Formal and Informal Learning


It may come as a surprise to you, but formal learning isn’t the way most people learn today. It never has, which is why it is so strange that so much of our evaluation of others depend on their formal learning background.

Wait! Hang on, what is formal learning? Why is it not good, and, far more importantly, what is the alternative?

Formal Learning

It stands to reason that the opposite of formal learning would be informal learning. Now, if we ask Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, about informal learning, they certainly have an explanation on

How does this help us understand what formal learning is? Well, check the URL. If you change the Informal part of the URL to Formal, you would get, right? Well, try that link and see what happens.

That’s right, we’re now talking about education. Formal learning, easily defined, is the training you get while attending traditional schools, universities, classes, workshops, and so on.

Traditionally, these forms of studies have a fixed curriculum and you are lead through that curriculum by someone. It doesn’t matter whether you want to learn everything there or just a portion of the content, you still need to go through all the content.

This may be a good thing in some situations, after all, if you ask a child of six what they want to learn, I highly doubt it will be art history, grammar, or integral math. They probably really want to go to school and learn, but we still need to give them direction and tell them what they need to learn to be productive and responsible members of society. Can’t have that without calculus, after all.

Even if you do detect my slight sarcasm there, especially considering I’ve never passed any math class myself, the argument about needing to formalize the paths of students at the very best applies only to small children. It definitely does not apply to older children and least of all to grown and mature adults.

As adults, we need to learn math only if we are hindered by our lack of math skills. And if we do need to improve our math skills, we likely would want to improve our math skills in something that has a real life impact, such as understanding how to calculate a mortgage or figuring out how sales tax works.

However, I’m still not sure that formal learning really has a place at all. Coming from a dean at a university seeking accreditation for a formal education in SharePoint, that may surprise you.

What’s the Alternative?

When you learn, you mostly learn from non-formal studies. There’s no formal education in walking, blowing your nose, moving your head around, or scratching your elbow. Still, by the age of five, you know how to do all those things, and you don’t have a day of formal training on your resume.

Even when you start school, there are no formal classes in making friends, finding your way home from school, getting a girlfriend or boyfriend, or behaving around other people. Still, by the end of your high school years, you likely master these aspects of your life, and more. You’ll have learned how to sneak out without your parents noticing, you’ll have learned to get dressed and brush your teeth, you will have learned so many things that formal training wouldn’t dream of teaching.

So, what about after high school, or even college? Is there a formal education in hanging around the water cooler or coffee machine at work? What class did you take at college to learn where your cubicle is, or what your daily routine would be at work? What teacher taught you how early you’d have to arrive in the morning to get the parking spot you wanted?

Trivial tasks you say? Maybe, but trival doesn’t mean unimportant. You may get a job without the right education, but you won’t get a job if you can’t dress in the morning.

But let’s assume you are right. Let’s say that all the things I’ve mentioned so far are solely trivial and meaningless tasks that everyone takes for granted. If so, what additional formal education does one employee with 20 years of experience have that makes them so much better than a PFY fresh out of college? No formal education you say? Well, the more experienced employee has 20 years of informal training, training that they have received on their job, from their co-workers, or from mentors who they have looked up to during their careers.

Why are your parents always wiser than you are? Do they have more education? Well, they may, but even if you vastly outrank your parents in education, they are most of the time the wiser, not because of their formal training as parents, but because of their informal training that they have received during their additional years of social interactions.

On the job, what class did you take to understand how your current client’s needs match what you have done before on other projects? You’d chalk that down to experience and there are no university classes teaching you experience. Still, it’s what comprises most of our adult learning.

Education or Experience

If you ask any 22-year old CS major about how easy it is to get a job, they’ll likely say that they’re struggling with getting interviews because of their lack of experience. Recruiters want a good education but employers want to know how you handle real life situations. That’s rather hard, considering you’re not going to get that experience until, well, you have the experience. It’s a chicken and egg problem if there ever was one.

So, how about doing it the other way around? How about skipping the formal education completely and focus solely on gaining experience through work? If you’re going to land a job, especially in the economy of the recent financial turbulence, you need to offer employers something that makes you valuable. Considering you’re likely going to be less productive and make more mistakes than someone who has decades of experience, your value delivered will be lower. That means you’ll likely need to accept a lower salary.

But wait a moment, is that really so bad? Your salary as a student is practically nothing, so anything you get above that will be pure profit, even minimum wage. At the same time you are gaining experience that increase the value of your ‘product’, so it’s not like you’re sitting down for four years when all your friends are being good and attending university.

Add to this the fact that your education will cover tons of material that an employer can’t turn into money and you’re actually wasting at least a portion of your time spent in classes, simply because your education is never targeted completely at the job you want. 

I’m certain that other employers will have different opinions on this, but I would much rather hire a 22 year old person who has done 8-10 projects over the past four years than someone who just spent the same four years on a chair in a class room, studying stuff I don’t really need. In fact, I’d much rather train someone on the job or send them to specific training if they have proven that they know how to work. I would even value someone who failed miserably in their first couple of years, simply because they are far more likely to learn from their mistakes than someone who has never seen anything but the perfect scenarios they often face in school.

My advice to those who struggle getting a job is thus this: get a job at any cost. Work cheap, heck, work free, if that’s what it takes. Prove to your employer that you can produce value, fall into the pits and prove you can get out, and prove that you know how to handle real life. You’ll pick up a lot more learning a lot more efficient than you would attending a university, learning informally rather than formally.


Sources read:

The Other 80%.

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