Informal Learning is proven to be more than 80% of the total amount of learning we do in our lives.

We are used to the idea that formal learning in school, university or any formal course is the only valuable learning. For it to be valuable we need to have a mark or a certificate even if we do not know what it measures!

What is Formal Learning?

Formal Learning is part of a prescribed course of subjects and learning objects that form a national curriculum.

While the national curriculum is designed to articulate learning outcomes that students should achieve, it has been repositioned more as a guide for “what teachers should teach”.

The true nature of learning and an emphasis on capturing the learning journey of students has been ignored in favour of compartmentalising learning into subject silos, which are created as an expedient way to manage curriculum delivery and capture ‘evidence’ that the curriculum is ‘working’.

Subjects are taught in isolation where teachers focus on the outcomes they have to “teach” their students with little regard for the rest of the curriculum and the nature of true learning or the skills needed in life. The focus is on how to pass the exam, which can be gamified by intelligent teachers and students.

While the curriculum supposedly identifies essential learning outcomes (the essential parts needed to run the car) there is no guarantee that everything that is specified to be taught will actually be delivered by every teacher.

Similarly, there is no guarantee that every student will be in attendance or be paying attention at the time it is taught. Even if a student is in attendance, there is absolutely no guarantee that the student internalises what is taught into what is learnt.

Also, there is no real check on how well the teacher delivers the content. Some may be experts in a subject and some may not be.

This is where we see the need for a radical shift from focusing on what is taught to what is the essential learning.

This learning becomes the basis for the essential car parts. This means that there is a shift in emphasis from what is taught to essential learning. This shift has huge implications for curriculum delivery as the focus is now on ensuring the student collects the essential car parts to run the car regardless of how they get them or what they are. 

At the beginning of mechanisation, Henry Ford discovered that, by building a standardised car, he could reduce the price of the product and the Model T was built. He famously said ‘you can have any colour you want as long as it is black.’ (Henry Ford)

Our education system which was designed to produce workers for such a system was designed with similar principles.

Why Is Formal Learning Like This?

Part of the reason for this is the creation of mass education brought about because of the First Industrial Revolution; where skills and knowledge had to be defined and standardised with a systematic way of checking (testing that everyone had learned the skills).

This is essentially the moment when the notion of the teacher narrowed to one where their sole responsibility was to produce compliant workers to feed the industrial machine. Information was narrowed and standardized in the form of textbooks and pedagogy was defined through a single stand and deliver methodology (where one assumes teachers ‘taught’ the content and students learned it by osmosis.

Education is currently at a crossroads with two conflicting scenarios:

  • The first is where schools and colleges are ruled by standardisation and an industrial “institution” strives to turn out students as products prepared to face the 21st Century.
  • The second is the world of information, knowledge and wisdom in which real learning takes place in spite of schools out in the ‘real world’.

The Difference Between Teaching And Learning

The Instruction Paradigm

The Instruction Paradigm, where the focus is on instruction and imparting knowledge, is being challenged by, what is being called, the Learning Paradigm, in which the focus is on producing learning for every student regardless of the teaching method.

Using the car analogy; instead of having an assembly line where every vehicle is produced using the same parts and with the same method, cars will be created in multiple ways with multiple features.

The Instruction Paradigm rests on conceptions of teaching that are increasingly recognized as ineffective. As stated by Alan Guskin (1994) “the primary learning environment for undergraduate students, the fairly passive lecture-discussion format where faculty talk and most students listen is contrary to almost every principle of optimal settings for student learning”.

Alan Guskin (1994)

In many schools, rote learning is mistaken for learning.

Rote learning, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, “is the lowest level of cognition, which requires only the ability to recall facts”. In the Industrial Model this worked well to produce factory workers who could remember which button to push and the order to assemble products, but in today’s information and the global economy where the focus is on critical thinking and other higher-order skills, it is not enough.

How do we measure teaching?

One might argue that by assessing what the student knows it is a way to ensure that ‘all the car parts’ are included so the car would run. But, if we examine the assessment methods, most examinations only sample a small part of the content that was specified.

How can we guarantee that all of the ‘car parts’ will be included in the assessment?

Normally, over five years all of the content will be covered in the tests that take place.

Unfortunately, the student only takes a test once a year, so no single student will ever be assessed against all of the content. Furthermore, the actual content assessed for an individual student is never made public so we do not know what they understand and what they don’t, and nor do the students. They know what grade they got but not which questions they answered correctly. So, nobody knows in the end what has happened and what was been learned.

In the car example, it is like the car being built and sold but the buyer does not know whether it will work or which parts are working. So it might be blisteringly fast but there might be no brakes.

We can add many more dimensions to this.

For example;

  • the subject knowledge of the examiners;
  • the accuracy of the marking;
  • the suitability of the questions in the test to solicit the correct responses;
  • the frame of mind of the candidates taking the test;
  • the time of year, which could lead to health problems restricting the ability of the candidate;
  • the ability of the student (or their teachers) to predict what will be in the test and thus revise the correct topics.

Related abilities would also affect the outcome of the test, such as the language used to ask the questions. For example, if it is English, what are the student’s English language levels, not taking into account the ability of the student to remember things (or other personality profile issues)?

All of these aspects influence the reliability and validity of any testing regime.

So, the student’s knowledge of unspecified parts of the curriculum, selected at random, is assessed and turned into a number, but the number does not mean anything and the information on how that number was reached for each individual student is secret!

The student is unlikely to get a hundred per cent on the test. They will answer questions based on what they remember. A correctly prepared student will gain marks due to their exam technique.

The marks a student gains will be converted to grades and this is all that will be publicly available.

So now varying degrees of numberbased marks for unspecified content based upon the student’s knowledge and memory recall, which in turn is based on a random selection of answers, are averaged together in order to achieve a mark and allocate a grade.

This is made even worse as examination grades are usually determined statistically using standard deviation. There is actually a big difference between the number of pass grades and the subject examined. For example, subjects such as Latin have a very high pass rate. You may be asking what relevance is this as Latin tends to be more difficult than many other subjects?

The issue is, pass rates are controlled, so they remain almost static irrespective of the overall ability of the cohort taking the exam. After all, the general public would believe that the standard of the tests must be easier if there is a higher pass rate.  The system is therefore secretly fixed where awarding organisations are not allowed to vary the percentage pass-rated grade levels by more than a couple of points. Of course, if everybody decided to enter all of his or her students for Latin, it means a number of the students would have to pass the exam even with no knowledge of Latin.

So a student will have a grade on a specified subject. They will receive their certificate. But by looking at the certificate there is no way of telling which parts of the specification they were examined in, which parts of the specification they gained their marks from, and what they actually learned about the subject.

It is like doing a road test on only one aspect of a cars performance, say fuel efficiency, but not sharing the detailed conclusions, but just saying the fuel is efficient and expecting that information to be enough for people to be able to choose whether the car is suitable for, say, a farming family of 6 living in the Pyrenees mountains of France!

In the analogy of the car, you don’t know what works, if it does not work, how to make it complete, or even where to buy the parts or how much those parts cost. Yet, you still pay the full price for the car and they all cost the same amount! Also, despite the many fatalities and complaints, nobody can work out how to change the system!

The evidence for this catastrophe is within every student’s life and the search for suitable employment, when they have no idea what they can do or how to then match a particular set of needs expressed by an employer in a job specification.

Informal Non-Formal and Incidental Learning

Informal Learning

Informal Learning is not part of the curriculum or the main syllabus, but does have some learning structures and maybe some assessed outcomes. Examples might be swimming lessons, cooking lessons or sports coaching.

Non-Formal or Incidental Learning

Non-Formal learning is very difficult to assess but is the bulk of the learning we do today.

Non-Formal or Incidental Learning is generally viewed to be something one discovers or learns as a part of everyday activities.

Because of the access to good information on the internet and the need to constantly develop new skills and competencies, people are learning things all the time.

Of course, Non-Formal courses exist with MOOCS and other forms of online learning, and some even carry some form of accreditation.

If we are doing so much Non-Formal learning which is not recorded, then why do we keep doing it? Because we prefer it!

Non-Formal learning is flexible and it can suit your mood and the way you want to learn. It can be done when and where you want and most importantly, as you want.

We simply dislike the hassle factor with formal learning. This is particularly true of Generation X, Y, Z and Alphas.

Since 1947, the OECD has recognised the value of Non-Formal Learning especially in the context of lifelong learning and the pressures for re-skilling created by the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Still, however the problem is how do you measure and credit all this learning?


The 70-20-10 Model for Learning and Development is commonly used in business training.

The theory states that people learn 70 per cent of their knowledge from job-related experiences, 20 per cent from interactions with others, and 10 per cent from formal training.

The 70 per cent is thought to be the most beneficial for employees because it enables them to discover and refine their job-related skills, by making mistakes in context and interacting with other people in work settings.

Learning from others is the 20 per cent through social learning, coaching, mentoring and collaborative learning with peers. Encouragement and feedback are the main benefits of this approach.

Only 10 per cent of development comes from formal instruction and other training events.

The arrival of the Internet and the availability of online and mobile learning technologies has altered the training industry’s views of the 70-20-10 model. 


The advent of Transversal Competencies and the 4th Industrial Revolution have made Non-Formal and lifelong learning compulsory.