Institute for Studies in Education
ICEBERGS OF ADULT LEARNING:
of the First Canadian Survey of Informal Learning Practices*
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
visible minority, disabled, female British Columbian respondent to NALL
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.
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
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
to appear in the special milennium issue of The Canadian Journal for
the Study of Adult Education, 2000.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
"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.
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
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
from the First Canadian Survey
Informal Learning Practices
1 Canadian Adults' Participation in Further Education, 1998
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:
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.
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).
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
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
over half are planning to take some sort of formally organized
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).
Learning Assessment and Recognition
Adult Ed course or workshop
to take course
likely to enrol if PLAR*
Transmission of "Really Useful
the Adult Life Course
2 Self-Rating of Reading Skills by Further Education Participation
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.
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).
and Self-Rating of Job Qualification, Canadian Adults, 1998
3 Distribution of Total Weekly Hours of
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):
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.
half say they have no time to participate;
forty percent say that courses are at inconvenient times or places;
40% cite family responsibilities;
one-third indicate that courses are too expensive.
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).
basic findings were as follows.
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:
Work-related Informal Learning
3/4 engage in informal learning projects to keep up with new general knowledge
2/3 are involved in informal employment-related computer learning;
2/3 learning new job tasks;
2/3 learning problem solving/communication skills;
learning about occupational health and safety;
half learning other new technologies.
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:
2/3 interpersonal skills;
60% communication skills;
learn about social issues;
learn about organizational/managerial skills.
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:
Other General Interest
are involved in learning about home renovations and gardening;
60% home cooking;
in home maintenance.
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
in Informal Learning
respondents are involved in learning about health and well being;
60% are involved in learning about environmental issues;
60% are involved in learning about finances;
engage in informal learning activities around each of the following: hobby
skills; social skills; public issues; computers; sports and recreation.
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.
Informal Learning, Canadian Adults, 1998
4 Incidence of Informal Learning by
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.
Level of Schooling, Canada, 1998
Hours per week of informal learning
5 Adult Education Course Participation, Preferred Form of
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
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.
Average Hours of Informal Learning per Week, Canadian Adults, 1998
6 Most Important Source of Job Knowledge by Age,
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.
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.
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:
systemic approach puts a special responsibility on providers to recognize
linkages to other sectors of provision and to what is happening in society
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.
Canadian Labour Force, 1998
Important Source of Job Knowledge
in a Class Society
7 Self-Rating of Job Qualifications by Length of
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.
Time to Learn Your Job, Canadian Labour Force, 1998
8 Schooling, Further Education, Interest in PLAR Credit and
of Job Qualifications
to learn job
Incidence of Informal Learning by Occupational Class, Canada, 1998
in Courses if PLAR
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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).
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