in any context where numerical values are relevant.  On the other hand, learning to play darts only equips a person to use numbers in that very restricted setting.  Finally, as Bernstein (1971) makes clear, formal learning opened up high status knowledge.  Formal learning was equated with education in schools and universities, non-institutional formal learning was overlooked or dismissed, and Scribner and Cole point out that structured and planned apprenticeships were normally included in the informal category.

The Scribner and Cole (1973) paper was a key early moment in establishing a counter view, from socio-cultural or situated perspectives on learning.  This literature is too vast to be summarised here.  The central argument countered most of the claims for the superiority of formal learning, by asserting the superiority of the informal, in its place.  Thus, it is claimed, many things are learned more effectively through informal processes.  One clear example of this is language learning.  Also, social anthropology showed that sophisticated learning took place in communities without formal learning provision (Lave and Wenger, 1991).  Furthermore, researchers claimed that formal learning was not context free (Brown et al, 1989) and took different forms in different cultural traditions (Lave, 1996).  That is, what was learned in educational settings was as much about the nature of those settings as it was about the content and pedagogy.  Finally, researchers questioned the utility (generalisability) of much formally acquired knowledge.  The ‘transfer’ of learning was problematic rather than simple.  As Lave (1996, p151) argued, ‘Learning transfer is an extraordinarily narrow and barren account of how knowledgeable persons make their way among multiply interrelated settings.’   Thus, informal learning is argued to be superior to the formal.

Sfard (1998) presents a critique of these debates and contests around conceptualising learning by contrasting two basic metaphors.  For many years, she argues, almost all research and theorising about learning adopted a metaphor of learning as acquisition, either explicitly or implicitly.  From this perspective, the process of learning is always subordinate to the acquisition of something (skill, knowledge, value, attitude, understanding, behaviour) which has been acquired through that process.  The roots of this form of thinking lie in psychology, in both its behaviourist and cognitive forms.   Sfard contrasts this metaphor with another increasingly dominant one, that of [page 8] learning as participation (Brown et al., 1989; Engestrom,1999, 2001).  For Lave and Wenger (1991), for example, the most significant attribute to leaning is belonging to a community of practice.  Learning, they argue, is the process of becoming a full member, which they term ‘legitimate peripheral participation’.  We cannot learn without belonging (to something) and we cannot belong without learning the practices, norms, values and understandings of the community that we belong to.  Sfard argues that neither metaphor is adequate for expressing the full complexities of learning on its own.

These debates were further complicated by linked discussions about empowerment.  Put simply, advocates of more formal learning argued that it had the potential to free up learners from disadvantaged or marginal groups, by giving them access to high status knowledge, that was dependent upon their ability, rather than their social contacts.  That is, what Turner (1960) famously termed ‘contest mobility’ would replace ‘sponsored mobility’, as formal learning became dominant.  The counter argument was that formal education is dominated by the values of the middle class élites, and that its prime purpose was to preserve and reproduce those privileges (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990).  Research shows that sites of informal learning, such as the workplace, are also deeply unequal, with those higher up the status and management hierarchy getting more and better opportunities for learning than those towards the bottom, who were more likely to be female, working class or, at least in western countries, of non-white descent (Hewison et al, 2000, Rainbird, 2000a, 2000b; Billett, 2001b; Evans et al, 2002).

Such debates about the nature of informal, formal and non-formal learning have acquired a new impetus in recent years.  In the UK, changes to the funding regulations for education, and for adult education in particular, have imposed increasing degrees of formality on areas of informal learning.  The European Union has developed policies for lifelong learning which focus strongly on the need to identify, assess and certificate informal learning, particularly in the workplace (Bjornavold, 2000; EC, 2001).  While policy-makers clearly see this as holding out great promise for widening participation in learning, it may also be interpreted by some as threatening to alter the nature of informal learning so substantially as to undermine many of its perceived benefits.  Once again, Scribner and Cole (1973) predicted three decades ago with some foresight the dangers as well as the benefits of trying to bring formal and informal learning closer together.  Learners used to informal learning might be pathologised within more formal educational processes, and at the same time their resistance to more formal aspects of learning might be evoked.  Yet there was much to be gained if a ‘two-way movement’ could succeed in bringing formal schooling and informal learning closer together.

One of the problems inherent in all these debates is the implication that formal and informal learning are quite distinct from each other – that they have the character of different paradigms, each with its own inherent logic, theoretical foundations and modes of practice.  Yet in the detail of much of the writings of protagonists of either side, it becomes clear that few if any writers fully subscribe to this view.  Partly for this reason, our research suggests that it is high time to step outside the frames of this contest between formal and informal of learning, in which each set of protagonists exaggerates the weaknesses of the opposite case.  However, before advancing this argument more fully, we need to step back and explore the ways in which boundaries between formal, informal and, more recently, non-formal learning have been drawn.  It is to this that we turn next. [page 9]

Models of formal, non-formal and informal learning

We analysed those parts of the literature that explicitly set out to differentiate between formal, informal and (sometimes) non-formal learning.  In order to illustrate the range of serious approaches to this task, we next present summaries of eight such attempts.  In choosing these rather than others, we are not implying that they are inherently better or more important.  But taken together, they illustrate the wide range of views around this issue, and point to the significance of context in influencing the form of the classification. 

1. Eraut’s (2000) classification of learning into formal and non-formal. This chapter by Eraut was significant in raising current awareness of what he terms ‘non-formal’ learning, based upon an investigation into learning in the workplace. However, in the ways the analysis is presented, it is clear that he sees his categorisation as having wider significance.  He expresses a strong preference for the term non-formal rather than informal. This is because, he argues, most learning takes place outside formal learning contexts, and informal learning carries with it connotations of ‘so many other features of a situation, such as dress, discourse, behaviour, diminution of social differences – that its colloquial application as a descriptor of learning contexts may have little to do with learning per se.’ (p12).  Not only does the term carry unwanted and confusing implications, but it is too wide to be of much use.  For Eraut is also clear that, to be of value, an analysis of learning must focus on activity and outcomes that that contribute to significant changes in capability or understanding.

Eraut does not define non-formal learning more clearly than this.  Instead, his chapter does two things.  Firstly, he presents five features of formal learning.  They are:

a prescribed learning framework

an organised learning event or package

the presence of a designated teacher or trainer

the award of a qualification or credit

the external specification of outcomes. (p12)

By strong implication, any significant learning that is not of this type should be regarded as non-formal.  However, he does not make clear what the status is of learning in situations that meet some, but not all, of his ‘formal’ criteria.

Secondly, he sets out a schema for identifying different types of non-formal learning, based, for example, the timing of the stimulus (past, current, future) and the extent to which such learning is tacit (tacit, reactive or deliberative).  This latter dimension is later set against another, identifying different types of thought or action (reading of the situation, decision making, overt activity, metacognitive processes).  Finally, he also classifies non-formal learning as either individual or social, and either implicit or explicit.  One of many interesting facets of Eraut’s work is that he effectively classifies non-formal learning by what it is not (formal), despite making it the explicit focus of his chapter. [page 10]

2.  The EC (2001) Communication on Lifelong Learning: formal, non-formal and informal learning. Whereas Eraut introduced the term ‘non-formal’ as a substitute for what he perceives as the less precise ‘informal’ learning, this EU policy document sees it as a third, intermediate category.  It defines the three types thus:

Formal learning: learning typically provided by an education or training institution, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification.  Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective.

Non-formal learning: learning that is not provided by an education or training institution and typically does not lead to certification.  It is, however, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support).  Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective.

Informal learning: learning resulting from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure.  It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification.  Informal learning may be intentional but in most cases it is non-intentional (or “incidental”/ random) (p32-33).

There are close relationships between this model and that of Eraut.  Though the detail differs, both see formal learning in similar ways.  The EU significantly adds intentionality of the learner to their classification.  In effect, their category of non-formal learning combines parts of Eraut’s definition of ‘formal’ (a prescribed learning framework and an organised event or package) with parts of what he terms non-formal (no certification, not provided by a training or educational institution).  Their definition of informal omits Eraut’s emphasis on that which results in significant change, and thus could be argued to be wider in its scope, containing aspects that Eraut might bracket off.

3.  Livingstone’s (2001) review of literature on adults’ formal, non-formal and informal learning. Whilst Eraut’s work is firmly located in the workplace, and that of the EU in a lifelong learning policy context, Livingstone draws upon the traditions and writing around adult and continuing education.  He analyses a wide range of literature from that background, much of it North American.  As a result, he produces a classification of types of learning that differs in significant detail from the other two.

Formal education occurs ‘when a teacher has the authority to determine that people designated as requiring knowledge effectively learn a curriculum taken from a pre-established body of knowledge…whether in the form of age-graded and bureaucratic modern school systems or elders initiating youths into traditional bodies of knowledge’ (p2). [page11]

Non-formal education or further education occurs ‘when learners opt to acquire further knowledge or skill by studying voluntarily with a teacher who assists their self-determined interests, by using an organised curriculum, as is the case in many adult education courses and workshops’ (p2).

Informal education or training occurs ‘when teachers or mentors take responsibility for instructing others without sustained reference to an intentionally-organised body of knowledge in more incidental and spontaneous learning situations, such as guiding them in acquiring job skills or in community development activities’ (p2).

Informal learning is ‘any activity involving the pursuit of understanding knowledge or skill which occurs without the presence of externally imposed curricular criteria…in any context outside the pre-established curricula of educative institutions’ (p4).

This is a particularly interesting classification.  Not only is it based upon a much wider literature range than any of the others presented here, but it also has a different organising principle – the relationship between teacher/mentor and learner.  Unlike the two already considered, all forms of learning are seen as intentional and, like the EU but unlike Eraut, all learning is assumed to be individual, rather than social.  Thus, the boundary between formal and non-formal becomes whether or not the learner undertakes the learning voluntarily, as in the adult education tradition of negotiated programmes of learning.  Implicitly, this second category appears to be the foundational one for Livingstone.  The others are defined according to the ways in which they deviate from it.  It is noticeable that the definition of formal education has a critical, negative edge to it.

4. Billett (2001a): there is no such thing as informal learning. Billett sees learning as ubiquitous in human activity.  That is, whatever people do will result in learning.  Thus, like Eraut, he argues that most learning takes place outside formal educational settings.  This means, at least implicitly, that something akin to what Eraut terms non-formal learning should be regarded as the standard form, rather than that which is left over, once formal learning is accounted for.  Indeed, the logic of Billett’s position is that the difference between formal and other learning settings is of relatively minor significance.  He has even stronger objections to the term ‘informal’ that Eraut.  For Billett argues that all learning takes place within social organisations or communities that have formalised structures.  For example, learning at work is structured by the formal arrangements of the workplace.  Thus, Billett argues, to term learning ‘informal’ is dangerously misleading.  He never addresses the term ‘non-formal’, but the logic of his argument is that learning cannot be non-formal either. [page 12]

5. Beckett and Hager (2002) on informal learning. Beckett and Hager present a different argument again.  Firstly, they argue that the traditional view of learning is rapidly giving way to an alternative vision.  They argue that this ‘standard paradigm’ has dominated our thinking about learning, in ways that emphasise the significance of formal education.  The standard paradigm has the following characteristics:

the best learning resides in individual minds not bodies

the best learning is propositional (true, false; more certain, less certain)

the best learning can be expressed verbally and written down in books etc.

the acquisition of the best learning alters minds not bodies

such learning can be applied via bodies to alter the external world (p98).

They argue that this standard paradigm is based upon a Cartesian dualism between body and mind and, within that split, upon the superiority of mind.   For Beckett and Hager, this is philosophically and empirically untenable.  Rather, learning is organic or holistic, engaging the whole person, so that intellect, emotions, values and practical activities are blended.  They see what they happily term informal learning as not only more common, but also more effective than formal learning.  Consequently, they focus on the characteristics of this informal learning, in setting up the focus of their work.  However, they are wary of grandly universalist theorising, and restrict their focus to informal learning in the workplace.  This, they argue, has the following characteristics:

1. Practice-based informal workplace learning is organic/holistic

2. Practice-based informal workplace learning is contextual

3. Practice-based informal learning is activity- and experience-based

4. Practice-based informal learning arises in situations where learning is not the main aim

5. Practice-based informal workplace learning is activated by individual learners rather than by teachers/trainers

6. Practice-based informal workplace learning is often collaborative/collegial. (p.115). 

They make no reference to a third category of ‘non-formal’ learning, but characterise the differences between formal learning and informal learning like this:

Figure 1: Formal and Informal Learning

Formal Learning Informal Learning
Single capacity focus, e.g. cognition Organic/holistic
Decontextualised Contextualised
Passive spectator Activity- and experience-based
An end in itself Dependent on other activities
Stimulated by teachers/trainers Activated by individual learners
Individualistic  Often collaborative/collegial (p128) [page 13]

6.  Hodkinson and Hodkinson(2001): types of workplace learning. Like Beckett and Hager, Hodkinson and Hodkinson base their classification of types of learning primarily upon learning in the workplace.  They produced a matrix, with two intersecting dimensions.  The first separated out learning that was intended and planned, from that which was unintended and unplanned.  The latter situation could arise either because the relevant activity was itself unintended and unplanned, or when an activity was planned/intended, but not with the explicit intention of learning.  The other dimension focussed on the source of knowledge, in a specific way.  They separated out the learning of something that someone else already knew (that is, there was an existing source of expertise to be drawn upon) and that which was not known by anyone (either because it was completely new, like how to adapt to a situation never encountered before) or the learner acted as if it were completely new (maybe because he/she was unaware that someone else had done this before).  Along this second dimension they then added a middle box ‘development of existing capability’.  There is some logical confusion here, but the authors claimed that doing this better fitted the data they were analysing.  The result was a matrix of six types of workplace learning, shown below.

Figure 2: Types of Workplace Learning

  Intentional/planned Unintentional/unplanned
Learning that which is already known to others (1) Planned learning of that which others know (2) Socialisation into an existing community of practice  
Development of existing capability (4) Planned/intended learning to refine existing capability (3) Unplanned improvement of ongoing practice    
Learning that which is new in the workplace (or treated as such) (5) Planned/intended learning to do that which has not been done before     (6) Unplanned learning of something not previously done.  

Using this classification, most of what Eraut or Livingstone term ‘formal learning’ is contained within one box – learning that is both planned and intended and also of something that is already known by experts.  However, this box also contains many of the situations labelled ‘non-formal’ in the EU classification. Hodkinson and Hodkinson argue that focussing on the extent to which learning is planned and intentional may be a way of by-passing the distinction between formal, non-formal and informal altogether.  However, they conclude with a health warning, claiming that most of the learning they identified consisted of a blending of more than one of their six categories: though [page 14] possibly distinct at the level of analysis, they were anything but distinct in practice.  There are echoes of the Beckett and Hager (2002) claim about holistic learning here, expressed somewhat differently.

7.  Informal and Formal Mentoring (Hunt, 1986). Hunt examines mentoring as a form of learning in the workplace.  Mentoring was first identified as a largely informal process, conducted mainly by male managers sponsoring their protégés (also usually male).  Attempts had been made to formalise these processes and, in order to better understand those attempts, Hunt (1986) categorised the differences in style between formal and informal mentoring, as shown below.

Figure 3: Informal and formal mentoring styles

Informal mentoring – styles Formal mentoring – styles
Unplanned Planned
Individual goals Organisational goals
High social intensity Medium social intensity
Voluntary friendship Relationship mediated by matching process
Indefinite time-span Limited time-span
Less directive More directive
Difficult to track, perceptions biased Monitored according to specified criteria
Suited to smaller enterprises Suited to large organisations
Paternalistic Organisationally structured

This suggests a series of factors that distinguish formal from informal mentoring:

the degree of external control

the degree of planning and institutionalisation

the level of intentionality

the nature (organisational or individual) of its goals

the locus of decisions about goals (internal or external to dyad)

the depth of the dyadic relationship

the degree to which participation is voluntary (by both partners)

the time frame

the nature of its evaluation

the ‘ecology’ of its setting

Hunt also distinguished between their expected outcomes.

Figure 4: Formal and Informal Mentoring Outcomes

Informal mentoring – outcomes Formal mentoring – outcomes
Political awareness for privileged group Acculturation for all new managers
Passing on skills to juniors Skill training for increased productivity
Linking junior and senior managers Fast-track developing of talented newcomers
Reflected glory for mentor Rejuvenating older managers at ‘plateau’
Sponsorship of the privileged Promotion according to merit
Exclusivity of dominant grouping Inclusivity for diverse groupings

[page 15] However, Hunt notes that these expected outcomes for formal mentoring are not necessarily guaranteed.  There is both the possibility of their distortion in the process of transferring mentoring from the informal to the formal plane, and the risk of conflict with the continued functioning of informal mentoring activity.  These outcomes therefore suggest other influential dimensions:

the broader political purposes of mentoring

the broader economic purposes of mentoring

the association of mentoring with different types of knowledge and learning

the degree to which it produces stasis or dynamism within organisations

the degree to which it reproduces or redresses social inequalities within organisations.

8.  Stern and Sommerlad (1999):  a continuous learning continuum. Following Watkins and Marsick (1993), Stern and Sommerlad (1999) present the differences between formal and informal learning opportunities at work as a continuum.   This differentiates them from the others summarised here, and points to an alternative way forward, which we will return to later.  The continuum is presented as a table (p52):

 Figure 5: The Continuous Learning Continuum

Informal        Unanticipated experiences and encounters that result in learning as an incidental by-product, which may or may not be consciously recognised.

                        New job assignments and participation in teams, or other job-related challenges that are used for learning and self-development.

                         Self-initiated and self-planned experiences – including the use of media (print, television, radio, computers), seeking out a tutor or coach or mentor, attendance at conferences, travel or consulting.

                        Total quality groups/action learning or other vehicles designed to promote continuous learning for continuous improvement.

                        Planning a framework for learning, which is often associated with career plans, training and development plans, or performance evaluations.

                        Combination of less organised experiences with structured opportunities, which may be facilitated, to examine and learn from those experiences.

                        Designed programmes of mentoring and/or coaching, or on-the-job training.

                        Just-in-time courses, whether they are delivered as classes or through self-learning packages, with or without the assistance of technology.

                        Formal training programmes.

Formal            Formal programmes leading to a qualification.

[page 16] The way in which this table is presented suggests degrees of formality or informality, and their further discussion also makes clear that several of these types of learning often co-exist in the same workplaces, and for the same workers, in ways that resonate with the argument of Hodkinson and Hodkinson.

Conclusion. When these eight different ways of classifying learning are placed side by side like this, some serious issues become apparent.  We would argue that all of these examples are strongly influenced by:

the context within which and/or for which the definitions or typology were developed, even if some author(s) saw their versions as having wider significance and applicability;

the purpose the author had in mind, either implicitly or explicitly in developing the definitions or typology;

the deeper theoretical and values orientation of the writer when developing the definitions or typology, to the extent that this is discernible in their writing. 

The linked issues of values and context were further revealed when we subjected some of these to a much more detailed analysis than is presented here.  In particular, we have produced more detailed critiques of Livingstone, the EU policy statement, and Hunt. Further problems arise from the diversity of factors or criteria which different authors highlight as significant in their analyses of these issues.

This part of our analysis raised serious doubts about the possibility of establishing an objective way of defining formal, non-formal and informal learning, that would be relevant in most if not all situations, from most, if not all, value positions, and for most, if not all, purposes.  Nevertheless, we felt it necessary to explore this avenue further before dismissing it, and it is to this that we turn next. [page 17]

Dimensions of difference

Despite McGivney’s (1999) reservation with which we opened this Report, most writers who address the differences between informal, non-formal and formal learning are doing so in an attempt to establish boundaries around one of these concepts, or to classify differences between them.  Within the literature we have analysed thus far, it is possible to abstract a list of 20 main criteria these different writers have used to distinguish the boundaries between formal, informal and (less frequently) non-formal learning.  These are crudely summarised, below.  This list is based upon our assessment of the similarities between criteria used in different publications, many of which are expressed in slightly different ways by different authors, and some of which are implicit.  We drew up the list from a much wider range of sources than those presented above, but readers should be able to identify where each of the featured eight analyses fit within our over-arching list.  The order in which these criteria or factors are presented is arbitrary, and is not intended to signify either the frequency with which a criterion is used, or the relative significance of those criteria included.  The items on the list overlap, and are often inter-related.  Others may be contradictory, in some respects.   We would particularly welcome advice about the presence of any other factors or criteria in the literature, which we have omitted.

Figure 6: Distinguishing Criteria

Teacher – learner relations

Location (e.g. educational or community premises)

Learner/teacher intentionality/activity (voluntarism)

Extent of planning or intentional structuring

Nature and extent of assessment & accreditation

External determination or not

Purposes and interests to meet needs of dominant or marginalised groups

The nature of knowledge

Whether learning is seen as embodied or just ‘head stuff’

The status of the knowledge & learning

Education or non-education

Part of a course or not

Whether outcomes can be measured

Whether learning is collective/collaborative or individual

The purposes of learning

Pedagogical approaches

The mediation of learning – by whom and how

The time-frames of learning

The extent to which learning is tacit or explicit

The extent to which learning is context-specific or generalisable/transferable

The extent and diversity of this list illustrates some of the central problems in this area.  One of these is that everyone writing about this issue agrees that several criteria [page 18] must be applied simultaneously to determine the extent to which learning is formal or informal.  Often, this is done within a specific context and/or for a specific purpose.  In conducting this research, we had to ask whether this was all that could ever be done, or whether it was even remotely feasible to construct a classification that was context and purpose free. One way to do that might be to combine many or all of these varied criteria into ideal-types.  Thus, to begin with the most extreme example, perhaps to count as purely formal, any particular manifestation of learning had to meet the definition of formal against all the criteria listed above, whilst to count as purely informal, it would have to meet the definition of informal against all the criteria listed.  This might produce ideal-types roughly resembling those below.  Non-formal might then be some specified form(s) of combination, lying, as it were, between the other two.

Figure 7: Possible ideal-types of formal and informal learning

Formal Informal
Teacher as authority No teacher involved
Educational premises Non-educational premises
Teacher control Learner control
Planned and structured Organic and evolving
Summative assessment/accreditation No assessment
Externally determined objectives/outcomes Internally determined objectives
Interests of powerful and dominant groups Interests of oppressed groups
Open to all groups, according to published criteria Preserves inequality and sponsorship 
Propositional knowledge Practical and process knowledge
High status Low status
Education Not education
Measured outcomes Outcomes imprecise/unmeasurable
Learning predominantly individual Learning predominantly communal
Learning to preserve status quo Learning for resistance & empowerment
Pedagogy of transmission & control Learner-centred, negotiated pedagogy
Learning mediated through agents of authority Learning mediated through learner democracy
Fixed and limited time-frame Open-ended engagement         
Learning is the main explicit purpose Learning is either of secondary significance or is implicit
Learning is applicable in a range of contexts Learning is context-specific

There are some obvious but daunting problems, if such an approach was intended to produce an accurate means of classifying actual learning activities and situations as either formal or informal.  This was aptly illustrated when an earlier version of the figure was presented to the Steering Group for this project.  Several members suggested that one [page 19]  or more items in the two lists were wrongly categorised, so as to misrepresent one or both of the two poles.  If we were to establish these ideal-types as universal, all such disagreements would have to be ironed out.  In doing that, we would have to address the following problems:

Many of the criteria used to draw up the ideal-types are contested

Many of the criteria are imprecise

Some of the ‘polar opposites’ can actually co-exist

At least one is read in diametrically opposite ways by different writers

How many of the criteria should count – are some inappropriate?

Should all criteria be equally important, as this approach would imply?

How can criteria be labelled in ways that avoid ideological implications of inherent virtue or blame? (Formal = bad, informal = good, or vice versa.)

Each of these problems would have to be solved, if such an approach were to be seriously pursued, and many of them would lead inevitably into areas of complex and partly subjective value-judgements. 

But there is another, more serious problem.  Even if only a majority of these criteria were rigorously applied, very little learning would fit completely into either ideal type.  In almost all situations, either the learning would locate uncomfortably towards the centre of the spectrum on several criteria, or it would be formal according to one criterion, and informal on another, as McGivney (1999) recognised in her use of the term ‘crossover’.

One way of addressing this problem is to search for ways to group the criteria in the list, and to identify deeper underlying organising concepts.  Most, though still not all, of the criteria in figure 6 can be fitted into the following four clusters:

Process. This includes learner activity, pedagogical styles and issues of assessment: that is, the learning practices, and the relationships between learner and others (tutors, teachers, trainers, mentors, guides).

Location and setting.  Is the location of the learning within a setting that is primarily education, community or workplace?  Does the learning take place in the context of: fixed or open time frames; is there specified curriculum, objectives, certification; etc.

Purposes.  Is the learning secondary to other prime purposes, or the main purpose of itself?  Whose purposes are dominant – the learner’s, or others’? 

Content.  This covers issues about the nature of what is being learned.  Is this the acquisition of established expert knowledge/understanding/practices, or the development of something new?  Is the focus on propositional knowledge or situated practice?  Is the focus on high status knowledge or not?

These four dimensions of formality/informality are potentially useful in analysing and understanding learning in a variety of contexts.  However, the best way to do this may not be through the categorisation of actual learning as of one or other type.  This is partly because the four dimensions can be logically combined into 16 different types, and there is no clear way to identify a smaller number of these logically possible permutations.  Such types may have value for analytical and illuminative purposes.  However, what even 16 ideal types cannot provide is a clear categorisation or [page 20] classification of actual learning activities or situations: too much still does not fit.  Yet, as we have seen, in the literature that attempts to define boundaries between formal, non-formal and informal learning, and it is this latter purpose that is most frequently intended.

Following the implications of the continuum model of Stern and Sommerlad (1999), rather than seeing formal, informal and non-formal learning as discrete entities, we have begun exploring the ways in which these four dimensions of formality and informality inter-penetrate most, if not all, learning situations.  In doing this, we also address the question as to whether processes, location and setting, purposes and content are independent dimensions of formality/informality, as the above model implies.

This analysis changed the direction of our research.  It seemed more important to test out and explore the suggested inter-relationships between formal, informal and non-formal dimensions of learning in different contexts, than to continue with our detailed analyses of attempts at definitions/classifications – a list which could easily be expanded into 10, 12 or more, as our literature search continued.

Our work on these four dimensions of formality and the relationships between them is ongoing.  In what follows, we present a range of different exemplar contexts: students’ learning on traditional educational courses in FE; the workplace learning of secondary school teachers; community-based learning; and mentoring in the UK for excluded young people (we have also analysed mentoring in the workplace in more detailed reports).  The detail of these exemplars and the style in which they are written vary considerably.  Some are predominantly literature based, others draw upon empirical investigations, conducted by some of us.  We believe that these contrasting approaches are valuable in making more transparent the issues upon which we are focussing.  Also they open up a wider range of possible reader reactions, all of which are of potential interest and value for us. [page 21]

Informal learning within ‘formal’ programmes in further education

Here, we present short portraits of two of the16 learning sites in FE colleges, which make up the Transforming Learning Cultures in FE (TLC) project.  This project is part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP).  FE as a sector contains a very wide range of provision.  Here we concentrate on that which broadly fit the formal definitions in almost all the classifications we have provided.  Even in such formal courses, strong dimensions of informality are present and can be clearly identified. One way of understanding what happens in such educational settings, is to examine case studies.  While the TLC project covers a wide range of FE provision, we have deliberately chosen to focus here on more mainstream sites, in order to explore the limitations of seeing them as purely formal.

The CACHE Diploma. One site concerned students studying the CACHE Diploma in nursery nursing.  Most of the criteria for formal learning are clearly visible in this site.  The course takes place partly on educational premises, there is an external syllabus and summative course work assessment and an examination focussed on a qualification.  The tutor is charismatic and forceful, and dominates the teaching and learning.  Student choice is largely restricted to joining or not joining.  Thus, students work to complete assignments and undertake various activities, at the direction of the tutor.  The course is planned, structured, and geared to the demands of external bodies: the examining body, the college and its funders, the childcare profession and the government, which legislates for and funds much of the activity.

But the course also has clear informal dimensions.  To begin with, much of the learning takes place within actual nurseries – a workplace context that would normally be described as informal, and where the prime purpose of the organisation is not the learning of the students. The learning on college premises is also partly informal.  On this particular course, the college based and workplace components are closely integrated.  What counts as knowledge on the course is not primarily the requirements of the external syllabus and examinations, but much more generic and partly tacit judgements about what qualities, knowledge, attitudes, dress and behaviour are required for membership of the nursery nursing profession.  Much of this broader learning is planned and initiated by the tutor, through the ways in which she conducts and presents herself as an expert practitioner, and constantly guides the students into the desired practices.  But the details are often unplanned, and lie beyond the normal scope of formal learning.  Thus, the tutor will react to the ways in which students dress – not to enforce a previously determined dress code, but to give impromptu advice about why a particular item of clothing would be unsuitable when working in a nursery.   For Eraut (2000) as we have seen, such things ‘have little to do with learning, per se’ (p.12), yet here they clearly result in the significant changes of understanding and capability, when integrated with other aspects of students’ experiences of the course.  [page 22]

In other ways, much of what takes place in this learning site is initiated by the students themselves, either individually or collectively.  The case study documents complex negotiations, alliances and conflicts as the course progressed.  The tutor often had to react to student activity, just as they had to react to activities initiated by her.  Some students learned to adopt particular roles in the group, as they negotiated the forms of their membership.  The only male student developed several strategies to sustain his identity as different from the others, but part of the group.  For example, he presented a very camp persona, leaving at least some group members guessing as to whether he was gay or not, and became the person most likely to disrupt playfully the tutor’s planned approaches, in ways that she sometimes found difficult to deal with.  In this group, some people learned that they did not fit, and either left or were expelled.  Sometimes this was a subtle process of cooling out – a sort of legitimate peripheral participation (Lave and Wenger, 1991) in reverse.  Sometimes it was much more explicit, as when one student was expelled, because it was discovered that she had got into a fight, and been given a police caution, thus rendering herself unsuitable for the version of nursery nurse that the course and profession promoted. 

Issues of context and structure, in the wider sense that Billett (2001a) describes, impacted upon both formal and informal processes together.  A clear example of this lies in the ways that a particular view of female identity and roles dominated the constructed version of nursery nurse professionalism.  This included, the uncritical acceptance of a combination of professional attitudes and responsibilities, with low pay and low status, in contrast to more male dominated professions.  Also, that professionalism was centred around implicit acceptance of emotional labour, a common pitfall for many caring and therefore stereotypically female occupations.  In this respect, much of the learning that students described was clearly embodied, along the lines that Beckett and Hager (2002) suggest.  Further details of this case can be found in Colley (2002a, 2002b).

Entry Level Drama. Similar combinations of formal and informal learning could be found in the entry-level drama site.  Here, a small group of students, many with severe learning difficulties, were studying for a qualification in drama.  As with the CACHE group, all the key identifiers of formal learning were there.  Indeed, this time, there was no escape into non-educational premises.  The students spent their whole week in one mobile classroom, on the edge of a suburban college campus.  They used the canteen and toilet facilities in the main building, but that was the sum total of their experience of the college.  Whilst the CACHE course has been aimed at a particular occupation, this course, at least in theory, was more generally aimed at developing basic employability skills and attributes.  To this end, students studied drama, but also key skills, especially in literacy and numeracy.

The learning in this site had two parallel foci, one of which was explicit, the other implicit.  The explicit focus was on the eventual performance of a dramatic production.  All the teaching and activities were geared to, or at least related to, that prime purpose.  Like the CACHE course previously described, this can easily be seen as the sort of embodied, practice-based ‘informal’ learning that Beckett and Hager (2002) extol. [page 23]

However, this was forcibly led and structured by the team of tutors, in classic formal learning mode.

But the parallel focus was informal, and officially unacknowledged.  For the students, this drama course became another surrogate family, and they learned, informally, how to live in that family.  Their growing self-confidence and ability at things like inter-personal communication, were bounded by this family context.  They learned how to behave here, with these fellow students (siblings) and these particular tutors (parents).  In their actions, many of which were unintentional in any strategic sense, they pressured the tutors to adopt parental roles, for example in sorting out minor arguments, or what the students often preferred to call ‘bullying’.  One tutor talked about having to know when they had had enough, and when the planned lesson had to be slowed down, adapted or even abandoned, if they were not able to cope.  Thus, like the CACHE students, these young people partly initiated and constructed their learning, in ways often associated with the informal.

Again, there are broader contextual and structural issues that inter-penetrate both the formal and informal elements.  For example, behind the rhetoric of learning for employability and independent adult life, lies the reality that these students are actually on a carousel, circulating from one entry-level course to another.  Also important is the low status of all entry-level provision, graphically illustrated by the marginal location of the course, cut off both from the wider college, and the wider world.  Further details of this site can be found in Scaife (2002).

[page 25]


Informal and formal workplace learning: the example of secondary school-teachers

Many of the texts analysing workplace learning either describe it as predominantly informal (Beckett and Hager, 2002) or non-formal (Eraut, 2000).  It may be worth reminding ourselves of Beckett and Hager’s (2002) list of characteristics of such learning, already discussed on page 12. 

Practice-based informal workplace learning is organic/holistic

Practice-based informal workplace learning is contextual

Practice-based informal learning is activity- and experience-based

Practice-based informal learning arises in situations where learning is not the main aim

Practice-based informal workplace learning is activated by individual learners rather than by teachers/trainers

Practice-based informal workplace learning is often collaborative/collegial. (p.115). 

Recent research into teacher learning in schools, which formed part of the Research Network ‘Improving Incentives for Workplace Learning’, within the TLRP, confirmed these characteristics.  Thus large parts of the teacher learning process were informal, large parts of the content were informal, the purposes were at least partly informal, in so far as the teachers learned for voluntary reasons, often largely unaware that they were actually learning, and the location/setting was partly informal, to the extent that any workplace setting ever can be (Billett, 2001a).

But there were clearly more formal dimensions to that learning also.  To take the most obvious example, planned and externally led courses, short and long, played significant if relatively minor roles in the learning of most of the teachers in the research.  But this learning was not somehow separate from their informal learning.  Rather the two were inter-related, as when one teacher took ideas from a short course and integrated them not only into his own teaching, but also into the discussions and practices of his departmental colleagues.  It was then, as he himself claimed, that the learning really happened.  On other occasions, this sort of synergy was absent.  During the fieldwork phase, all English secondary school teachers had to undergo training in the use of computers in the classroom.  For many, this was counterproductive.  Not only did they not have access to the equipment necessary to implement these approaches, but, for at least some, the content and mode of training provided clashed with their customary ways of teaching and learning through practice.

Beyond that, the more obviously informal learning was strongly penetrated with more formal dimensions.  A prime trigger was externally imposed curriculum and assessment change, which influenced the content, timing and processes of learning undertaken.  Also, there were strong external pressures to increase the formalisation of the teachers’ learning, for example through a performance management scheme, where each teacher had to identify learning targets for the year, which fitted with the school strategic plan and government policy priorities, and where the outcomes could be at least clearly identified, even if not measured.    [page 26]

Finally, the predominantly informal learning they engaged in was deeply structured by the ways the schools were organised.  For example, teaching staff were located in separate subject departments.  These formal structures of work organisation were not primarily designed to foster teacher learning, but they strongly facilitated certain types of that learning – sharing with others in the department, whilst impeding others (working with teachers outside that department, for example on pastoral or whole school issues).  Also, perhaps the largest single impediment to the teachers’ learning was the pattern of daily working practices, which meant that it was very difficult to get time out of the classroom, and so widen learning opportunities. 

There are numerous other examples of workplace learning that we could have explored, drawing upon the extensive research literature that exists.  In each case, the point would have been the same.  At least in Billett’s (2001a) wider sense, there are always formalised dimensions to what is often characterised as informal learning, and those formal dimensions are highly significant.  This connects to our earlier observation that workplaces are structured in ways that result in highly unequal access to learning, and major variations in the quality and type of learning that is possible.  As with the other examples we have presented, these wider contextual factors are of vital importance in influencing the ways in which formal and informal dimensions of learning interact with each other, and also the effects these interactions have, on learners and others. [page 27]

Adult and community education and learning

Conceptualisations of informality in adult education contexts. We are developing an overview of the extent to which notions of formal, non-formal and informal learning are manifested in the academic and practitioner literature of adult and community education (ACE).  This has been based upon a wide literature trawl, some of which is included in the bibliography at the end of this report.  What follows is an, as yet, unreferenced summary of some of the key features of the ACE landscape.  The next stage will be to explore in more detail, the relationships between formal, non-formal and informal learning in selected parts of that landscape.  For now, we relate our initial examples to Livingstone’s model (2001), which could be argued to have evolved within the same tradition in which they are located, as well as to the four dimensions of formality/informality we have identified in this paper.

The entire field of ACE is permeated with – often unexamined – assumptions about the existence and processes of informal learning.  As a result, there is very little literature in this field that explicitly addresses the formal, non-formal, informal divides.  This implicit assumption of informality is not least because ACE as currently understood in Britain has its roots in practices which pre-date the establishment of the state system of elementary education, and which have often been seen as alternative, additional or oppositional to the practices of formal schooling.  This historical context is of crucial importance since it illuminates a number of the assumptions which are evident in ACE writing, for example in relation to social and political purpose, social critique and democracy.  The historical social concerns of ACE remain evident in much contemporary literature and practice.  However it is important to note that these ‘social’ concerns have also been translated into a less politicised strand of adult education thought and practice, which prioritises the personal and social development and fulfilment of the individual adult.  This can be seen in much traditional local authority adult education (some of which has survived the funding changes of the last ten years), where classes in cookery, DIY, crafts and exercise co-existed with the pursuit of more cerebral studies.  Whilst this aspect of ACE retains a social perspective, it has often constructed adult learning in terms of individual social aspiration and mobility.

In both the ‘politicised’ and ‘aspirational’ strands of ACE, the absence of any overarching ACE structure, and the ever-presence of student voluntarism, have meant that learning was assumed until recently to be largely informal – in the sense that there was no externally-imposed syllabus and students could leave if they did not like the provision.  However it would be fair to say that what actually occurred in many instances was didactic (and thus formal) teaching within a non-formal setting and ethos.  The contemporary situation – in which formal syllabuses, accreditation and the imposition of lifelong ‘upskilling’ have in many instances supplanted the negotiated curriculum and the group of voluntary learners – is characterised by some conflict as the accommodation between assumptions of formal and informal learning is negotiated.

It is important to note that the field of adult and community education in Britain draws quite heavily on work originating in other (mostly, but not exclusively, Anglophone) countries.  This arises in part from the deliberate internationalism of some [page 28]  early adult education movements.  It also reflects less formal networking over the last forty years or so, among adult educators addressing problems of social and economic inequality, ethnic diversity, changes in gender roles, etc, within quite diverse social and economic contexts.

Given the huge diversity of approaches to adult and community education over time and in different geographical and cultural contexts, it is difficult to generalise about how the field conceives of informal and non-formal learning.  However it is probably true to say that from its earliest manifestations in modern times, the field of practice has shared some basic assumptions:

Learning occurs both inside and outside formal education, for good or ill,

People do not only learn that which they are taught (even when they are in a formal educational setting); structures and social processes actively teach just as much as (or more than) the content of a curriculum.

Learning is a social and relational process which is shaped by the social context in which it occurs – thus the importance of recognising students as adults

For the politicised or collectivist arm of adult education thought, we can add the following assumptions:

The process of learning, in turn, shapes the social context in which it occurs; and

because of all of this, learning and teaching are profoundly political processes.

Beyond this point it becomes more problematic to identify shared assumptions, not least because of the diversity of contexts and purposes which ACE displays.  In particular it is impossible to identify any unifying theory of non-formal or informal learning to which the entire field of practice could subscribe. In fact, there are a wide range of common orientations to learning found in the field.  Many of these fall into the following types:

Approaches to learning focussing on the social

Approaches to learning focussing on the individual

Approaches straddling both – i.e. focusing on processes and content, rather than purpose.

There is also a wide range of contexts and settings covered by ACE theory and practice. 

Contexts /settings. The following list gives some examples (there is overlap, so the distinctions are not always that clear) but not exhaustive.  In it, we split ACE into three types:

ACE in informal/self-organised settings

Workers Educational Association

indigenous education (e.g. in Canada, NZ or Australia)

social movements/political activism

workplace/organisational learning

development work in non-industrialised contexts [page 29]

ACE within institutional education settings

community education within the FE system

liberal adult education in universities

ACE provided directly through LEAs

Scottish community education service

basic education

ACE/ adult learning within non-educational institutional frameworks

targeted social intervention (e.g. health promotion, Sure Start, drug initiatives)

youth work

community development

local authority training provision.

This way of looking at ACE provision resonates with the four-fold typology of formal and informal learning described on page 19.  Such a focusing on the inter-relationships between location/setting and process, suggests a way in to examining the formal/non-formal/informal learning issues, through specific exemplar ACE contexts. As part of this process, we will also examine the broader approaches to learning that are common in each setting.  Next, we look at these issues through some exemplars from practice.

Workers Educational Association (WEA). Founded at the beginning of the twentieth century as the Society for the Promotion of Higher Education for the Working Man, the WEA tended to take (for the time) a relatively radical approach to learning processes whilst maintaining a traditional view of the curriculum.  It followed a number of principles in its organisation, most fundamental of which is that it was, and remains, a democratic and member-led federation of branches (part of its purpose being to promote more general democratic engagement among the population).  Thus, traditionally, members themselves would decide what classes should be offered within their own branch, engage a tutor of their choice and undertake any necessary organisation.  Within classes, the WEA advocated the discussion method whereby the contributions of tutor and students were ostensibly valued equally.  This was a reaction against traditional didactic methods and was a recognition of  the previous experiential learning of adult students, and the likelihood that participation would itself be a form of learning – again, an attempt to put democracy into educational practice.  However, allegiance to ‘the ideal of whatever they call it as promoted in universities’ meant that the content of classes was unlikely to be different from that of any other class on, for example, social science, literature etc.

In recent years the practices of the WEA have changed considerably.  Whilst the branch structure and self-organised traditional classes persist, it has like many other voluntary organisations become both professionalised and much more directly driven by state policy.  Having pioneered new approaches to what Livingstone (2001) would term non-formal education, for example within women’s groups which borrowed from the [page 30] process- but not the content-tradition of the organisation, the WEA was taken under the wing of the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) from 1993, and subjected to many of the curricular and funding constraints applied across the whole FE sector – although crucially, it continued to receive some funding for provision that lay outside the list of approved FE courses (Schedule 2).  Its current work is extremely wide ranging, covering for example basic education, ‘traditional’ courses on architecture, history etc., socially-oriented classes for students with learning difficulties, disabilities or mental health problems, and more vocationally-oriented classes funded by the European Union, through the Economic and Social Fund (ESF).  These funding changes brought with them the need to accredit some (but not by any means all) of the WEA’s provision – at which point the relationships between formal and informal learning became more complex. However there remains a large area of provision which is not accredited in any way, and the WEA has been forced to consider how it can meet funding requirements by ‘measuring’ the formal learning which takes place in these classes.

The WEA has generally refrained from theorising its approach, although claims have always been made for its social and democratic benefits.  The changes to which it is still being subjected mean that it will increasingly have to use accepted measures – for example those developed by the Wider Benefits of Learning project – to demonstrate and quantify the learning which occurs.  It is arguable that this ‘incorporation’ into more directly controlled public provision renders the organisation part of the formal education system (though this would be much resisted by its more traditional members).  In these respects, it appears to be an important example, according to Livingstone’s (2001) categorisation, of ‘non-formal education’ being transformed onto a more formal plane.  In respect of the four dimensions of formality/informality we have identified, while only some of the processes and aspects of setting are directly altered by this policy-led transformation (specified objectives, assessment, certification), these may have unintended ‘knock-on’ effects in respect of other aspects.  Thus an apparently small shift along just one of the dimensions may in fact result in a much greater shift, though this may not have been fully considered.  It begins to raise the question of purposes, and of whose interests dominate, even though the content may remain substantively the same.

Community-based learning. Writing in the context of community care and support for carers, Gertig (1990) addresses some of the learning-oriented work required of professionals such as social workers and community health professionals.  Like many others writing in the ‘community’ oriented literature, she is keen to distinguish the kind of informal education which occurs with clients from that offered by educational institutions, which are seen as inflexible and not client-focused:

‘attendance at an evening class is possible only if you have the money to pay, the time to go, adequate transport, public or private, and access to a competent sitter’, whilst ‘intervention via the casework relationship … can be adapted to the carer’s social system and network’. (p.105) [page 31]

IIt is not only the organisation of formal education which makes it unsuitable for these clients, but the learning assumptions which underpin provision. 

Education implies that the process of learning is deliberate and purposeful and that the people concerned are seeking to acquire knowledge. … This highlights a conflict in orientation between the educator and the caseworker.  The informal educator assumes that the learner wishes to attain knowledge or some skill or attitude.  That is to say they possess some autonomy or choice about the matter and positively elect to learn. (Gertig, 1990, p104). 

However, she points out that in some cases the ‘caseworker’ may have to persuade a carer to undertake specific training or acquire particular knowledge.  In such cases the ‘learning’ is thus not necessarily voluntary, and may indeed be unpleasant or challenging for the learner.  This imposition would present serious problems for a number of advocates of informal learning, but illustrates one of the problematic differences between (voluntary) formal provision for adults and (possibly compulsory) informal provision.

However, when we look more closely at what is meant here by an ‘informal’ learning setting, it becomes apparent that its principal informality lies in the fact that it is not organised by an educational institution.  Gertig describes relatives’ support groups which are ‘run by’ a range of social and health professionals.  The informality of such a group is said to be determined by voluntary attendance, a variety of settings with no ‘overt educational function’, and the fact that it may be neighbourhood based. (p.107) In addition, the provision (in, for example, a sheltered housing unit, or the day room in a hospital assessment unit) of ‘comfortable chairs and refreshments helps to generate an informal atmosphere.  People are not sitting behind desks, as they would be in a classroom environment … this would be difficult to achieve in formal and institutional settings.’  Such groups may also have

a structured programme of topics, speakers and discussions to be addressed within a given time span.  The content of the programme can be designed to take account of the particular problems faced by individual carers and will often included inputs from various specialists such as psychogeriatricians, community psychiatric nurses, psychologists and welfare rights officers.  The course content need not be fixed and is often tailored to address the particular needs of the carer (p.108, emphasis added). 

In the longer term, the organisation and of the group and the responsiveness of the ‘curriculum’ to the ‘learning needs of the participants’ can be passed from the group leader to the carers themselves (p.110).

This perspective presents two quite different models according to Livingstone’s (2001) framework.  The first, where the caseworker decides that a client needs to learn particular ideas or behaviour, appears highly informal, but is akin to his notion of formal education as practised within indigenous communities, where the voluntarism of the learner is low, knowledge status is rational cognitive, learning is mediated by an expert, and the expert designates the learner as requiring knowledge.  The purposes and interests of such work have been questioned by some, particularly in their claim to empower learners (e.g. Baistow, 1994/95, Ecclestone, 1999).  The second appears very close to his [page 32] category of informal education, without a prescribed curriculum, based on community development activities, facilitated by a ‘teacher’, and with a high degree of learner voluntarism.  But even this view of such learning may ignore power relations in which caseworkers still dominate the process, and particular ideological interpretations of high-status knowledge are enforced (Ward and Mullender, 1991).  Once again, Billet’s (2001a) argument that there is no such thing as informal learning may have a purchase here.  This reinforces our point that even practices which seem closest to the archetype of informal learning may, when examined more critically, contain important aspects of formality in at least some of our four dimensions. [page 33]

Formalising informal learning? The case of mentoring for disadvantaged young people

Mentoring clearly falls within the informal sector, as described by Scribner and Cole (1973), and would be seen as predominantly informal or non-formal, according to most of the classifications presented earlier.  Yet when examined in detail, mentoring is arguably one of the most visible examples of a practice where formal and informal learning interpenetrate, and where boundaries between the formal and informal appear highly permeable, at best.  Over the last 25 years, we have witnessed a spectacular increase in its use in support of learning across a range of contexts, from the professional development of business managers to interventions with socially excluded youth.  It has also been described as ‘learning of a higher mental order’ in its own right (Garvey and Alred, 2001: 520).

Much discussion in the literature on mentoring focuses around the degree of its informality or formality.  The paradox that its expansion presents – increasing formalisation of a practice which is viewed as inherently informal – provides a rich case study in which to map and analyse concepts of formal and informal learning.  It also enables us to consider some of the complex issues surrounding the transfer of informal learning practices to more formal domains, including unintended consequences that may arise.  We have undertaken a detailed analysis of mentoring in two contexts: professional development of business managers, and social inclusion interventions with disadvantaged young people.  Some of the issues in business management are reflected in Hunt’s model of informal and formal mentoring (already described briefly on p14), so for brevity we concentrate here on mentoring young people for social inclusion.

Mentoring for young people rose to prominence from the late 1970s onwards, as an unexpected finding of longitudinal psychological research, focused on the transitions to adulthood of ‘at risk’ adolescents in poor communities (Rutter, 1979; Rutter and Hersor, 1985; Werner and Smith, 1982; Werner, 1990).  These studies revealed that informal mentors, sought out by young people themselves among their own kin and community, appeared to be a key protective factor for successful transitions. 

Philip (1997) terms this ‘natural’ mentoring, and argues that certain characteristics underpin its effectiveness.  It is located within the young person’s own community and neighbourhood, and therefore the mentor has localised knowledge that is highly relevant.  The mentor may have some status in the local community, but is not in a position of direct authority over the young person.   Such mentoring is unplanned but nevertheless largely intentional, with young people negotiating their own agenda and exercising control over the interactions.  The young person’s participation is voluntary, matched by the willingness of the mentor to respond.  There is a high degree of intimacy and trust in the relationship, and the mentor preserves confidentiality even though this may bring them into conflict with others in authority.  The goals of mentoring may relate not only to conventionally accepted achievements such as successful school graduation, but also to young people’s goals of establishing independence and identity, and even of experimenting with sexual activity or drug use – goals which dominant value-systems construct as risky or deviant. On most possible dimensions of learning, this is about as informal as it gets.  Process, purpose, location/setting and content are all very informal.  The formality that remains is that identified by Billett (2001a).  For such mentoring

[page 34]

cannot escape the social contexts in which it operates.  These include geographical location, but also social structures of class, ethnicity and gender, and linked factors of inequality, poverty and unemployment.  Such factors impinge upon the actions and perceptions of young people and their mentors alike.  They also strongly influence the types of mentor who are available and accessible.

Philip (1997) also examines another type of informal mentoring, in the context of professional youth work.  This is something of a hybrid, being neither purely informal in the sense described above, nor strictly formalised.  Youth workers have long claimed that informal mentoring is a traditional part of their remit, in line with their professional ethos (Jeffs and Smith, 1987).  This ethos emphasises young people’s autonomy and their voluntary participation in youth service provision, the negotiated and trusting nature of their relationship with youth workers, and efforts by youth workers to minimise their own authority, status and power.  Philip argues that these concerns are central to the role of detached youth workers, who seek to operate on the ‘territory’ that young people construct for themselves, often (quite literally) on the street.  Such youth workers are drawn from or closely connected with the local community, and their knowledge is grounded in it.  They tend to adopt styles of dress and speech patterns common to the youth sub-cultures in which they are working.  In these respects, informal mentoring by detached youth workers, mirrors ‘natural’ mentoring with similar defining factors:


non-institutional settings

voluntary participation

intimate and trusting relationship

negotiated agendas and goals

non-authoritative relations

autonomy and control residing with the young person.

It differs, however, in two important respects.  Firstly, detached youth workers do not rely on the pre-existing resilience that enables some young people to seek out a ‘natural’ mentor.  They are able to target, approach and work to build rapport with young people less well-equipped to seek support from welfare agencies or from adults in the community, while maintaining the young person’s right to ‘walk away’ from the relationship if they wish.  The goals of such mentoring are to allow young people to define their own needs and find ways of meeting those needs, to develop knowledge of other cultures, and to practice social skills and experiment with new identities in a relatively safe environment (Philip, 1997).  Secondly, youth workers emphasise the importance not only of relating to individuals, but also to their peer group and the wider community.  Fostering young people’s existing friendships and social ties is seen as creating an important ‘anchor’ in their lives, and this loosens the purely dyadic nature of the mentoring relationship. 

There is an explicit aim in this type of mentoring to develop young people’s social and political awareness and their capacity for active citizenship.  Gender has been an organising factor, with some female youth workers having developed separate provision for girls in order to counter the domination of mainstream resources and activities by boys.  An important basis of this provision has been conscious-raising work, and the shared experiences of oppression common to the mentor, individual mentees, and peer [page 35] groups of young women.  Though still regarded as informal by Philip, there are increased elements of formality integrated with the informal, perhaps in the areas we have termed process and purpose.  There may be, for example, greater mentor control and influence of the situation, and a slightly greater degree of deliberation and planning.

The formalisation of youth mentoring. The findings of research into ‘natural’ mentoring for socially excluded youth were seized upon as a rationale for the introduction of planned mentoring programmes, primarily in North America and UK.  From the late 1980s in the US, and from the mid-1990s in Britain, an ever-increasing number of such programmes were introduced, initially through discretionary and short-term funding.  In the last 5 years they have become a central ingredient of government education and welfare policies, and mentoring has become ubiquitous as an intervention with socially excluded young people, drawing in hundreds of thousands of volunteer and professional mentors (Miller, 2002).

Colley (2000, 2001a, in press) reviews this process of formalisation.  Starting in the US, a plethora of programmes burgeoned, targeted at young people ‘at risk’ of disengaging, or already disengaged from formal systems of education, training and employment.  They sought explicitly to re-engage young people with those systems in preparation for entry to the labour market.  For this reason, Colley dubs the model ‘engagement mentoring’, arguing that this model has come to dominate interventions with socially excluded youth.

In contrast with more informal models, engagement mentoring takes place within an institutional framework shaped by policy-makers and professional practitioners, and is often confined to institutional locations. There is usually a more or less overt element of compulsion for young people to participate, with sanctions for non-compliance, such as withdrawal of welfare benefits, eviction from supported housing, or imprisonment rather than a probation order.  Agendas and goals are negotiable only within tightly framed expected outcomes.  There is a relatively high level of recording and monitoring of interactions by mentors and programme staff.  While there are aspirations towards establishing personal relationships based on trust, there are strict limitations on the degree of intimacy and the duration allowed, with some programmes supporting relationships for as little as 13 weeks.  Mentors are overwhelmingly drawn from higher-status individuals outside disadvantaged young people’s own communities, such as business people and university undergraduates.  Consequently, engagement mentoring relationships are marked by social distance, competing value-systems, and more intense power differentials than pertain in informal mentoring (Freedman, 1999).   A central aim, cited in all major recommendations for or reports of engagement mentoring, is that of altering young people’s attitudes, values and beliefs, in order to socialise them into a different cultural milieu and develop the necessary attributes of employability that employers demand (cf. DfEE, 1999, 2000; ESU, 2000; Ford, 1999; House of Commons, 1998; Skinner and Fleming, 1999; Social Exclusion Unit, 1999).

We could thus categorise styles of informal and formal mentoring for socially excluded young people in a similar fashion to Hunt’s (1986) categories in business management (see figure 3, p14). [page 36] 

Figure 8: Formal and Informal Youth Mentoring Styles

Informal mentoring – styles Formal mentoring – styles
Unplanned  Planned
Unfunded, or difficult to obtain funding Central, long-term funding
Voluntary participation Degree of compulsion
Individual goals Policy and institutional goals
High level of negotiation Low level of negotiation
Shared background and experiences Social distance
High social intensity Low-medium social intensity
Self-sought friendship Relationship mediated by matching process
Indefinite time-span Limited time-span
Less directive More directive
Difficult to track Intensely monitored on specific criteria
Located in familiar surroundings Located in institutional settings
Relates to wider social ties and peer group Focuses on individual
Rooted in the local community Separate from local community

These styles can be mapped across all four of our dimensions of formality, as well as Hunt’s dimensions from the field of mentoring for business managers: degree of external control, nature and locus of goals, level of intentionality and voluntarism, depth of the relationship, time-frame and evaluation, and ecology of setting.  However, the polarisation of styles appears far greater in mentoring for socially excluded youth than in management mentoring.  This may be related to the fact that mentoring for business managers, whether formal or informal, remains an intra-class mechanism, whereas youth mentoring appears to be an intra-class process in its informal manifestations, but has become an inter-class mechanism as it has been formalised.  But what of its outcomes?  Has this transfer of mentoring from the informal to the formal encountered problems?

Problems in increasing the formalisation of  youth mentoring. This formalisation process was impelled by responses to the socio-economic climate.  Mentoring appeals to policy makers because it resonates with a number of their concerns: the moralisation of social exclusion and fear of an ‘underclass’; the drive for economic competitiveness and upskilling of the labour force; the attraction of cheap and rapid ‘fixes’ for social problems; and an affinity with individualistic philosophies such as the ‘American Dream’ (Freedman, 1999: 21).

The powerful upsurge of mentoring was also driven by concerns for social justice among the middle classes. Large numbers of middle class volunteers have been willing to act as mentors.  The combination of these good intentions with policy imperatives has resulted in mentoring as a missionary ‘crusade’ waged by the middle classes on poor, working class youth, that Freedman characterises as ‘fervour without infrastructure’ (1999: 2).  To a certain extent, he sees the middle classes salving their own consciences by mentoring inner-city youth even as they themselves retreat from those areas, taking [page 37] their social and economic capital with them (1999: 128).  A more optimistic view is that this might generate social solidarity and undermine class, gender and racial inequalities in the labour market by enhancing young people’s social capital (Aldridge et al, 2002; Raffo, 2000; Raffo and Hall, 1999).

Dishion et al (1999) report a systematic review of engagement mentoring research in the US, which demonstrates that many such projects recorded worse outcomes for young people that had been mentored than for control groups.  Williamson and Middlemiss (1999) suggest that interventions which aim to separate disadvantaged young people from their kinship, peer group and community ties and re-engage them with the formal labour market are unrealistic, since the social and financial costs to young people are too great.  Philip (1997) is quite emphatic in her judgement that what she terms informal mentoring is superior to formal models that have recently been introduced.

Engagement mentoring has been critiqued by a number of authors (Colley, 2001a, in press; Gulam and Zulfiqar, 1998; Jeffs, 1999; Philip, 1997; Piper and Piper, 1999, 2000), who have argued that it represents a form of social engineering.  In summary, they claim that it is based on constructs of young people, and of the poor working class communities they inhabit, as deviant and deficient.  The qualities of ‘employability’ that it seeks to instil have been characterised as little more than compliance and deference to the will of powerful employers (Ainley, 1994; Gleeson, 1996).  Interventions taking such a pathological view may reinforce rather than counteract inequalities.  Here too, issues of less visible power relations and the covert interests of dominant groupings are at issue.

Inequalities may not just pertain to those being mentored.  The vast majority of formal mentors for socially excluded youth are women (Colley, 2001b; Skinner and Fleming, 1999).  The perception of mentoring as an inherently informal process means that they receive only a minimal amount of training and support in comparison with traditional levels of post-graduate education and clinical supervision for professionals working with disadvantaged youth.  There is also an emphasis on mentors’ personal dedication to their mentees, and an expectation that they will go ‘beyond the call of duty’ in their caring (e.g. Ford, 1999), which may exploit women’s gendered role as carers.

The expected and actual outcomes of informal and formal mentoring for socially excluded young people could therefore be summarised thus: 

Figure 9: Formal and Informal Youth Mentoring Outcomes

Informal mentoring – outcomes Formal mentoring – outcomes
Young people identify own needs Expert diagnosis of young people’s needs
Young people find ways to meet needs Rectifying young people’s skill deficits
Education for social and political awareness Developing their employability
Developing active citizenship Labour market entry
Allowing young people to experiment with and create new identities Alteration of young people’s dispositions in line with dominant norms
Reducing alienation Reducing crime and anti-social behaviour
Fostering solidarity within communities Fostering solidarity between classes
Enhancing young people’s existing social ties Enhancing young people’s social capital
Enhancing mentors’ cultural capital Limiting mentors’ cultural capital

[page 38] This confirms the additional distinguishing dimensions identified between the formal and informal types of business mentoring (see p14): political and economic purposes, association with different types of knowledge, and the reinforcement or disruption of the status quo within institutions, communities and society as a whole.  It also underlines the way in which formalised mentoring exposes the frailty of dyadic models of mentoring relationships, and introduces the triadic element of external interests pursued by dominant groupings.  It leaves unanswered the question as to how far more formalised schemes could be devised without some of the more punitive dimensions of engagement mentoring.

Though this analysis has presented two ideal-types of mentoring, the predominantly formal and the predominantly informal, formal and informal dimensions of learning are present in both.  In our analysis of current approaches to engagement mentoring, we have argued that certain types of formality – of scheme context, of planned process aimed at measurable and pre-determined outcomes, of the lack of voluntarism on the part of many mentors, as well as young people, and the external prescription of what the content of mentoring exchanges should be – are overwhelming the informal processes of discussion and sharing.  But even in the most rigid of schemes, Colley’s (2000) work demonstrates the strength of informal, intentional but sometimes unplanned actions by mentees and mentors, which form a vibrant counter-theme to the more obviously formal external controls.

This analysis of youth mentoring also throws light upon content, or knowledge, as a key dimension of formality-informality.  In what is sometimes termed natural mentoring, the content of the mentoring process is largely informal – anything the young person values counts, regardless of its provenance or nature.  In engagement mentoring, the content is externally determined and prescribed at one level, but actually created through interactions between external specification and participant construction, interaction and resistance.  However, even in its prescribed forms, this content is arguably less formalised than that in many formal education courses, where the knowledge that counts is both propositional and formally assessed. 

Our analysis also demonstrates some of the sterility of decontextualised comparisons of the relative merits or demerits of formal or informal paradigms of learning.  For the problems identified with engagement mentoring are rooted in social, political and economic contexts in which the schemes were introduced.  While there are clear attractions in trying to extend the benefits of a positive informal learning experience by putting it on a more formal footing, we can once again point to Scribner and Cole (1973), who highlighted the possibility that social injustices may be intensified rather than diminished by unthinking assumptions that such a transference is straightforward.  The case of engagement mentoring illustrates how the nature of the mentoring process changes as it becomes applied through planned and formalised programmes.  Many practitioners in adult and community education express parallel fears that informal learning will be distorted as policy-makers attempt to increase its degree of formality through the introduction of ‘non-formal’ models. [page 39]


We have explored some of the informal dimensions of learning in predominantly formal settings, and the formal dimensions of learning in predominantly informal ones.  It is logically possible to see such processes as separate and parallel: to see the division between formal and informal learning further replicated within both formal and informal settings.  If we do this, it raises the image of a sort of nested progression of scale reduction, perhaps similar to the phenomena of fractals, in chaos theory.  At whatever scale learning is divided into its formal and informal components, each of those divisions can then be further divided.  In other words, formal and informal dimensions are always, or almost always, present in any learning situation, no matter how small. 

However, the analysis presented here questions the value and validity of seeing formal and informal dimensions of learning as separate in quite this way.  That is, learning is predominantly determined by the complex social practices in any learning setting, which integrate what are sometimes termed formal and informal components.  Thus, in all or nearly all situations where learning takes place, elements of both formal and informal learning are present.  But the most significant issue is not the boundaries between these types of learning, but the inter-relationships between dimensions of formality/informality, in particular situations. 

There are several advantages to viewing learning in this way, which we have not space to fully explore here, and which require further analysis:

Such an approach avoids the sorts of over-simplification whereby it can be assumed that only the formal need be considered in formal settings, and only the informal in informal ones.

Such an approach makes it easier to ask and address questions about the respective benefits of formality and informality, how productive balances between the two can be sustained, and how damaging imbalances can be resisted.  It helps is step outside paradigmatic arguments that formal = bad, informal = good, or vice versa.

Such an approach may help in lifting our view of learning above and beyond the pedagogical on the one hand, and individual learning activity and motivation on the other.  We have strongly implied that our advocated approach will work best if we explicitly examine the wider contexts in which learning takes place.

Such approaches are more consistent with newer ways of theorising and understanding learning, which appear to be supplanting what Beckett and Hager (2002) term the ‘standard paradigm of learning’.  Expressed rather differently, in what Sfard (1998) terms participation approaches to learning, be they situated learning (Brown et al, 1989; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998), socio-cultural theories (Wertsch, 1985) or activity theory (Engestrom, 2001), issues about whether to not learning is informal or formal play a very minor role.  These theories carry important insights, which are broadly synergistic with the approach advocated here.  To focus on the differences between formal and informal learning risks restricting the reach of such theories to predominantly non-educational settings – a danger that [page 40] Scribner and Cole (1973) signalled 30 years ago was already a serious obstacle to better understandings and theorisings of learning.

There remains one further issue, which we have not yet fully explored.  If we see all learning as a complex and partly context-specific compound of formality and informality, what is the role and purpose of the term ‘non-formal’?   We may be able to share some of our developing work on this question in the workshops. [page 41]

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How to cite this piece: Helen Colley, Phil Hodkinson & Janice Malcolm (2002) Non-formal learning: mapping the conceptual terrain. A Consultation Report, Leeds: University of Leeds Lifelong Learning Institute. Also available in the informal education archives:

© Helen Colley, Phil Hodkinson & Janice Malcolm 2002This piece has been reproduced here with permission of the writers, publishers and the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA).
First placed in the archives: February 2003. Updated June 2019.