Hodkinson, Phil and Colley, Helen (2005) Formality and Informality in College-based Learning. International Yearbook of Adult Education, 31. pp. 165-182.

Workplaces and educational institutions merely represent different instances of social practices in which learning occurs through participation. Learning in both kinds of social practice can be understood through a consideration of their respective participatory practices. Therefore, to distinguish between the two … [so that] one is formalised and the other informal … is not helpful (Billett, 2002, p57).

The Presence of Informal as well as Formal Learning in Educational Institutions
Despite Billett’s view, it has become commonplace in Western, industrialised societies to think of formal and informal learning as inherently different from each other. Thus, formal learning is planned, teacher-dominated, assessed and takes place in educational institutions, where learning is the prime official objective of activity. Informal learning, on the other hand, is unplanned, incidental, unassessed and uncontrolled by a teacher, and takes place in everyday life, where learning is not the primary purpose of the activities that we engage in. Thus, the argument has gone, we learn informally through participating in everyday life – in the family, the local community, in the workplace and at leisure. On occasions, we learn formally, if and when we attend courses at schools, colleges or university.

The origins of this division are not only theoretical: particular meanings of formal and informal learning have historically been associated with the interests and practices of different social and political groupings (Colley et al, 2003). Most recently, political attention has been focused on this debate by European lifelong learning strategies (European Commission, 2001). These have introduced a third category of ‘non-formal’ learning (a term intended to convey a combination of formal and informal characteristics), associated mainly with the workplace. A key policy goal is that non-formal learning should be clearly identified to allow formal assessment and accreditation, supposedly in the interests of both individual workers and economic competitiveness. This strategy has created controversy not only about its feasibility but also about whose interests it is likely to benefit most. At the same time, it reinforces the notion that there are separate types of learning, and that a prime task for research is to delineate clear boundaries between them.

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