Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto

Findings of the First Canadian Survey of Informal Learning Practices*

Article Content


 Everybody that pursues learning, whether formal or informal, must be recognized.... A housewife doesn't get recognized for her work. Any kind of learning in any field has value to other specific fields. Life experience should be given credit.
 Middle-aged, visible minority, disabled, female British Columbian respondent to NALL survey, 1998

This paper summarizes the first large-scale, country-wide survey of the informal learning activities of Canadian adults (N=1562) which was conducted in 1998. After defining informal learning and briefly reviewing prior studies, the major findings on Canadian adults' schooling and current participation in both further education courses and informal learning activities related to employment, housework, community work and general interests are presented. According to their self-reports, Canadians are now averaging about 15 hours a week in informal learning activities--regardless of prior schooling or current further education involvement. Comparisons with earlier studies suggest a recent increase in the incidence of informal learning and confirm that people in virtually all walks of life exhibit similar patterns of incidence of informal learning. It also appears that the relative importance of informal learning vis-a vis course-based education is greater for older people and for lower occupational classes. Potential implications of the massive scale of adults' self-reported informal learning for social and educational policy are briefly noted, especially a greater general appreciation of the extent and importance of informal learning activities.

*The survey was conducted as part of the SSHRC-funded research network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL). A prior version of this paper was presented at a joint session of the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education and the Canadian Society for the Study of Education, Sherbrooke, Quebec, June 12, 1999. I would like to thank the members of NALL for assistance with questionnaire design, the Institute for Social Research at York University for administering the survey and David Northrup of ISR for extensive advice in its development, Doug Hart for conducting the computer-based analyses, and Cheryl Williams and Jill Given-King for text formatting. I am also grateful for the comments of three anonymous CJSAE reviewers. Further information about NALL, this national survey and various related case studies may be found at the NALL web site: www.oise.utoronto.ca/depts/sese/csew/nall

Paper to appear in the special milennium issue of The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 2000.

  Content         Introduction
     The new ["lifelong learning for all"] approach is a true "cradle to grave" view. It encompasses all purposeful learning activity undertaken with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence. It gives weight to building foundations for lifelong learning as well as to remedial second chances for adults. And it recognizes that not only the settings of formal education but also the less formal settings of the home, the workplace, the community and  society at large contribute to learning....No learning setting is an island.OECD, 1998, pp. 8-9

    There is a great deal of talk these days about living in "the information age", "the knowledge society" or "the learning society". This paper provides empirical estimates of the extent and distribution of actual self-reported learning activities in the current Canadian adult population, based on a recent country-wide survey, and briefly addresses some implications of these adult learning patterns. The basic finding from the survey is that most Canadian adults are spending a great deal and increasing amount of time in learning activities, most of this in informal learning on their own. The major implications are that Canada is already and increasingly a knowledge society in any reasonable sense of the term and that Canadian adults mostly informal learning practices should more explicitly be taken into account in shaping educational, economic and other social policies; adult educators should take this detectable informal learning into greater account to develop more responsive further education opportunities. If the crews of our big education and training ships do not increasingly look out for the massive, detectable icebergs in the sea of informal learning, many of their programs may sink into Titanic irrelevancy.
    Before the survey findings are presented, informal learning should be distinguished from other basic sites of adult learning and the difficulties involved in studying informal learning should be identified. 

Sites of Adult Learning 
    We can start with working definitions for three basic sites of adult learning (see Coombs, 1985; Selman and Dampier, 1991): formal schooling, further education and informal learning
  Formal schooling: (1) is an age-graded, hierarchically organized, formally constituted system; (2) requires compulsory attendance until at least mid-adolescence; and (3) provides the major credentialing programs to certify our knowledge competencies to start out our adult lives and extending increasingly into the adult life course. 
  Further education refers to all other organized educational activities, including further courses, training programs, and workshops offered by any social institution. Typically, these have been individual courses offered to adults on a part-time, short-term basis, and which could be voluntarily chosen. 
    So, in the sphere of organized education, we have the formal school system, which people have tended to stay in longer and longer and to go through in lock-step until they leave. And we have adult further education courses, which they have pursued on a more occasional basis throughout the rest of their lives. Both of these forms of organized education are quite easily recognized and have been extensively documented and analyzed. However, the increasing incidence of transitions back and forth between schooling on the one hand and paid work on the other, as well as part-time education and part-time employment combinations are blurring the distinction between schooling and further education (see Thomas, 1993). In any case, participation in both types of organized education has been and continues to be intimately related. Those who have more schooling continue to get more adult education. Together, these two types of learning constitute an educational pyramid in all advanced industrial societies (see Livingstone, 1999, pp. 12-33). It is this expanding educational pyramid that academics and policy makers now usually refer to when they discuss "lifelong learning", the "knowledge society" and the like. 
    Beneath this educational pyramid, and usually ignored, unrecognized or taken for granted as simply day-to-day getting by, there are various other learning activities that constitute a huge sea of informal learning. Informal learning is any activity involving the pursuit of understanding, knowledge or skill which occurs outside the curricula of institutions providing educational programs, courses or workshops. Informal learning may occur in any context outside institutional curricula. The basic terms of informal learning (e.g. objectives, content, means and processes of acquisition, duration, evaluation of outcomes, applications) are determined by the individuals and groups that choose to engage in it. Informal learning is undertaken on our own, either individually or collectively, without either externally imposed criteria or the presence of an institutionally-authorized instructor. 
    Explicit informal learning is distinguished from everyday perceptions, general socialization and more tacit informal learning by peoples' own conscious identification of the activity as significant learning. The important criteria that distinguish explicit informal learning are the retrospective recognition of both a new significant form of knowledge, understanding or skill acquired on your own initiative and also recognition of the process of acquisition. This is the guideline for distinguishing between explicit informal learning and all of the other tacit forms of learning and other everyday activities that we go through. For example, there are the basic forms of socialization that we experience as young people, when our elders may engage with us in many forms of anticipatory socialization that we do not recognize as such because they are so incorporated in other activities, such as ceremonial occasions or the various more ad hoc day-to-day interrelationships between elders and youths through which youths are inducted into the cultural life of their society. In basic socialization, learning and acting constitute a seamless web in which it is impossible for most of us to distinguish informal learning activities in any discrete way. That is where the difficult boundary is on the informal side of the continuum of learning. Did I actually learn this in some discrete way or was it something that emerged in a much more diffuse experiential way that became part of my consciousness? Can I retrospectively identify deliberate and sustained efforts to gain a new form of understanding, knowledge or skill, and attribute these efforts a recognizable amount of time? It is important to stress here that self-reported estimates of informal learning very substantially underestimate the total amount of informal learning that people do because of the embedded and taken-for-granted character of this tacit learning. As Michael Eraut (1999, pp. 36, 40) concludes after an extensive review of research on workplace learning: 
    "Thick" tacit versions of personal knowledge co-exist with "thin" explicit versions: the thick version is used in practice, the thin version for describing and justifying that practice.... [T]he limitations to making tacit knowledge explicit are formidable, and much of the discussion about it in the literature is ill-informed if not naive. 
    The actual number of hours that we allocate informally to gain explicit knowledge, skill or understanding may vary in terms of our circumstances, the amount of concentration we can place on it, our actual learning capacities, and a number of other factors. To impose an abstract cut-off point in terms of hours spent would be entirely arbitrary. To study informal learning empirically, we have to strike a resolve to focus on those things that people can identify for themselves as actual learning projects or deliberate learning activities beyond educational institutions. 

Researching Informal Learning: 
Origins and Challenges 
    The research on informal learning in the post-WWII era depends heavily on the work of Malcolm Knowles (1970), who developed the concept of andragogy. Knowles basically argued that every individual is involved in continual learning activities and that these activities or projects, which are beyond the realm of institutional control are integral to the constituting of society. This perspective inspired the empirical research on "self-directed learning projects" initiated by Allen Tough (1971, 1978, 1979). This research began in the late 1960s and carried on fairly intensively through the 1970s with a number of studies. Much of the early research was done in the Toronto area, starting with graduate students at OISE who did case studies with various small groups. 
    Large numbers of case studies have now been done to document the actual self-directed learning activities in which people generally engage (see Adams et al, 1999). Several U.S. surveys of informal learning were conducted, including a 1976 national survey (Penland, 1976; see Livingstone, 1999, pp. 33-51). At least one national Canadian survey has addressed the content of adults' self-directed learning about social issues (Thomas et al., 1982). The cumulative findings in Canada and internationally in the 1970s were that in the vast majority of social groups-- whether distinguished by gender, age, class, race, ableism or nationality-- the basic amount of time that people were spending on major learning projects showed very similar distributions. The average number of hours devoted to informal learning of this delineated, recognized sort was around 10 hours a week or 500 hours a year (Tough 1978).
    This corpus of work was subjected to at least three major criticisms: individualistic bias, dominant class bias, and leading question bias (see Brookfield, 1981). The individualistic bias is the implicit assumption that you learn most of what you learn individually rather than in collective or relational context. Early empirical research focussed on individual respondents and documenting their "self-directed" learning projects. But the collective aspects of our informal learning, the social engagement with others, is an integral part of any actual knowledge acquisition process, as leading general theories of learning now clearly acknowledge (see Engstrom, Miettinen and Punamaki, 1999). Collectively-conducted learning processes continue to constitute the least well documented part of adults' informal learning. But the individualistic bias can be partially overcome by research methods that either engage with people in the social contexts of their lives (such as participant observation), or by questioning them collectively (as in discussion groups of various kinds). Even the individual interview methods required for a large-scale survey can more explicitly address the social relational aspects of respondents' learning activities, as the present survey has done. 
    The dominant class bias charge emerged because the vast majority of the early research was conduced with white, middle-aged, professional-managerial people and younger university students. Sufficient research has now been done with cross-sections of less affluent classes, visible minority groups and seniors to support the conclusions that Tough (1978) made about self-directed learning being fairly common in its incidence across most social groups (see Adams et al., 1999). The dominant group bias surely can be more fully addressed with greater sensitivity and respect for other standpoints by further in-depth studies that document the informal learning of working class and underclass people, women and people of various sexual orientations, visible minorities, disabled people, and older and younger generations. The present survey has been pilot tested extensively with representatives of subordinate social groups to try to ensure its general accessibility. 
    In the enthusiasm of the early empirical research in the self-directed learning tradition, there was often a tendency toward leading questions, in the sense of "of course you do informal learning, don't you" and "what is it?", as opposed to asking people whether or not they do it, and taking what they tell you as valid. The basic procedure was for the interviewer to react skeptically to responses that denied any significant informal learning, and then proceed to a series of probes to ferret out actual informal learning projects (Tough, 1979). The genuine difficulty here is that researchers do have to engage in a probing process precisely because most people do not recognize much of the informal learning they do until they have a chance to reflect on it. Later research studies have been less leading, including a growing tradition of situated learning case studies that have confirmed the extensiveness of informal learning activities through direct observation (e.g. Lave and Wenger, 1991). The present survey gives respondents numerous thematic cues based on prior empirical studies but accepts all responses as given without further probing. 
    If we recognize the general importance of informal learning for the reproduction and development of social life, and if we agree that it is feasible to get past the early critiques to engage in empirical research that may validly identify people's explicit informal learning, there are still other major challenges. These include recognizing incidentally-initiated learning, irregularly timed learning, and the distinction between learning processes and learning outcomes. The predominance of planned learning may be clear enough when we are talking about schooling decisions. But you can do informal learning any time, any where, with anyone. It can be planned in a very deliberate a priori way or it can be situationally stimulated with no prior intent. Many informal learning activities that result in the accomplishment of new knowledge, understanding or skill begin in an ad hoc, incidental manner and are are only consciously recognized after the fact (see Eraut, 1999). Retrospective views of the amount of time spent in incidentally-initiated informal learning processes are likely to remain very approximate underestimates. 
    Informal learning never ends. But much of it occurs in irregular time and space patterns. You can learn life-course shaping or influencing knowledge at any place and within a very short period of time, in a moment of "perspective transformation" (Mezirow, 1991) or an "organizing circumstance" (Spear, 1988). Much of the most important learning that we do occurs in these moments of transition, whether it happens to be a birth, a death, a marriage, divorce, a transition between careers or locations, or some other major influential event that provokes us into a concentrated period of informal learning. Survey respondents' estimates of the amount of time they devote to informal learning activities are helpful to compare the perceived amounts of time available for such activities in different social groups. But such estimates of learning patterns should not obscure the fact that the most significant informal learning continues to occur in these irregular, intense moments of our lives (see Merriam and Clark, 1995). 
    It is also important to observe that the amount of time that people spend in learning processes is not necessarily positively correlated with successful learning outcomes. A less capable learner may have to spend considerably more time to achieve a successful outcome. Much of the research to date on informal learning focuses on documenting the processes that people are involved in, the amount of time that they engage in these processes and their particular substantive areas of learning. Very little of this research addresses the question of the actual competencies that people have gained from their informal learning activities. This is at least partially because many of the criteria of successful informal learning are themselves informally determined. No external authority can pose an inclusive set of criteria about either the curriculum that should be learned or satisfactory levels of achievement, let alone ensure intersubjectively meaningful comparisons between informal learning outcomes. So, the initial recourse here again is to self-recognition: what have learners accomplished through informal learning activities that they perceive as significant? 
    So these are some of the key limitations of studying informal learning that we need to face and find more effective ways to study and give back to the people with whom we are doing this research. We are under no illusion that a survey questionnaire will be capable of uncovering the deeper levels of either individual or collective knowledge gained in informal learning practices. (A more indepth follow-up survey is now in preparation). But we do aim to generate useful profiles of the basic patterns of the incidence of explicit informal learning and examine their association with organized forms of education more fully than most prior studies, and thereby contribute to more nuanced appreciation of the multiple dimensions and relationships of the learning continuum. Such measures can at least provide benchmarks for understanding the extent and changing patterns of informal learning activities. 

Findings from the First Canadian Survey
of Informal Learning Practices 
    The National Research Network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL) at OISE/UT has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to identify the extent of adult learning, the existence of social barriers to learning and more effective means of linking learning with work. The NALL survey of adults' current learning is the first large-scale survey in this country and the most extensive one anywhere to attend to the full array of adults' learning activities, including not only schooling and continuing education courses but also informal learning that occurs outside organized education. In the first phase of this study, a representative telephone survey of 1562 Canadian adults was conducted for NALL between June 6 and November 8, 1998 by the Institute for Social Research at York University. This survey asked respondents to talk about informal learning from their own standpoints
    We reviewed and borrowed from virtually all prior studies of informal learning that have previously been conducted (see Adams et al, 1999). We did extensive pilot testing with dozens of individuals and groups. The final interview schedule addresses all three basic sites of learning but with a special focus on the diverse aspects of explicit informal learning; a variety of social background factors are also addressed. (Those interested in reviewing or responding to the full interview schedule can find it at the NALL website: www.oise.utoronto.ca/depts/sese/csew/nall).
    The NALL survey sample includes adults 18 and over, who speak English or French, reside in a private home (not old age/group homes/penal or educational institutions) with a telephone. All provinces and households and individuals within households were given an equal chance of selection using random digit dialling. The average telephone interview time was 32 minutes. Efforts to maximize response rate included extensive call-backs at different times of day when necessary: 24% of the interviews were complete on first call; 54% completed within 2 further call-backs; 76% completed within 6 total calls; 97% in 14 or less calls; the final 3% took between 14 and 28 calls. The response rate was 60% of the eligible households, 64% if we exclude the households whose eligibility was not determined. The data presented here are weighted by known population characteristics of age, sex and educational attainment to ensure profiles that are representative for Canada as a whole. A summary of the basic findings follows, with reference to prior studies where relevant for comparative purposes.

Formal Educational Attainment

    Participation in all forms of schooling has increased dramatically in Canada over the past two generations. High school completion has continued to increase to the point that only 15% of current youth cohorts are not obtaining a high school diploma either through continuous enrolment or after "stopping out". Post-secondary enrolments have grown rapidly, particularly since the creation of community colleges in the 1960s. Total enrolment in colleges and universities expressed in relation to the 20-24 age cohort has increased from 7% in 1950 to 35% in 1970, 96% in 1990 and has continued to fluctuate upward.(1) These participation rates are now among the highest in the world (UNESCO, 1997). The aggregate educational attainment of the active labour force has increased accordingly. For example, the proportion of the Ontario labour force without a high school diploma dropped from nearly half in the late 1970s to about a quarter in the mid 1990s (see Livingstone, 1999, Tables 1.2 and 1.4). However, in terms of the "cradle to grave" perspective, it also should be noted that Canada still has one of the very lowest pre-school participation rates of three and four-year-olds among advanced industrial countries (OECD, 1998, p. 20). 
According to the 1996 Canada Census, only about 12 percent of the over 18 population had elementary schooling or less; 22 percent had some secondary schooling; 16 percent had completed secondary school; the other half of the population had some form of post-secondary experience, including over 18 percent with community college diplomas and 14 percent with university degrees (Statistics Canada, 1998). The 1998 NALL survey drew somewhat higher response rates from those with post-secondary certification (40 percent versus 33 percent in the 1996 census). As noted above, the NALL sample results have been weighted by census distributions to adjust for the underrepresentation of the less highly schooled, as well as for slight imbalances in specific age and sex groups. Such adjustments are made in virtually all sample surveys. However, the underrepresentation of the less schooled is notably less than in most surveys,(2) perhaps partly because the interview begins with informal learning activities with which virtually all respondents with little schooling have had some positive recent direct experience. In any case, all further findings reported here are for a sample that is representative of actual population educational attainments. 

Participation in Further Education

    The annual participation rate in adult further education courses in Canada circa 1960 was about 4% of the entire adult population. By the early 1990s, it was about 30% (see Livingstone, 1999, Table 1.6). So within a period of thirty years or so there was an increase in adult course participation rates of more than seven times. But this participation level remained lower than those in many European countries (see Belanger and Tuijnman, 1997). 
    The basic question in the 1998 NALL survey on further education participation is comparable to that of Statistics Canada's Adult Education and Training Survey: "In the last year have you taken any kind of formal organized courses, workshops or lessons no matter how long or short?" The basic finding is that participation in adult education and training courses and workshops continues to grow. Popular demand for greater future provision of further education courses is even stronger. As Table 1 summarizes: over 40 percent of all Canadian adults have taken some kind of course, workshop or training sessions in the past year; with regard to future plans and interest to enrol in further education, the general disposition to participate is even higher: over half are planning to take some sort of formally organized courses in the next few years over 60 percent say they would be more likely to enroll in an educational program if they could get formal acknowledgement for their past learning experiences and therefore have to take fewer courses to finish the program. There is widespread popular support for greater use of prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR).

Table 1 Canadian Adults' Participation in Further Education, 1998
  Taken Adult Ed course or workshop
past year
Plan to take course More likely to enrol if PLAR*
Schooling % % %
No diploma 18 28 53
High school diploma 52 46 71
Hommunity college 58 62 71
University degree 67 70 60
TOTAL 44 54 61
 Source: *Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition

The Transmission of "Really Useful
Knowledge"Through the Adult Life Course 

  As Table 1 further confirms, the historical tendency for those with higher levels of schooling to participate more highly in further education continues to be reproduced The further education gap is narrowing as greater proportions graduate from high school and continue to post-secondary schooling. The majority of adults with a high school diploma or more are now enrolling in some kind of further education course or workshop annually, but less than a quarter of those without diplomas are enrolling. Future planning for further education courses shows similar tendencies. But, as Table 1 also suggests, this gap would probably be much smaller if prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) were widely implemented. There is majority support in all nearly social groups for PLAR, but it would make a much greater difference for the least formally educated. Almost twice as many school dropouts as currently plan to take future courses say they would be more likely to enrol in further education courses if they could receive recognition for their prior informal learning. PLAR is therefore a very important potential means of more effectively valorizing the informal learning of the less highly schooled.
The claim that large and growing numbers of Canadian adults have insufficient learning skills to engage effectively in either continuing education or the contemporary knowledge society more generally finds little support among the general public. As Table 2 summarizes, over 80 percent of the adult population rate their own reading skills as either "excellent" or "good". Those with the lowest reading skill levels are definitely less likely to participate in further education courses, but only 3 percent rate their reading skills as "poor" and low ratings are least likely among younger people. Other recent studies using more objective measures of literacy skills have also found little support for the argument that Canadians have declining literacy skills. The 1994 national survey of literacy skills which included actual tests of reading abilities found that younger Canadians are much less likely to have "low literacy skills"(3) than older people, 44 percent of those over 55 years of age versus only 13 percent of those under 35 (Statistics Canada/OECD, 1995, p. 79). Only a small and diminishing minority of Canadian adults appear to have significant reading difficulties. Moreover, as Table 2 also shows, even the vast majority of the small minority of Canadians with low reading skills are at least adequately qualified for their jobs (compare Livingstone, 1999, pp. 42-51).
Table 2 Self-Rating of Reading Skills by Further Education Participation
               and Self-Rating of Job Qualification, Canadian Adults, 1998
Reading Skills  Further Education 
Course Last Year
At least adequately 
qualified for job
% %
58 97
36 95
23 92
10 67
44 95
     The NALL survey also found that even among the minority who did not plan to participate in further education courses, less than 10 percent mentioned poor prior school performance as a reason. So, only a tiny percentage of Canadian adults are not participating in further education courses because of perceived lack of learning capability. Over 20 percent feel they have no need for such courses. However, there are major material barriers to course participation for many of the over 40 percent do not plan to participate in the near future (e.g. McEwen, 1998):
  • nearly half say they have no time to participate;
  • about forty percent say that courses are at inconvenient times or places;
  • almost 40% cite family responsibilities;
  • about one-third indicate that courses are too expensive.
    In summary, nearly half of all Canadian adults are now actively engaged in taking further education and training courses or other forms of continuing education, a majority are planning to take further education courses in the near future, and even more would do so if their prior learning achievements were recognized. Most Canadian adults believe they have quite sufficient learning skills to engage in further education courses if they wanted to do so, but many of those who would like to participate in further education face serious institutional or personal constraints on doing so.

Informal Learning Activities

    The NALL survey confirms that most adults' detectable individual and collective learning is comparable to an iceberg--mostly invisible at the surface and immense in its mostly submerged informal aspects. The survey assesses participation in 4 aspects of informal learning: employment related; community volunteer work related; household work related; and other general interest related. In each aspect, respondents were asked about informal learning activities on several specific themes.
    These questions were developed to replicate as closely as possible the content of the Tough (1971) and Penland (1977) interview schedules, with appropriate revisions for changing circumstances (e.g. computer-based learning). The wording of the general introduction and immediately following employment-related question were as follows:
    Everybody does some informal learning outside of formal classes or organized programs. You may spend a little time or a lot of time at it. It includes anything you do to gain knowledge, skill or understanding from learning about your health or hobbies, household tasks or paid work, or anything else that interests you. Please begin to think about any informal learning you have done during the last year outside of formal or organized courses.
    First, let's talk about any informal learning activities outside of courses that have some connection with your current or possible future paid employment. This could be any learning you did on your own or in groups with co-workers, that is, any informal learning you consider to be related to your employment. [Respondents were then asked to consider the following list: new general knowledge in your occupation; new job task; computers; other new technologies or equipment; supervisory or management skills; team work, problem solving or communication skills; employee rights and benefits; occupational health and safety; literacy and numeracy skills; another language; any other employment-related informal learning activities.]
    In the following sections of the interview schedule, respondents were asked about informal learning related to community work (including fund-raising; organizational or managerial skills; social issues; communication skills; interpersonal skills; other technical skills; other skills or knowledge); to household work (including home maintenance; home cooking; cleaning; child or elder care; shopping for groceries, clothes, etc.; home renovation and gardening; home budgetting; other household tasks); and to other, general interests (including sports or recreation; practical skills; cultural traditions or customs; leisure or hobby skills; social skills and personal development; health and well being; finances; computers or computer skills; langauge skills; science and technology; intimate relationships; religion or spirituality; environmental issues; pet care; public and political issues; other informal learning not directly related to employment, community activities or housework).
The basic findings were as follows.

Employment-related Informal Learning

    Those in the current labour force or expecting to be soon (about 2/3 of the total sample) now average about 6 hours a week in informal learning related to their current or prospective future employment. The most common learning activities include:

  • about 3/4 engage in informal learning projects to keep up with new general knowledge in job/career;
  • almost 2/3 are involved in informal employment-related computer learning;
  • about 2/3 learning new job tasks;
  • about 2/3 learning problem solving/communication skills;
  • over half learning about occupational health and safety;
  • almost half learning other new technologies.
Community Volunteer Work-related Informal Learning

    Those who have been involved in community work over past year (over 40%) devote about 4 hours a week on average to community-related informal learning. The most common learning activities include:

  • about 2/3 interpersonal skills;
  • almost 60% communication skills;
  • over half learn about social issues;
  • over 40% learn about organizational/managerial skills.
Household Work-related Informal Learning

    Those involved in household work over the past year (about 80%) have averaged about 5 hours per week in informal learning related to their household work. The most common learning activities include:

  • over 60% are involved in learning about home renovations and gardening;
  • nearly 60% home cooking;
  • over half in home maintenance.
Other General Interest Informal Learning

    Most people engage in some other types of informal learning related to their general interests. Those who do so (around 90%) spend on average about 6 hours a week on these learning activities. The most common ones are:

  • 3/4 of respondents are involved in learning about health and well being;
  • about 60% are involved in learning about environmental issues;
  • about 60% are involved in learning about finances;
  • over half engage in informal learning activities around each of the following: hobby skills; social skills; public issues; computers; sports and recreation.
Total Involvement in Informal Learning

    Nearly all Canadian adults (over 95%) are involved in some form of explicit informal learning activities that they can identify as significant. The survey provides estimates of the amount of time that all Canadians-- including those who say they do no informal learning at all-- are spending in all four areas (employment, community, household, and general interest). The average number of hours devoted to informal learning activities by all Canadian adults over the past year was around 15 hours per week. This is vastly more time than Canadian adults are spending in organized education courses (an average of around 4 hours per week if we include the entire population.) The iceberg metaphor for detectable adult learning is not exact but close enough.
    As previously noted, prior Canadian case studies and U.S. surveys of self-directed learning activities in the 1970s found averages of 10 hours or less per week (see Livingstone, 1999, Table 1.7 p. 36). More recent Ontario surveys which contain comparable items have found that the incidence of informal learning activities increased from 12 to 15 hours between 1996 and late 1998 (Livingstone, Hart and Davie, 1999). Direct comparisons between case studies and surveys may be misleading because case studies have much greater opportunities to probe and allow respondents to reflect and recall more informal learning experiences. But recent case studies have also found the estimated incidence of informal learning activities to be greater than the 1970s case studies (Livingstone and Sawchuck, 1999). While measuring the iceberg of explicit informal learning remains an elusive task, the available evidence suggests that the amount of time adults are devoting to such informal learning appears to have increased in recent years.
    When asked which of these learning activities are most important to them in the respective areas, Canadians' most common responses now are: computer skills related to employment, communications skills through community volunteer work, home renovations and cooking skills in household work, and general interest learning about health issues.
    There is great variation in the total amount of informal learning that Canadian adults say they are now doing, as Table 3 illustrates. But clearly, the overwhelming majority of Canadian adults are now spending a significant and recognizable amount of time regularly in these pursuits.

Table 3 Distribution of Total Weekly Hours of
              Informal Learning, Canadian Adults, 1998
Hours/week %
0 4
1   - 5 21
6   - 10 25
11 - 20 25
21 + 25
N 1562
    Prior studies of informal learning have found more variation within most social groupings (such as age, sex, level of schooling, income, ethnic groups) than between them (Tough, 1979). The current survey also finds this general pattern across most of these social groups as well as occupational classes, with the notable exception of the generational differences discussed below. In particular, as Table 4 summarizes, those with the least schooling appear to be devoting at least as much time on average to most forms of informal learning as those with higher levels of schooling.
Table 4 Incidence of Informal Learning by
             Level of Schooling, Canada, 1998
Level of schooling  Avg. Hours per week of informal learning
No diploma 16
High school diploma 15
Community college 15
University degree 14
   This lack of difference across major social groups is an extremely important finding for comprehending the full character of our knowledge society. Anyone can engage in informal learning on their own volition and schedule, and apparently people in the most socially disadvantaged statuses are just as likely to do so as those in the most socially dominant positions. The submerged informal part of the iceberg of detectable adult learning does not have the same hierarchical structure as the pyramid of organized education. We are really still at the "ether stage" of understanding the processes and outcomes of informal learning, with little comprehension of their internal dynamics (see Thomas, 1991; Engstrom, Miettinen and Punamaki, 1999). But case studies of the actual learning practices of adults with limited formal education-- such as recent ethnographic research in the situated learning theory tradition (e.g. Lave and Wenger, 1991)-- strongly suggest that much of this learning involves quite high levels of skill competency. Much as it contradicts the dominant meritocratic ideology of our "credential society", the less schooled appear in many instances and significant dimensions of knowledge to be at least as competent as the more highly schooled.
    If the hidden part of the iceberg of adult learning is so wide and deep, surely it must have important connections with the visible pyramid of education that appears to float above it. Given our very rudimentary understanding of the processes and outcomes of adult informal learning, there has to date been virtually no substantial research on these interrelationships (see Livingstone, 1999, pp. 236-240). The NALL survey provides some basic clues confirming common sense expectations about the intergenerational dynamics of these relations.
    As many prior surveys have found and Table 5 reconfirms, there is a very strong relationship between age and level of participation in further education courses. Two-thirds of Canadian adults under 24 participated in a further education course or workshop last year, while only 10 percent of those over 65 did so. Those under 24 also indicate that they spend more time in informal learning than older adults. Entry into adulthood is probably the period of most intense and extensive new organizing circumstances in all spheres of most peoples' lives within advanced industrial societies, often including initial career choices, major household and community choices not governed by parental authority, and generally establishing one's own life style. Young adults are not only the most likely to take further education courses to aid in these transitions, they are also most likely to rely more on organized courses rather than their own independent informal efforts in their learning activities, with nearly three-quarters indicating a preference for courses over informal learning. But, clearly, younger adults are doing a lot of informal learning as well as a lot of formal courses.
Table 5   Adult Education Course Participation, Preferred Form of Learning, and
                Average Hours of Informal Learning per Week, Canadian Adults, 1998
Age Group Course partici-
Preferred Form Informal hours
per week
Courses On own
  % % % hours
18-24 67 73 22 23
25-34 54 48 37 16
35-44 54 47 40 15
45-54 46 38 50 15
55-64 25 22 63 12
65+ 10 19 64 12
Total 44 44 44 15
     However, as Table 5 also indicates, aging is not very significantly associated with decline in the incidence of informal learning beyond the intense period of entry into adulthood. Contrary to the stereotype of older adults' active interests rapidly diminishing as they approach and enter their retirement years, the survey findings suggest that they spend nearly as much time on informal learning activities as middle-aged adults. While further education course participation does drop off rapidly, this is not primarily because of declining interest in learning activities but because we increasingly replace course participation with our own independent informal learning efforts. The older we are, the more likely we are to rely on our own prior learning experiences as a guide for further learning.
    Secondly, the older we are, the more likely we are to be looked to by others as a source of their own learning. Elders in advanced industrial societies get relatively little respect in relation to many communally-based societies, but younger people nonetheless rely heavily on their experiential knowledge. Table 6 indicates the major tendencies in important sources of job-related knowledge in the current Canadian labour force. The majority of adults under 24 rely on older co-workers for their most important workplace knowledge. The majority of those over 45 rely primarily on independent learning efforts drawing on their own experience. Employer-sponsored job training programs remain a marginal component in workers' employment centered knowledge throughout their job careers. In this regard, the NALL survey confirms earlier international studies which have consistently found that over 70 percent of the knowledge we acquire about our jobs is gained through informal learning (see Livingstone, 1999, pp.38-42). The major source of job related knowledge is definitely older workers teaching younger ones informally. This collective informal learning should be more fully recognized as vital to the reproduction of the labour force.
    It is probably the case that, just as with employment-related learning, the vast majority of all learning throughout the adult life course occurs informally. Effective reproduction of most really useful knowledge involves older people handing on their informal knowledge to younger people. Our pyramidally organized education and training systems need to become more responsive to these pathways of informal learning in order to aid effective linkages between education and the various spheres of our paid and unpaid work. The OECD's (1998, p. 9) "new approach to lifelong learning" asserts that:
    The systemic approach puts a special responsibility on providers to recognize linkages to other sectors of provision and to what is happening in society more generally.
    Neither the OECD nor most other educational policy authorities yet appear to have much real appreciation of the vast amount of informal learning that is happening in society more generally.
Table 6    Most Important Source of Job Knowledge by Age, 
                 Canadian Labour Force, 1998
   Most Important Source of Job Knowledge
Age Group Co-workers Independent efforts Employertraining Combinations
   % % % %
18-24 52 26 12 9
25-34 32 36 17 16
35-44 21 47 20 12
45-54 20 53 13 14
55-64 9 66 12 13
Total 28 44 15 13

Lifelong Learning and 
Underemployment in a Class Society 
    At least during the current generation, the rapidly increasing amount of formal schooling and further education that we engage in, coupled with the vast and increasing amount of informal learning, have exceeded the collective capacity of capitalist market economies to provide sufficient commensurate sorts of jobs in which the potential labour force can apply their employment-related knowledge. We have a knowledge society but not yet a "knowledge-based economy" (see Livingstone, 1999). Table 7 offers some indication of the situation in Canada in terms of the self-perceptions of survey respondents in the current labour force.
Table 7 Self-Rating of Job Qualifications by Length of
             Time to Learn Your Job, Canadian Labour Force, 1998
     Self-Rating of Job Qualifications
Time to learn job
Over-qualified Adequately qualified Under-
% % %
Few days 
51 45 4
Several weeks 
28 72 0
Few months 
27 72 1
Less than year
25 70 5
1-3 years 
17 80 3
3+ years 
11 84 5
Depends on person 
7 93 0
All   21 76 3
Table 8 Schooling, Further Education, Interest in PLAR Credit and
              Incidence of Informal Learning by Occupational Class, Canada, 1998
University Degree 


Workshop Last Year 
Interest in Courses if PLAR 
Informal Learning (Hrs/week)
Corporate executives 70 71 61 17
Small employers 40 52 58 16
Self-employed 28 52 69 14
Managers 52 72 62 13
Professionals 76 76 69 15
Service workers 12 54 73 17
Industrial workers 8 37 73 17
Unemployed 16 38 82 20
Total 26 50 70 15
   Class differences in the incidence of different types of adult learning activities confirm once more the existence of a massive egalitarian informal learning society hidden beneath the pyramidal class structured forms of schooling and further education. The incidence of informal learning among wageworkers and the unemployed is at least as great as among more affluent and highly schooled classes. Corporate executives, managers and professional employees have much higher levels of formal schooling than working class people. They are also more likely to have participated in further education courses or workshops last year, even though the class differences here are much smaller. However, the more affluent classes are not more likely than the working classes to want to take courses if they receive recognition for their prior learning. The gap between current and desired participation is very large for working class people and virtually non-existent for more affluent class groups. The survey findings suggest that a pent-up demand for responsive further education courses among the less affluent may have been as much ignored as their extensive informal learning activities.

Concluding Remarks
    The 1998 NALL survey is one of the very few country-level empirical profiles of the full spectrum of adult learning activities that has been generated to date. Building most directly on the prior research of Tough (1979) and Penland (1977) on self-directed learning, this survey provides benchmarks of the incidence, thematic contents and processes of explicit informal learning, of the relations between informal learning and formal schooling and further education, and of the relations of all these learning activities with the social background of Canadian adults. The NALL research network is currently conducting a series of related in-depth case studies (see the NALL website for details). Hopefully, future Canada-wide surveys will permit assessment of continuing trends in the informal as well as institutionally-based learning activities of adults. But several preliminary conclusions are warranted.
    Adults' explicit informal learning is very extensive. Virtually all Canadian adults are active learners and very little of this learning is registered through specific education and training courses. Much of the individual and collective adult informal learning that this survey documents had previously been unrecognized by the respondents themselves. But fifteen hours a week is surely a significant amount of time to devote to any activity. The collective recognition of this informal learning and its occurrence across the life course can lead to people more fully valuing both their own learning capacities and those of other social groups. By recognizing the amount of informal learning they are doing, ordinary people can begin to identify connections among the learning activities in which they are involved with their workmates, families and community members. On the other hand, they can be more articulate with trade union leadership, with employers, and with government policymakers about what kinds of learning programs should be developed and should be offered to link to the competencies and interests that are already there, rather than just accepting more unilaterally-established training provisions. From the vantage points of governments, trade unions and employers, informal learning research can enable them to become more responsive to the interests and receptivities of the workforce for different forms of educational programs. In short, with such data, learning needs can be more fully and effectively problematized and strategized in terms of needs for whom, for what and from what standpoint. 
    It should also be clear from these findings that the knowledge society includes the extensive informal knowledge of many people who have been excluded from advanced forms of organized education in the past, most notably older people and the working classes. The centrality of their tacit knowledge to the production and reproduction of society has typically been unrecognized both by others and by these people themselves. There is, however, a very strong current demand among less formally educated people to have their prior learning more fully recognized by educational institutions. For prior learning recognition to be effective, it must entail more than advanced credit for entry into established education and training programs. The contributions of working class experts and other elders who have mastered relevant bodies of informal knowledge should be included in curriculum development to ensure the responsiveness of such programs. While participatory pedagogy may be a general principle of adult education, the very strong current demand for prior learning recognition among the previously excluded underlines the necessity of directly involving knowledgeable elders of these groups in designing relevant educational and training programs.
    The very limited participation in further education of the small minority with poor reading skills is indicative of the growing centrality of dominant language facility for gaining certification in other technical skills or, in the case of immigrants, for applying already acquired technical skills. Further analysis of the NALL data indicates that those with self-rated poor reading skills tend to spend considerably more time in informal learning activities than those with greater reading facility. Many of these people with low levels of dominant language literacy itemize multiple other useful skills in their survey responses, skills which they should be enabled to apply widely. But without enhanced dominant language skills they are likely to be increasingly excluded from equitable participation in an increasingly symbolic information-dominated society. Even though low literacy is a diminishing problem, the development of more responsive basic literacy programs to ensure their dominant language competency should therefore continue to be given high educational priority.
    The overall findings support the view that skill shortages in specific areas are exceptions that prove the general rule of the underemployment of the existing pool of formal and informal knowledge and skill in paid workplaces. Specific skill supply gaps continue to emerge and short-term training programs should be mounted to fill them. But greater emphasis should be placed on developing new collaborative programs involving employers, unions, employees, governments and local community groups to carefully identify actual local pools of knowledge and skills, local possibilities for greater employee participation in their enterprises, new forms of work in the community (e.g. environmental cleanup programs, other new socially useful products), and other means of matching people's underused skills and knowledge with local economic needs. More knowledge should always be welcomed. However, the basic resolution to the problem of underemployment cannot come through more education and training, but through economic reforms (such as wider employee ownership, greater workplace democracy, more equitable distribution of available paid employment and recognition of new forms of compensable work (Livingstone, 1999, pp. 240-275)) which allow fuller application of people's currently attained knowledge. The most important economic role that adult educators can perform is to actively participate in the development and dissemination of accurate profiles of the current and most likely future types of local jobs/careers/new forms of paid work to which unemployed and underemployed people can constructively direct their already very impressive learning capacities. The many recent calls for more instrumental training programs to respond to the requirements of an imminent "knowledge-based economy" have the problem backwards. Canadian adults generally have unprecedented levels of education and informal knowledge, but they need better jobs in which to apply their knowledge. 
    The profiles of the detectable informal part of the icebergs of adult learning offered by the NALL survey may assist those concerned to make fuller connections with further education programs, with all spheres of work and with related social policy issues. But the much larger sea of tacit adult learning remains unfathomed. The exploration of the massive icebergs of detectable informal and institutional adult learning and their movements in this sea has only begun.

1. Of course, these statistics should not be taken to suggest that virtually all of those in the 20 to 24 age cohort are now enrolled in post-secondary institutions. The rapidly increasing percentages indicate both the increasing post- secondary participation rate of this cohort per se and also the increasing participation of both younger and much older people in post-secondary education. In fact, the actual participation of the 20 to 24 cohort almost doubled, from 17 percent to 33 percent, between 1981 and 1996 (see Betcherman, McMullen and Davidman, 1998).
2. More specifically, 22 percent of the NALL survey respondents had not completed secondary school. The proportion who had not completed secondary school in the most recent OISE/UT Survey of Educational Issues was 12 percent (see Livingstone, Hart and Davie, 1999, p. 88). The latter survey deals primarily with formal schooling policy issues.
3. In the Statistics Canada/OECD (1995) study, low literacy was operationalized as level 1 in which the reader may be able to locate a piece of information based on a literal match with some distracting information and may also be able to enter personal information onto a form (p. 79). The incidence of sheer illiteracy is now extremely rare. As the authors of this study declare: "Level 1 is not an absence of literacy activities, but a lower level of them" (p. 79). 
4. For definitions and emprically grounded discussions of the differences between these occupational classes in Canadian society, see Livingstone and Mangan (1996).
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