Informal Learning

by Alan Thomas

Infants start learning informally from (or before?) birth, mainly through interaction with the mother or other caregivers. Part of this is learning how to behave in culturally appropriate ways, e.g., how to deal with emotions, how to interact with others in the family and wider community, and the acquisition of cultural values and attitudes. This alone requires a vast amount of knowledge and know-how.

Even more impressive are the cognitive understandings and skills that are learned informally, including language, basic literacy and numeracy, the beginnings of scientific understanding, a sense of humour, game rules and the beginnings of moral understanding. How are these learned? Apart from language, there has been little interest in the processes through which this learning actually occurs. What research there is has tended to compare different styles of parental instruction to see which are the most effective. As Trevarthen (1995) points out, this kind of research is based on the “classical assumption [that] children learn because they are taught”. However, it is becoming increasingly accepted that most cognitive learning in early childhood results from much more informal interaction between parent (or other adults) and child, mostly undifferentiated from what is socio-cultural, occurring through everyday conversation and activities. A simple example would be learning the meaning of “half” from fleeting acquaintances with the concept, sharing a bar of chocolate and getting half of it, hearing “we are nearly half way there” in the car, cutting a piece of paper in half, and so on. Gradually the full meaning of the concept becomes embedded in the child’s psyche without any awareness of learning taking place.

Schaffer (1996) describes how parents unconsciously facilitate such learning, through “dovetailing” to fit into what the child is doing or saying, providing what Lloyd (1990) calls a “communicative support system”. Schaffer proposes that “cognitive growth… in the early years is most effectively transmitted in the context of joint involvement episodes [which] entail the mutual cooperation of a participant child and a sensitive adult”. Even more informal is the kind of learning which accrues from just being “around”, even for acquiring mathematical knowledge – “…children’s developing cognitive competencies to deal with number are given every opportunity in the course of daily life to become interwoven with the way in which society makes use of numeracy”. This kind of learning has been described as an informal cultural apprenticeship, mainly through “guided participation” (Rogoff, 1990) and accords well with the constructs of “situated learning” and “legitimate peripheral participation” as applied to adult informal learning.

By the time they reach school age, most children will be well on the way to learning to read, having established familiarity with letter shapes, their own names, other words that surround them in their everyday lives and from books read to them. They will have at least a basic grasp of essential maths concepts, e.g., counting, adding and subtracting, though obviously not the computational skills they will acquire later on. All the time, too, they will be expanding their general knowledge by listening, watching, asking interminable questions, playing games, getting involved in household activities, shopping, going on visits and so on. It’s such an ordinary part of everyday life at home that parents are rarely aware of the prodigious amount of learning that is going on.

A very well known study specifically compares this kind of informal learning at home with learning in school, based on four-year-old children who attended nursery class on a half-time basis (Tizard and Hughes, 1984). They recorded conversations between the children and their mothers at home and, for comparison, between adults (teachers and early childhood workers) in school. To their surprise they found, regardless of the socioeconomic background of the children, that the home provided a rich informal learning environment and that

…the most frequent learning context was that of everyday living. Simply by being around their mothers, talking, arguing and endlessly asking questions, the children were being provided with large amounts of information relevant to growing up in our culture.

In the nursery class, by contrast, though quite informal by school standards,

The questioning, puzzling child we were so taken with at home was gone… conversations with adults were mainly restricted to answering questions rather than asking them, or taking part in minimal exchanges…

Informal learning is obviously crucial for intellectual development in early childhood and has an important role in adult learning. But what of all those years in between, when children are of school age?

Children of school age and learning

Most families who start out doing school at home find that what works in school does not transfer easily to the home. Of necessity, home educators find themselves pioneering new educational approaches, nearly always less formal ones.

When children reach five years of age they go to school to embark on proper or formal learning. The content of what they learn, the curriculum, is planned in detail and carefully sequenced. The teacher delivers this curriculum and children learn what they are told to learn. Progress is constantly monitored, from answering teachers questions in class, through completing written exercises to taking regular tests. There may be very good institutional, organizational and practical reasons that make formally structured learning necessary in school. But it does not mean that this is the only way to acquire an education. There is no scientific basis whatsoever for the almost universal assumption that this traditional means of educating children is essential if they are to progress after reaching school age. Its just that we are so inured to school-type learning that it is very difficult to imagine any alternative.

It is true that informal education, sometimes referred to as child-centred education, was supposedly practised in the so-called permissive 1960s and 1970s, though it had little in common with the kind of informal learning described here. Classroom research in the early 1980s demonstrated that even this limited kind of informal learning had not really gone beyond the rhetorical. The only informal learning that does occur in the classroom concerns how to act as a school student, fulfilling institutional and peer-approved roles, what has been called the hidden curriculum.

So how do you study informal learning for children and young people of school age if they are in school all day? Well, in the first place they are not at school all day, though any informal learning out of school has yet to be studied in any depth. A fascinating exception is research into “street learning”. For example, Carraher, Carraher & Schliemann (1985) compared what Brazilian school students learned in maths classes with what they learned through handling money in the course of working part time on market stalls. The researchers went along to the market stalls and bought collections of items. The children had no difficulty in adding up the cost of the items and calculating the change. But when these same calculations were presented in maths lessons the same children found them difficult and made many mistakes.

Probably the best existing source of knowledge about informal learning for children of school age is home education. This is because many home-educating parents find that informal learning plays at least some part, in some instances a very major part, in their children’s intellectual growth.

Researching home education and homeschooling

I was prompted to study home education by an interest in individualized teaching. My introduction to informal learning came when I was invited to spend a week “living in” with a home educating family. What impressed me most during that week was that nothing much seemed to happen, on the surface at least, especially when compared with the sense of purposeful industry you get when you look into a typical classroom. There was no timetable or designed programme of sequential learning activities within a planned curriculum. We went for walks. The two children, aged eleven and thirteen, certainly read a lot and spent some time working on their own projects. There were various outside activities, including band practice. One of them was doing a project on infant development and was helping a neighbour with her newborn baby. There were friends around after school and there was a schools musical Eisteddfod which one of them took part in. These children certainly were learning, though obviously not through the kind of organized individualized teaching I had expected to see. What struck me most of all during the week was the constant opportunity for informal learning, especially through social, often incidental conversation. Whether they were out walking, sitting around the kitchen table, engaged in some other activity such as drawing, making something, working on a project, eating, out in the car, or even reading, there was an incredible amount of spontaneous incidental talk. One day, for example, we were all sitting around the kitchen table engaged in our separate activities. Topics of conversation, as often as not unrelated to what we were doing, kept cropping up. Among other things, we discussed slavery, Nelson Mandela, saltwater crocodiles and levels of groundwater… and whether to go down to the shop for some doughnuts. The children probably saw this as no more than social chat. But I wondered how far this kind of incidental learning might contribute to their overall education. With or without it, they were certainly making progress. Both went on to study part time at adult and further education classes and successfully take public examinations.

In order to study the processes involved in learning at home, I carried out an exploratory study, based on interviews and a limited number of observations of 100 families in Australia and the UK. The approaches to home education adopted by these families varied enormously, from more like school than school (one parent had a school bell!) to completely informal with no apparent structure whatsoever. What follows is a brief summary of this research as it relates to informal learning.

Although a number of parents rely on informal learning from the beginning, influenced by writers such as John Dewey, John Holt or Libertarian philosophy, the large majority of parents, certainly when they start out, use school-type methods, as did this one:

At the beginning we felt we needed to follow the school routine, and so did she. It seemed the only way. We used timetables.

However, most families who start out “doing school” at home find that what works in school does not transfer easily to the home. Of necessity, home educators find themselves pioneering new educational approaches, nearly always less formal ones. It is these parents, the ones who change, who provide the most convincing evidence for the potential of informal learning because they discover it for themselves and are not ideologically committed to it. Far from it:

At first I was very strict and regimented with a timetable in the morning. I got all the necessary books but I later realized I was stifling the children. I’ve loosened up now. We’ve learnt that home education is not school at home. I’ve had to throw out so many schoolish approaches…

It should be pointed out that both formal and informal learning at home have different meanings compared with school. Formal learning at home would probably be regarded as quite informal in school. By contrast, informal learning at home is specific to home because little if anything is prescribed. Children learn through living, from everyday experiences, an extension of the way they learned in infancy. This kind of learning simply does not feature in school. The thought of parents taking over the professional teachers role at home and using school methods is quite enough for most people to take on board. The very idea that children might acquire informally what the school painstakingly teaches formally in the primary and early secondary years is, on the face of it, preposterous.

Home education and homeschooling – adapting formal learning

Numerous factors influence parents to move away from trying to imitate school. In the first place, because formal lessons at home are one-to-one, they tend to be highly intensive. In consequence, a whole day’s teaching and learning is too much. Typically, the first change is to reduce the teaching day, typically to a couple of hours in the morning. The flexibility of learning at home also means that a timetable is unnecessary. Lessons can be as short or as long as necessary. If a child is not learning for some reason, because shes tired, can’t concentrate or is simply having an off day, the parent doesn’t have to persist. There can be nothing as unproductive as teaching someone who’s not learning anything. The lesson can be dropped and picked up later. Conversely, if a child becomes absorbed, the lesson or activity can go on for as long as the interest lasts, for hours, days or longer.

Another aspect of formal learning that soon goes is a heavy reliance on exercises and testing as evidence of learning. This is obviously necessary in school. Otherwise a teacher wouldn’t be able to keep track of progress or give feedback. It’s unnecessary at home simply because learning is highly interactive. This means that parents know exactly where their children are at. It’s not a question of doing exercises to ascertain what has been learnt and what hasn’t. It’s getting over difficulties as and when they arise, as these parents noted in their different ways.

There are no ticks and crosses. I’m watching all the time. If there’s a mistake I tell them straight away. If you mark it later they don’t remember.

We’d got the idea you had to regurgitate stuff. But you don’t need worksheets to see if it’s gone in. Someone asked me if we tested them. It made me realize testing is farcical at home.

When you think about the differences between home and school settings, the adaptations I’ve described so far make sense. So far so good. But it can go much further than this. Having changed this much, parents seem to become aware that school methods are not sacrosanct but open to change. Take a fairly typical home educator who has reduced formal learning to a couple of hours in the morning. The children are relatively free during the rest of the day. But this does not mean they are not doing anything. They may read for pleasure, discuss all sorts of things with their parents, go out together, share in activities, help with household tasks, follow particular interests, use the computer and so on. At first glance much of it appears to be no more than a pleasant relaxation from “real” lessons. However, a number of parents begin to realize that opportunities for learning are embedded in such activities. This parent describes her experience when she started out with her seven-year-old daughter whom she had taken out of school:

After [the first] month or two we burned out. The pressure got beyond a joke… She was virtually impossible to teach in a formal environment. So we just went out and did lots of things… At the end of six months I drew up a chart in readiness for the next inspectors visit. I was flabbergasted at the amount of learning taking place, for example through discussion, experience of being out and about.

How do you capture informal learning?

It’s obviously not going to be easy to see progress on a daily or even monthly basis. As Cullen et al (1999) noted in relation to informal adult education: “getting at informal learning through research requires considerable effort and perseverance. By its very nature it’s elusive and not readily available for scrutiny and measurement”. Henze (1992) also comments on the “evanescent qualities of informal learning and teaching and the difficulty of capturing it in natural settings [so that] it is rarely documented or studied”. Parents whose approach was informal would certainly have gone along with this.

I started with very little structure, but a sort of mental sense of what they should be doing. I had this big thick book. I wrote down what we did every day, for quite a while. I felt I had to prove I was good at what I was doing and I needed a record to show anyone. I found it really hard to keep a diary. We’d start on one subject and then go through a heap of things and end up “somewhere”.

This would rightly be considered haphazard and sloppy in school, even unprofessional. Yet at home, somehow or other “this heap of things” as the above parent described them, eventually come together “like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle” as one parent put it.

In school, the curriculum determines the process of teaching and learning. It is structured logically in easily digestible steps in order to facilitate learning. Essentially, the job of the student is to follow a learning sequence that is predetermined. But when children learn informally, they seem to do the opposite and impose their own sequence on what they learn. Curriculum logic and child logic do not equate. Child logic is individual and determined by the complex and dynamic interplay between the child’s existing level of knowledge and incoming information, mediated by interest, motivation, curiosity or desire to take on a challenge. It’s as if each child has his or her own theory of learning. It is quite efficient because new knowledge and understanding are only assimilated when they extend existing knowledge. The converse equally contributes to the efficiency of informal learning when new material is unlikely to dovetail into and extend knowledge or understanding it is discarded. This utterly contradicts conventional school learning in which students are expected to persevere when they do not comprehend, often acquiring no more than a superficial level of understanding, what has been called surface learning. Informal learning therefore follows a kind of fuzzy and non-linear logic that is particular to each child. It has a parallel in the childs acquisition of language, learned in a similar fashion and equally individualistic. Perhaps informal learning is better suited to the innumerable connections and networks in the cerebral cortex. Whatever the case, it works, and without all the effort associated with formal learning as these two parents found.

[He] will be at a certain level and then leave it. He will then come back at a higher level without anything visible having happened.

They pick up a lot just being round. I sometimes wonder, where do they get that from?

This does not mean that parents do not have misgivings from time to time. There is none of the comfort of knowing that a formally accredited course of study is being pursued, as this mother ruefully acknowledged:

Last night I was feeling that home ed. is leading nowhere… I feel like we just seem to have a whole heap of false starts which we fail to follow up, a bag of bits and pieces which aren’t forming anything concrete.

Conversational learning

Bruner (1990) describes pedagogy as an “extension of conversation”. If there’s one aspect of informal learning in home education that stands out above all others, in common with infant and adult informal learning, it’s conversation. On the face of it much of this is social, everyday talk of the kind that normally goes unnoticed. But it’s surprising how much of this kind of talk contains opportunities for learning, especially as the conversation is between a child and an adult whose knowledge of the world and how to find out things is obviously much greater.

Informal, mainly social conversation obviously doesn’t follow any linear or logical sequence. What leads from one topic to another is difficult to fathom, but that’s how most natural conversation goes. The point is that it is natural. Just as in any social conversation, if a topic comes up about which one person knows more than the other, its likely that one will learn from the other. Its a natural part of conversation for one person to explain something to someone else. This is not “teaching” in the usual sense. It’s simply facilitating the normal flow of talk, offering knowledge and responding to questions. Of course not everything is taken in. A great deal is forgotten. But that’s not important. What is important is that some things will be remembered, to be picked up at another time perhaps. Learning in this way is not equated with “work” as it is in school. It is learning without knowing it, by osmosis as it were, as these two parents noted:

Most of their education is talking to them. That’s how I do most of it… Their questions are often at great depth.

After morning tea they are banging their gums all the time. It helps them develop ideas.

A chronicle of informal learning in home education

One parent who took part in my research was quite exceptional in that she tried to keep a detailed journal of her daughters “bits and pieces” of learning over a 5-year period from age 7 to 12. I carried out a detailed analysis of the maths “bits” which take up much less than 5% of the journal. Most of them are part and parcel of everyday activities, e.g., cooking, finding out how long to wait for a TV programme, reading bus numbers, road distances, saving money, shopping, playing board games. The only formal teaching her mother attempted was the multiplication tables, with very little success. Yet her daughter learnt the 20x table before the 2x table because she was an enthusiastic collector of 20c pieces from trolleys abandoned in supermarket car parks, especially when it was raining. This was a popular source of income for the local children though being home educated and able to persuade her mother to go to the supermarket during school time when it rained, gave her the edge!

Even with her assiduous recording of the most minor maths “bits” such as saying bus numbers and filling “half a cup of flour” so elusive is informal learning that she completely failed to record her daughters progress in learning to tell the time. There is only one brief reference to it. Yet her daughter learnt to tell the time somehow or other, through the course of everyday activities.

As she got older, maths became more sophisticated, but still arising out of daily life activities, e.g. calculating percentage reductions in sales, making value for money comparisons in supermarkets, running a charity stall, measurement in craftwork, household projects, cooking, and so on. At the age of 12 she had her maths level independently assessed as above average.

Many home educated children who learn informally will embark on formal learning or start or return to school on reaching secondary age or when public examinations loom. But not all. Here’s an example of a child who was educated almost entirely informally until she went to the last year of school, prior to going to university. This is how her mother looked back when her daughter was 17 years old, at school:

It was very informal with [her] – there was very little structure. When I think back, things did happen, but I didn’t think of planning them… Then we panicked in Grade 10. People tell you about what you need to do to get jobs. I got worried, but we didnt do much more. We’d work really hard for a few days, then it would be informal again. We couldnt keep up the formal work. We still can’t… I’d been told I should keep records – including what she does. But I’ve not kept records; it was the doing that mattered.

[Her daughter added] At school there is pressure to know everything thats taught; you learn it by writing it down. With home ed. you know a lot without learning it.


From birth, children are motivated to learn about the culture around them, including those aspects of the culture that require cognitive understanding. Parents mediate most of this learning in the early years. There is no reason why an extension of this style of learningshould not continue long after the age at which children start school. After all, the core of primary and early secondary education is no more than common everyday knowledge that is easily accessible, for most children at least.

There can be few professional educators or anyone else for that matter, who would expect much learning would accrue from the experiences that everyday living have to offer. There is no doubt, however, that it is possible for school-age children who learn informally to acquire the academic knowledge and skills they would otherwise have to learn painstakingly in school, certainly up to and including the early years of secondary school, as this parent reflected:

School seems unnatural. With a huge effort and cost and sometimes pain, you try to get something into the children which would happen anyway.

Alan Thomas is the senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the Northern Territory and author of Educating Children at Home.  He is now a Visiting Fellow with the Institute of Learning at the London University. This is an edited version reproduced from the encyclopaedia of informal education. References available on request or at:

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