teaching-learning processes between informality and formalization

In this piece, Reinhard Zürcher conceptualizes teaching-learning processes by means of a continuum that covers the whole range from informal to formal processes. Instead of the usual descriptive interpretation, he uses an analytical perspective that relates the terms informal and formal teaching and learning to the notion of form. ‘Formalization’, interpreted as generalization of the characteristics of the teaching-learning process, is identified to be the general variable of the continuum. Similarly, informality is interpreted as individualization. The spectrum of possible actors in teaching is extended and the teaching process is intertwined with the learning process. To finish Reinhard Zürcher splits the continuum of the teaching-learning process into its constituting criteria and, by abandoning the term non-formal learning, unifies the process.

learning a language through actions - reproduced under Creative Commons licence ny-nc-2.0. Picture by Ewan Mcintosh - flickr
contents: introduction · definitions and their consequences · models · discussion of the terms · a unified concept · summary · further reading and references · acknowledgements · about the writer · how to cite this piece


The terms formal, non-formal and informal learning result from the necessity to draw distinctions in order to attain a deeper understanding of the complex term ‘learning’. For this reason, the learning process needs to be examined with respect to its organization, regulation, support by teachers or trainers. It also needs to be explored with regard to its contents, structure, form and context. Some important contrasts appear when we do this. For example, where regulation is differentiated into self-regulation and external regulation, informality/formality is split between the poles of ‘non-form’ and ‘form’. Applied to learning, we arrive at informal and formal learning, leaving open the meaning of the equally common term ‘non-formal learning’.

Upon closer inspection, numerous questions arise, many of which have, to date, not yet been answered satisfactorily. What, for example, is the relationship of non-formal learning to informal and formal learning? Is it reasonable to characterise informal learning on the basis of learning sub-types (e.g. self-directed learning or incidental learning)? What consequences result from the fact that comparative studies and statistics are based on different interpretations of non-formal and informal learning? Is it possible at all to arrive at a consistent definition of the terms in a descriptive way that is not, to a certain extent, merely arbitrary?

In this piece, I attempt to unify the concepts of informal and formal learning by interpreting them as an issue of form. In addition, I discuss – by neglecting the philosophical and epistemological dimension of form – how the debate about informal and formal learning can be integrated into the wider context of the teaching-learning process. Finally, I advance some considerations on the relationship between teaching and learning.

Definitions and their consequences

As a starting point, I refer to the definitions of formal, non-formal and informal learning in literature. The most common definition in Europe has been proposed by the Commission of the European Communities (2001: 32-33).

Learning resulting from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification. Informal learning may be intentional but in most cases it is non-intentional (or “incidental”/random).

Another frequently cited definition has been suggested by Marsick and Watkins (2001:25):

Informal learning, a category which includes incidental learning, may occur in institutions, but is not typically classroom-based or highly structured, and control of learning rests primarily in the hands of the learner. […] Informal learning is usually intentional but not highly structured.

Apart from these definitions, numerous others can be found in literature that have been repeatedly compared in the meantime (e.g. Colley, Hodkinson and Malcolm 2003; OECD (undated); Overwien 2009; Smith 1999/2008) and which I will therefore not repeat here.

The divergences and contradictions within the present definitions, especially those of informal and non-formal learning, can be traced back to a number of reasons:

  1. The definitions are descriptive definitions and, as such, they usually seem to be more or less plausible. However, they are not developed within a theory and they are based on partial aspects of the teaching-learning process.

  2. The terms that originated in the context of pedagogy, educational sociology and educational politics were descriptively formulated by interpreting them via other kinds of learning (e.g. self-directed learning).

  3. The terms stem from different contexts and they were formulated as an answer to different problems. ‘Informal education’ was coined by Dewey to delimit instruction in schools from learning outside of schools. ‘Informal learning’ became popular in the 1950s within the milieu of adult education, especially due to Knowles (Smith 2002). ‘Non-formal education’ came up as a term in the debate on developmental politics in the post-war era (Coombs 1968).

  4. The definitions are not precise enough. With formulations like ‘usually’, ‘may be’ and ‘in most cases’ as in the definition of the European Commission a theoretical foundation is impossible. The same argument applies to the other definitions in which, as with Marsick and Watkins (2001), phrases like ‘may occur’, ‘typically’, ‘primarily’ and ‘usually’ are frequently constitutive elements of the definition.

  5. The definitions are not clearly demarcated from one another.

  6. The relationship between teaching and learning (e.g. that between informal learning and informal teaching) is not adequately taken into consideration.

Controversial and unsystematic terms are the cause of serious problems in examinations of learning situations. Without a consistent vocabulary, it is difficult to relate investigated learning situations to each other and the results are confined to single cases. For similar reasons, the results of comparative educational research remain doubtful. If the terms formal, non-formal and informal learning used in interviews in different countries are not congruent, it is impossible to draw reliable conclusions from the results. In addition, there are no studies available that calculate the consequences of different terms.


If learning is differentiated into informal, non-formal and formal learning, then the principal question is: what possibilities exist to represent a term consisting of three sub-terms? (The sub-terms are themselves characterized by a number of features that are not shown in the following first figures.)

Domain with unspecified boundaries

An obvious approach is to think of informal, non-formal and formal learning as three terms that border on each other:

domain model 

Fig. 1: Domain model

This symbolic scheme prevailed in the second half of the 20th century. It allowed associating the three terms with specific educational segments: informal learning with learning in daily life and at the workplace, non-formal learning with adult and continuing education (without certification) and formal learning with the highly organized school sector. The criteria delimiting the three fields included location and the organizational degree of learning.

This primarily administrative concept proved to be too simple since, on closer inspection, the boundaries of the domains dissolve. Informal learning takes place in schools as well, and organized phases of learning can be found in everyday life. It therefore became necessary to include the details of the learning process in the description and demarcation. In the following years, dozens of definitions were proposed that differed in their extent and defining characteristics, depending on person, background and interest (see e.g. Smith 1999).

Continuum from informal, to non-formal to formal learning

No solution has yet been found to the problem of demarcating the terms. Fig. 1 cannot represent learning situations that frequently combine formal, non-formal and informal elements. (An example from everyday life: someone buys a language course consisting of a textbook and a CD in a supermarket. He/she learns informally at different locations and depending on the available time, sometimes with a friend who has command of the language.)

It has therefore been repeatedly suggested that the domains be replaced by a continuum reaching from informal to formal learning (Ellis 1990; Colley, Hodkinson and Malcolm 2003; Rogers 2004 and 2006; Rohs 2007):


continuum modelFig. 2: Continuum model


This Scheme, however, also leaves some questions open: what is the meaning of the arrows at the ends of the continuum (it surely cannot lead to infinity)? How is a real learning process positioned? Is this position

  1. a point on the continuum? Such a point could only represent either one form of learning or two of them in the transition zone, but it would not represent a real learning process.

  2. a segment of the continuum? This carries with it the same problem discussed in a.

  3. a sum of points or segments? This assumption comes closest to reality but is unsatisfactory, as the continuum lacks an inner structure making it unclear what distinguishes points or segments.

Today’s concepts usually resemble Fig. 2. A representative example of Rogers (2004):

Continuum 1 of Rogers (2004)

Fig. 3: Continuum I of Rogers (2004)

Rogers chooses as an organizing criterion ‘social organization’. Formal education deals with closed groups, informal learning, on the other hand, is a matter of independent and self-directed individuals. Transition zones are located between non-formal and participative education.

The abolition of the boundaries between – in this case four – forms of learning takes place once again at the descriptive-metaphoric level, not the analytic. The aforementioned problem of the transition between the zones, as well as the question of which points separate the learning zones, remains unsolved. The sole criterion distinguishing the zones is social organization, thus the solution is a particular and not a general one. Additionally, education and learning are situated along the same line, education covering three quarters of the continuum. Finally, no clue is provided concerning the relationship between teaching and learning.

Two years later, Rogers presented the continuum in a modified form (Rogers 2006: 7):

Fig. 4: Continuum II of Rogers (2006)

Fig. 4: Continuum II of Rogers (2006)

In this continuum the two sides are exchanged, ‘participative’ is replaced with ‘self-directed’ and the continuum is interpreted with regard to the degree of consciousness of learning, but the old problems remain.

Differentiation of the characteristics and abolishment of non-formal learning

Colley, Hodkinson and Malcolm (2003) presented a survey on the definitions of informal learning. They extracted 20 criteria to discriminate informal from formal learning and arrived at the following continuum:

Fig. 5: Continuum of Colley/Hodkinson/Malcolm (2003: 28)

Fig. 5: Continuum of Colley/Hodkinson/Malcolm (2003: 28)

Unfortunately, a considerable number of the 20 criteria resemble categories rather than operationalizable criteria (in more detail in Zürcher 2007: 40-41) and the continuum lacks, like its predecessors, a measure to identify the location of learning processes.

Recently, a continuum concerning continuing education at the workplace has been proposed by Rohs (2007: 34). The poles of informal and formal learning are characterized by six criteria (translation: R.Z.):

Fig. 6: Continuum of Rohs (2007)

Fig. 6: Continuum of Rohs (2007)

The number of these criteria represents a manageable compromise for actual practice. It remains to be seen, however, if this selection is able to describe learning processes with a sufficient degree of precision. The juxtaposition of ‘learning’ and ‘problem solving’, as well as ‘theoretical knowledge’ and ‘experiential knowledge’, is not tenable, since these two oppositions mix in real learning processes. ‘Partially unconscious learning’ is too vague. The same applies to ‘holistic’ learning, which is also frequently used in formal systems.

The learning mixer

To describe the transition from formal to informal learning, Cross (2007) invented the ‘learning mixer’, a mixing deck with rulers to vary seven criteria of the learning process:

Fig 7. Learning mixer from Cross (2007)

Fig. 7: Learning mixer from Cross (2007)

Cross argues that the learning process always consists of a mixture of formal and informal elements and that their ratio is singular for each criterion. The position of the rules can be shifted within a criterion to three possibilities, resulting in an ambiguous superposition of a discrete and a continuous movement. The learning mixer improves the continua by introducing a first rough measure. The selection of the seven criteria, however, appears somewhat arbitrary.

Integration of the teaching process

In the continua discussed so far, the teaching process is more or less absent in its role as a constituting quantity. It manifests itself solely in the characterization of formal learning. One of the few exceptions is Livingstone (2001) who introduces in his scheme, apart from self-directed and collective informal learning, non-formal and informal education, in addition to further kinds of teaching processes (schooling, teaching, training):


Tab 1: teaching/learning forms from Livingstone (2001)

Tab. 1: Scheme of the teaching/learning forms from Livingstone (2001)

Livingstone (2) configures his concept as a domain model in which the coordinates of learning consist of two types of knowledge structures (‘pre-established knowledge structure vs. ‘situational knowledge structure’). The comparison of this scheme with a linear continuum, however, is difficult, since it exhibits multiple modes within the teaching-learning process.

Discussion of the terms

According to Confucius, vague terms, in the end, put social stability at risk. Although I do not wish to draw such far-reaching conclusions in this study, it is clear that a continuous clarification and unification of the terms is desirable, not only to provide a solid base for research in informal learning, but also to improve mutual understanding in educational debates. In the following segment, the principal terms of this article are analysed.

Form – Formation – Formalization

Informal, non-formal and formal learning are notions of form. In the usual interpretation, form is the shape of material or mental entities, and one could be content with that. The history of the notion of form shows, however, that the status of form resembles that of time: on closer inspection the solid ground vanishes and the notion becomes increasingly mysterious. Fortunately, for our practical purposes, we do not require an epistemological foundation.

A form does not exist at the very beginning, it originates in the course of a process that can be chemical, social, pedagogic, etc. Form comes into existence and becomes visible through the formation of the elements participating in the process. In most cases, formation is not a process ab initio, but a process in which already existing components interact to take on a new shape.

A formed unity, a formed context or even the process of formation itself can be further transformed by certain measurements. A specific transformation of the process is formalization: the process is generalized (and develops thus in reverse direction to individualization). Through formalization, the process and its context become obligatory for all participating persons. Generalization is realized by standardization of the involved elements and processes.

In educational practice, standardization leads to norms for rooms and furniture, approbation of curricula, prescription of competences (educational standards) for certificates, definitions of examination procedures and so on. Accompanying phenomena of formalization are other-direction, systematization and abstraction. In this interpretation, formalization defines the relationship of the individual to the general. Since individuals are not usually in a position to establish this relationship, state authorities or boards exercise the formalization.

Domain and continuum

Within its borders, a domain exhibits uniform conditions with respect to its defining characteristics. If the three definitions of informal, non-formal and formal learning are lined up (as in Fig. 1) then there exist only three states with regard to the degree of formalization. In a continuum, however, the state (e.g. the degree of formalization) changes at any point along the line. With two dimensions, the continuum becomes a field. A superposition of the domain and continuum model results if, in a two-dimensional state, one dimension is continuous and the other dimension is discrete (e.g. with three values).

An essential aspect of a continuum is a measure that quantifies the change of the variable along the continuum. The most common measure is the percentage scale from 0% to 100%.

Application to teaching-learning processes

How can informal and formal learning now be interpreted? Both form by enactment. Informal learning cannot mean that it is not formed and, likewise, that formal learning equals formed learning. Obviously, both learning forms refer to the formalization of learning, to the generalization by an authority. Strictly speaking, informal learning should be replaced by informalized learning and formal learning by formalized learning. Since this interpretation has not come into common use, it can only be kept in mind. For the informal-formal continuum this means: at the pole of informal learning, learning is formalized in none of its characteristics, whereas at the pole of formal learning the learning process is formalized in all of its constitutional criteria (that are open to formalization). In between is the transition zone of gradual formalization.

The opposite of generalization is individualization. If formalization equals generalization, and formal learning is interpreted this way, then informal learning equals individualized learning. The frequent association of informal learning with self-directed and self-organized learning is, therefore, not astonishing. Nevertheless, a distinction has to be made here: self-directed learning is individualized learning only with regard to direction, self-organized learning only with regard to organization. These kinds of learning are only peripherally linked with individualization (and therefore informality), whereas the duality “informality-formality” represents a superordinate category.

Unified concept

The relationship between teaching and learning

In the discussion of informal learning, the perspective of teaching is usually wrapped up in formal learning. Informal teaching is not seen as an equivalent counterpart of informal learning. But – according to social learning theories – no human learning takes place without the influence of other humans. So if teachers or mentors teach situationally and without reference to a structured content, they teach informally in this way (see Tab. 1).

In order to formulate a consistent concept of the (in-)formalized teaching-learning process, it seems reasonable to consider teaching and learning as symmetrical and complementary. The result for the teaching/learning continuum is two parallel continua: one from informal to formal learning and the other from informal to formal teaching:

Fig. 8: Continuum of the symmetrical teaching-learning process

Fig. 8: Continuum of the symmetrical teaching-learning process

In Fig. 8 teaching and learning are entangled in the formalization continuum. It is at present unclear in which way they are related, therefore some provisional remarks are made here. A curious asymmetry seems to be inherent in traditional pedagogy: learning is possible, not only in schools and courses, but also in a self-directed manner with the help of textbooks, at the workplace and in everyday life, in the “book of nature” and even without being conscious of it. Teaching, however, is reduced to the activity of a teacher (or in a wider sense to parents, peers or other persons at hand) and to textbooks that are a kind of “prolonged voice” of a teacher.

This interpretation does not cogently result from the activity of a teacher but is a matter of convention. Therefore it can be maintained that if a person learns something – e.g. by observing an animal, rock, phenomenon or artefact – the person has been taught by these things or objects. (Of course an artefact, e.g. a plough, cannot teach in the same manner as a teacher can. Whereas the teacher can give insight into complex cultural techniques, the plough can only teach something about the material it is made of, its aesthetic properties, or maybe about the place of its manufacture, context of use and so on. The argument that one only learns something about the plough if one engages actively with it is invalid because the same applies to a school teacher.)

Hence it follows: it is not only possible to learn from everything but everything can also teach.

Is this always the case? This question provokes the counter-question: how could it be different? If the group of entities that can teach is extended to living beings, things and phenomena, then there is always an opposite part for the pole of teaching and of learning, respectively. Let us assume a teacher teaches chemistry to students. Nobody listens and consequently nobody learns anything. Did the teacher teach in this case? He/she made noises and gestures, that is all. So if there can be no teaching without learning (and vice versa), then we can formulate a ‘pedagogic interaction theorem’: teaching and learning always occur simultaneously.

Assuming that this extended teaching-learning concept is valid, the teaching-learning continuum in Fig. 8 can be simplified to

Fig. 9: Continuum of the extended teaching-learning process

Fig. 9: Continuum of the extended teaching-learning process

The poles of the continuum are defined by the extent of formalization: no formalization at the informal end, formalization throughout at the formal end. Teaching and learning exist symmetrically (and simultaneously) at every point of the continuum.

The unified continuum

The following premises form the basis for the considerations thus far:

  1. The continuum between informal and formal learning corresponds to an increasing degree of formalization.

  2. The learning continuum has to be supplemented by the teaching continuum.

  3. The teaching-learning continuum has to be differentiated into its constituting characteristics, since every single characteristic can assume its own degree of formalization.

For these reasons, the ‘learning mixer’ from Cross is here adopted, modified and interpreted in an alternative way. The partition of the characteristics of the learning process into three sections is replaced by true continua that correspond to the increasing degree of formalization. The learning mixer thus becomes a ‘formalization mixer’. Next, the relevant characteristics of the teaching-learning process (location, structure, control, etc.) have to be selected and operationalized. Since no established canon exists, these characteristics can only be selected according to pragmatic principles. In addition, the degree of formalization of every characteristic must be determined.

In a first approximation, about two dozen characteristics should suffice to represent the teaching-learning process. Their order is, more or less, a matter of subjective decision, and different pedagogic theories result in different ordering criteria. The selection and precise description of the criteria with respect to their formalizability requires further examination, therefore only some representative criteria are stated here. Aims of teaching and learning, location, times and duration, contents/materials, methods, instruments, structure of the teaching-learning process, control, social organization, interaction between teacher and learner, peer interaction, degree of consciousness, motivation, volition, validation/certification, etc. can be expected in the list, thus comprising physical, pedagogic, social, psychological and political criteria.

It could be assumed that the formalizability of criteria like location of the teaching-learning process would be easy to define. But on closer inspection, even these criteria prove to be rather subtle: Students do not only learn in the formal(ized) location of a classroom but also in the schoolyard, library, museum, bus or at home. The classrooms represent only a fraction of the places for learning. The picture is somewhat different with regard to the duration of the teaching-learning process, since the students spend the greater part of their learning time in school. The least formalizability can be expected from psychological characteristics like motivation and volition. Extrinsic motivation (rewards or disadvantages) can be generalized to some extent, but intrinsic motivation will surely remain an individual asset.

A method of measurement is required to position these and additional criteria in the teaching-learning continuum. A percentage scale, describing the degree to which a specific criterion is formalized, would suffice for several criteria. A discrete spectrum would seem to be more adequate for other criteria. For ‘certification’, the option ‘yes/no’ or a few possibilities (no certificate; attestation of participation; sector-specific certification; certification of general value) would be a better solution. Finally, there are criteria like the learning atmosphere that can be mapped onto a scale via subjective estimations, but which are not formalizable themselves.

What follows from this plethora of single criteria for the teaching-learning continuum? Since the criteria exhibit different degrees of formalization, it makes no sense to determine a summative mean value in an overall continuum. (Therefore specific kinds of teaching-learning, like coaching, cannot be positioned at a point in the continuum.) Rather, each of the formalizable criteria can be represented on their own continuum, resulting in a singular pattern for each individual teaching-learning process:

Fig. 10: Unified continuum

Fig. 10: Unified continuum
(with example of a schematic individual teaching-learning process (TLP))


This pattern is dynamic: it depends on time, since the criteria of the teaching-learning process, as well as their degrees of formalization, can change in its course. Again, the continuum of each single criterion has to be imagined as a combined teaching and learning process. With a poetic undertone, it could be contended that a teaching-learning process corresponds to a developing melody of a criterion-orchestra that is played on the harp of the formalization mixer. But for the rather prosaic concept of formalization, the metaphor of the abacus seems to fit better: The degree of formalization of the criteria of the teaching-learning process varies according to its actual conditions and exhibits in this way a dynamic pattern.


The considerations brought forward in this paper can be summarized in the following items:

Further reading and references

Colley, H., Hodkinson, P. and Malcolm, J. (2003) Informality and formality in learning: a report for the Learning and Skills Research Centre, London: Learning and Skills Research Centre. [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Commission of the European Communities (2001) Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality, Brussels: Commission of the European Communities. [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Coombs, P. (1968) The World Educational Crisis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cross, J. (2007) ‘All or nothing’. Informal Learning Blog, February 9 [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Ellis, J. W. (1990) ‘Informal education – a Christian perspective’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Knowles, M. (1950) Informal Adult Education. New York: Association Press.

Livingstone, D. W. (2001) ‘Adult’s Informal Learning: Definitions, Findings, Gaps and Future Research’. NALL Working Paper No. 21.  [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Marsick, V. J. and K. E. Watkins (2001) ‘Informal and Incidental Learning’. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education No. 89 pp. 25-34. [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Directorate for Education (undated). Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning. [,3343,en_2649_39263238_37136921_1_1_1_1,00.html. Accessed May 20, 2010].

Overwien, B. (2009) ‘Informelles Lernen. Definitionen und Forschungsansätze’, in M. Brodowski, U. Devers-Kanoglu, B. Overwien, M. Rohs, S. Salinger, and M. Walser (eds.) Informelles Lernen und Bildung für eine nachhaltige Entwicklung. Beiträge aus Theorie und Praxis, pp. 23-34, Opladen & Farmington Hills, MI: Barbara Budrich.

Rogers, A. (2004) ‘Looking again at non-formal and informal education – towards a new paradigm’. London: the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Rogers, A. (2006) ‘Informal learning in lifelong learning’, Danish Centre on Education and Advanced Media Materials (DREAM) Conference, September 21-23, University of Southern Denmark, Odense.

Rohs, M. (2007) Zur Theorie formellen und informellen Lernens in der IT-Weiterbildung. Hamburg: Helmut-Schmidt-University. [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Smith, M. K. (1999, 2008) ‘Informal learning’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Smith, M. K. (2002) ‘Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Zürcher, R. (2007) Informelles Lernen und der Erwerb von Kompetenzen. Theoretische, didaktische und politische Aspekte. Vienna: Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture. [ Accessed March 27, 2010].

Acknowledgements: Picture - learning a language through actions - is by Ewan Mcintosh. They are reproduced under Creative Commons licence ny-nc-2.0.

 Thanks, also, to Jay Cross for allowing us to reproduce his 'mixer' diagram. You can access selected chapters of Jay Cross' book, Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance from the following link (it's a 'Kindle' version)  :

About the writer: Reinhard Zürcher works at the University of Education Vienna, Institute for Research, Innovation and School Development. E-Mail:

How to cite this piece: Zürcher, Reinhard (2010). 'Teaching-learning processes between informality and formalization', the encyclopaedia of informal education. [ Accessed: insert date here) 

© Reinhard Zürcher 2010