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Informal learning and why the training model does not work

April 4th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Back to the mini series of informal learning.
First the background to all this. Training is taken increasingly seriously, at least in Europe. Although, I am not sure the causal link has ever been proved, it is generally accepted by economist and politicians that there is a link between the competences of the workforce and productivity and innovation.  Although some researchers have pointed to the continuing existence and even increase in low skilled jobs, for instance within the food and hospitality sector, there is a general assumption that changing production processes and particularly the integration of new technologies within production and in the economy more widely are leading to higher skills and knowledge requirements for work. This, in turn has two political implications: one the danger fo skills shortages especially in high technology sectors and secondly the risk of social exclusion for those with low levels of education and training.

In Europe there have been a number of policy initiatives to address this issue:

  • Some countries, such as the UK have attempted to radically increase the percentage of young people going to university
  • In other countries, such as Germany, there has been an attempt to modernise traditional training programmes such as apprenticeships
  • At a policy level there has been an emphasis placed on lifelong learning, although how this has been implemented at a strategic level is less clear. This has included attempts to increase the volume of training – especially continuing professional development – and the provision of more flexible training
  • There has been encouragement for the expansion of elearning as a means of both extending training provision and providing easier access to training
  • There have been measures ot increase the supply of training, for instance through subsidies and special programmes for the unemployed
  • There have been measures to increase demand for training through incentives
  • There have been measures to increase participation in training both through ‘coercion’ for those unemployed and a more general move to move responsibility for ’employability’ in terms of updating of skills and knowledge to the individual

All these measures have obviously taken a considerable investment, with the cost being shared between employers, individuals and the state. As to how effective they have been in another matter. Some work we did earlier this year, for a tender which we failed to get, revealed there is little reliable data at a macro level. Even that data which does exist, for instance the statistics on training collated by Eurostat should be regarded as highly dubious. Although Eurostat routinely collates statistics for training from different European countries, the definitions of training vary in the different countries. Hence the UK appears highly proactive and engaged and Germany to be a low training provider, despite all common sense evidence to the contrary.

At a micro economic level, we rely on Return on Investment Analyses, about which I am frankly dubious.

But my major point to make here is that we have invested in a particular model of education and learning, with little measure of its effectiveness. Of course we do have evaluation studies and learner assessment.

Evaluation can be formative or summative (or both although I think this is more problematic). Even where sohisticated it does not provide us with any measure of what could have been achieved if learning was undertaken in another way (apart from in rare comparative studies).

Assessment is increasable based on outcomes – on measuring what learners know or able to do at a particular point in a course or at the end of a course. And in setting course objectives or outcomes we are stipulating what we say people should be able to achieve. Now this is all very well as a course planning tool, but is it an effective tool for motivating and stimulating learning at an individual or organisational level?

Essentially present models of training needs analysis, based on a ‘standardised industrial paradigm’ and a schooling model seek to measure a deficit between what skills and knowledge industry needs and what skills and knowledge learners possess. We have various tools for doing this – most based on bringing experts together to work out the partner needs for identified occupational profiles. Once we have identified teh profiles we can design courses to match those profiles.

This process has a number of flaws – flaws which are becoming ever more apparent in a period of rapid technological change.

  • Occupational profiles tend to be based on present occupations – not future occupations
  • Training outcomes tend to be based on that which it is easy to assess (and thus ignore affective learning)
  • Training programmes tend to be based on what is easy to teach in a traditional way
  • We tend to ignore the previous experiences of learners
  • We tend to ignore the particular opportunities for learning which can be present in different contexts
  • Occupational profiles are inevitably generalised, missing the specific needs of particular workplaces
  • Processes are based on standardisation rather than standards
  • We fail to account for the ability of people to shape or change work processes through learning

But mots importantly the present training course driven, schooling paradigm, fails to recognise the intrinsic curiosity, creativity of human beings to learn from the environment around them. such learning does take place through informal learning. But it is largely discounted by our present systems.

Jay Cross says that be it formal, informal or in between, people learn best when they:

  • Know what’s in it for them and deem it relevant
  • Understand what is expected of them
  • Connect with other people
  • Are challenged to take choices
  • Feel safe about showing what they do not know
  • Receive information in small packets
  • Get frequent progress reports
  • Learn things close to the time they need them
  • Are encouraged by coaches or mentors
  • Learn from a variety of modalities (for example, discussion followed by a simulation)
  • Confront maybes instead of certainties
  • Teach others
  • Get positive reinforcement for small victories
  • Make and correct mistakes
  • Try, try and try again
  • Reflect on their learning and apply its lessons

The present training system provides little opportunity for learning  from mistakes. All to frequently learners are not challenged to take choices. Outcomes tend to prescribe a ‘correct way of doing things. Learners often have limited opportunities to practice what they learn. And although there is some evidence of a move towards coaching and mentoring, far too often approaches to training are overly didactic.

A study I undertook a few years ago on the use of Information and Communication Technology for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises found little evidence of formal e-learning (or indeed of any formal learning programmes. But in the 106 case studies we undertook in six different European countries we found teh widespread use of business and social software for informal learning though everyday work activities. Such activities ranged from emailing a friend of colleague to participating in on-line communities. such activities we found, were:

a)    Purposeful
b)    Heavily influenced by context
c)    Often resulted in changes in behaviour
d)    Were sequenced in terms of developing a personal knowledge base
e)    Problem driven or driven by personal interest
f)    Social – in that they often involved recourse to shared community knowledge bases through the internet and / or shared with others in the workplaces.

In the enterprises we studied the greatest incidence of ICT based learning tended to take place in enterprises:
Where employees had greatest freedom in the organisation of their work

  • Where employees had the greatest opportunities for proposing and implementing changes in the way work was organised
  • Where the nature and technologies being used were changing fastest
  • Where ICT was most involved in the work process
  • Where employees had most responsibility for the outcomes of their work
  • Where team work was most important
  • Where employees were integrated in communities of practice
  • Where employees had opportunities to develop their own occupational profiles
  • With networks with other enterprises
  • Where ICT was used for Business to Business (B2B) processes
  • Which were involved in e-commerce

All this suggests to me there is an alternative to our present policies focused on formal training. It is possible to develop strategies for encouraging and facilitating informal learning in the workplace and in the wider community. In other words we can move beyond an era in which education and training has been overly associated with and prescribed by a schooling system This would of course, require a redirection of resources. Moreover it would require a new focus on learning opportunities, rather than deficit training needs analyses. And of course, it would require re-examining how we support teaching and learning, at realigning pedagogical models. Yet I also think the pieces of the jigsaw are there. They merely need to be put together.

In the next in this series I will re-examine the work we undertook though the European TTplus project on professional development for trainers and look at how the Framework we developed in that project could be more generalised to support wider approaches to learning.


Attwell  G.(ed) 2007, Searching, Lurking and the Zone of Proximal Development, e-learning in Small and Medium enterprises in Europe, Vienna, Navreme

Croos J (2006)  Informal Learning: rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance, Jossey Bass

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  1. […] Attwell heeft als titel “Informal learning and why the training model does not work”. Lees maar eens: Essentially present models of training needs analysis, based on a ’standardised […]

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