Informal learning…Or, the path to ‘finding things out’

I_improve's informal educator shares her thoughts on informal learning, and what I_Improve is all about. She also lists reading material for those who'd like to explore the subject more.

By Avril Meehan, informal educator 

With creativity, curiosity and democracy at its heart, the I_Improve project is an experiment in informal learning as a motor for organisational, and individual, change. By isolating and sharing the experiences of cultural sector professionals, I_Improve seeks to demonstrate how organisations, and the individuals that constitute them, can more consciously learn from everyday working life. 

These are lofty goals, and as the informal educator working behind the scenes in I_Improve, it’s safe to say that I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on what exactly informal learning is, why it has value worth sharing, and how I can could set up opportunities for informal learning over the course of the project.

To begin with, one of my favourite definitions of informal learning is:


“Informal learning is the unscripted & spontaneous process of learning things in your environment”


…however, we can definitely add on some trimmings to deeper explore what this educational approach involves. 

At its heart, informal learning is an attitude and an approach to everyday life which supports spontaneous, lightbulb moments — those ‘aha!’ moments of insight and clarity when, for example, you figure out how to do something that previously seemed impossible. Or simply the glorious realisation that you do remember the name of the song stuck in your head all morning.

So what is this attitude and approach that can set us up to experience such Eureka! moments everyday?

Informal learning involves the creative re-imagining and enlargement of our everyday experience in order to see what has become routine and mundane with new eyes. It means cultivating a renewed sense of curiosity towards the day to day and diving into the possibility of ‘not-knowing’. 

Informal learning is understood as unplanned, and happens incidentally to other tasks and experiences. Your inner rebel will be happy to hear that informal learning doesn’t involve yet another training course or webinar. It can happen anywhere, at anytime: walking, for example, can be a transformative learning experience when approached with eyes ready for exploration. 

Yes, we all have goals to reach and tasks to accomplish, however rather than ploughing straight ahead, informal learning invites us to stray from the path and wander in the surrounding fields. Who knows what we’ll uncover when we do. 

In a way, informal learning invites us to re-experience our childlike self, that period in which we were more frequently and consistently exposed to new situations for the very first time. Children between the ages of 3-6 are the masters of several key informal learning techniques — observation, dialogue, experimentation. Investigating whatever it is that sparks our interest, as a child would, no matter how ridiculous, is a great way to reignite wonder towards the world around us. 

Individual choice is integral to the informal learning experience, which liberates us from the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ of the formal education system. It draws on the philosophy that people are fundamentally growth oriented and, in an ideal environment, will naturally want to pursue opportunities to develop. This means unhitching learning from externally determined goals and syllabi and figuring out the directions in which we want to grow.

We all have our own individual knowledge and skill gaps, related to our interests, experience, employment and the task at hand. Whether to fulfil an inner desire or to meet the expectations of the outer world, choosing what and how we learn creates a sense of ownership, establishes personal relevance, and allows us to set an appropriate level of challenge. All of which are powerful motivators and set us up for a joyful learning experience. As Dan Pink notes in Drive, his influential book on workplace motivation:


“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement” (2009, p. 108).


For those who want to learn more about informal education, check out:




Hoyle, Robin (2015) Informal Learning in Organizations: How to Create a Continuous Learning Culture. Kogan Page. 

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (eds.) (1990) Using Informal Education. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Available online, see especially Chapter 1.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (2005) Informal Education: conversation, democracy and learning 3e. Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

Scottish Executive (2003) Working and learning together to build stronger communities. Working draft Community Learning and Development Guidance, Edinburgh: Scottish Executive. Available online. 


"The European Commission's support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein."