Informal Vocational Learning

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

‘Formal learning is always organised and structured and has learning objectives. From the learner’s standpoint, it is always intentional: i.e. the learner’s explicit objective is to gain knowledge, skills and/or other competences.’ (Characteristics of current formal learning; highly institutionalised, managed with heavily prescribed curricula and dominated by examinations and tests).

‘Informal learning is never organised, has no set objective in terms of learning outcomes and is never intentional from the learner’s standpoint. Often referred to as learning by experience or just as experience.’    (The learner creatively ‘adopts and adapts to the changing situations and circumstances in everyday life’).

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

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

One of the interesting and fascinating features of informal learning is that the learning can be unintentional and knowledge and skills developed consciously and unconsciously by the individual. Research has shown how important informal learning is and its outcomes are increasingly seen as having significant value in employment and society in general. The research has shown that approximately 70% of learning in the workplace is informal and is the most predominate learning mode for the majority of adults namely approximately 90%. Most of the learning is through self-discovery and interaction with colleagues, associates and friends and all without an education or training institution in sight! The expression ‘sitting next to Nellie’ has in the past been used to describe this process. Clearly in some workplace contexts a guide/mentor can greatly assist the learning process mirroring the approach used in the master/apprentice model albeit in an unstructured way. The value of workplace learning is clearly evidenced by the value of work experience/shadowing/sampling programmes for learners when at school/college/university. The informal learning process involves observation and trial and error in order to perfect a particular vocational or technical skill. A vast range of skills and knowledge can be acquired this way including manual, language/ cultural awareness, ICT, interpersonal —–

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

  • Experiences in the workplace
  • Networking in the workplace and in society in general
  • Using museums, libraries, cyber cafes etc.
  • The role of colleagues acting as mentors/coaches in the workplace
  • Consulting instruction manuals etc.
  • Through voluntary, cultural activities etc.
  • Travelling abroad


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


  • The learners are more often motivated and prepared to learn and keen and curious to find out information and develop skills because of the  context especially the workplace which is real and allows them the opportunity to try out the idea or new skill
  • Overall it is more efficient and effective in terms of time, cost when compared with formal learning.
  • Informal learners can feel less pressured than when in formal learning situations



Being realistic there are some downsides to informal learning namely; it can take up colleague time, usually asked when the learner needs it and not when it is convenient for the colleague who is acting as an unofficial mentor/coach and also some of the learning and learning process can be inconsistent and sometimes wrong.ways

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


At this time many countries are emphasising the urgent need to recognise more fully an individual’s knowledge, skills and competences wherever acquired and this highlights the importance of informal learning.

Credible mechanisms to identify, record, assess and validate the experiences and the skills and competences so acquired need to be developed. Such recognition and validation could facilitate progression for further studies and/or in work.  The success of APL/APEL using such tools as portfolios/records of achievement/critical diaries could be further refined to accredit and validate informal learning.  At this time of recession and the need by many countries to rebalance their economies recognising the value of informal learning could motivate the existing workforce and assist more people to make significant contributions to sustainable growth.

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

A slightly amended version of this article first appeared in November 2013 in the City and Guilds Skills Development Centre e-zine section –

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