Why the term ‘informal learning’ is unhelpful

A leading academic tells L&D Professional why we need to rethink informal learning and where the 70:20:10 model is at today

The term ‘informal learning’ is unhelpful for a number of reasons, according to Stephen Billett, Professor of Adult and Vocational Education in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University.

Firstly, the word ‘informal’ itself implies that the learning is of a lesser kind, when in fact it’s proven to be effective at enabling people to learn richly.

Additionally, when employees engage in those on-the-job activities they are not actually informal, Billett told HRM.

“They are actually shaped by the kind of experience we have, the kind of resources we have got to work with, and our knowledge, etc,” Billett said.

“When I look at workplaces, what I find is that rather than the workplace experience being informal, they are highly formalised.”

Billett added that in so-called informal learning there are also restrictions and processes on who can do what and for what reason.

“They are all formalised structures which instigate opportunities for learning,” he said.

“So removing terms like informal learning I think is the best way forward.”

For Billett, a big challenge of learning in the workplace is how ‘hard-to-learn’ forms of knowledge can be developed at work.

“A lot of it requires close interaction with people who have that expertise,” he said.

Billett added that the knowledge that workers often need and which is the most difficult to learn is ‘symbolic knowledge,’ which is the kind of knowledge that underpins professional work.

“Firstly, it’s difficult to access and understand. You often have to use graphic forms to help people understand it, but you also frequently have to learn it in an educational setting,” Billett told HRM.

Additionally, employees need to be able to extend that and practice it so that it can have application, added Billett.

“That’s where specific interventions need to happen to help people understand that knowledge which they won’t learn by just participating in the 70%,” he said.

In terms of that 20% (the interaction part of the 70:20:10 model), Billet said that is essential because if humans were simply able to discern knowledge without engaging with others there would be no need for communication in the workplace.

 “The reason you have to talk and you have to write is that we need to communicate ideas to one another,” he said.

“Interaction is terribly important and that’s always going to be an important element for learning.”

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