NALL Working Paper
EXPLORING THE ICEBERGS OF ADULT LEARNING: FINDINGS OF THE FIRST CANADIAN
SURVEY OF INFORMAL LEARNING PRACTICES1
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
University of Toronto
This paper provides empirical estimates of the extent and distribution of
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 adultsí 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.
There is a great deal of talk these days about living in the
"information age", the "knowledge society" or the
"learning society." The study described in this article indicates that
adults in Canada now spend an average of 15 hours per week on informal learning.
In light of this finding, if the crews of our big education and training ships
do not increasingly look out for the massive, detectable icebergs of informal
learning, many of their programs may sink into Titanic irrelevancy. However,
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.
The Informal-Learning-Research Context
Sites of Adult Learning
Three basic sites of adult learning are formal schooling,
further education, and informal learning (see Coombs, 1985; Selman &
Dampier, 1991). Formal schooling is an age-graded, hierarchically organized,
formally constituted system; it often includes compulsory attendance until at
least mid-adolescence; and it provides the major credentialing programs to
certify one's knowledge competencies for starting one's adult lives--these
programs extend increasingly into the adult years with university and
Further education refers to all other organized
educational activities, including further courses, training programs, and
workshops offered by any social institution. Typically, these are individual
courses offered to adults on a part-time, short-term basis, and often
voluntarily chosen. 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). An
important feature of both types of organized education is that participation is
pyramidal: those who have more schooling continue to get more adult education
(see Livingstone, 1999, pp. 12-33). This expanding educational pyramid is what
academics and policy makers now usually refer to when they discuss
"lifelong learning", the "knowledge society" and the like.
Nevertheless, beneath this visible 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 submerged iceberg of
Informal learning is any activity involving the pursuit of
understanding, knowledge or skill which occurs outside the curricula of
educational institutions, or the courses or workshops offered by educational or
social agencies. 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 one's 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 other tacit learning by peoples'
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 one's own initiative and also recognition of the process of
acquisition. This guideline distinguishes explicit informal learning from all of
the other tacit forms of learning through everyday activities. Examples of tacit
learning include experiences of young people or adults when their elders or
peers engage with them in many forms of socialization that are not recognized as
learning because they are so incorporated in other activities, such as
ceremonial occasions or the various ad hoc day-to-day interrelationships through
which people are inducted into the cultural life of their society. In basic
socialization, learning and acting constitute a seamless web in which it is
impossible to distinguish informal learning activities in any discrete way. This
provides a diffuse boundary on the informal side of the continuum of learning.
Self-reported estimates of informal learning are used to identify what is
recognized as discrete informal learning by individuals. Such reports may very
substantially underestimate the total amount of informal learning that people do
because of the embedded and taken-for-granted character of their tacit learning.
Eraut (1999) 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. (pp. 36, 40)
To study informal learning empirically, educators have to focus on those things
that people can identify for themselves as actual learning projects or
deliberate learning activities beyond educational institutions.
Origins of This Survey and Challenges of Researching Informal Learning
The National Research Network on New Approaches to
Lifelong Learning (NALL) centred at the Ontario Institute for Studies in
Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT) developed this survey as part
of its efforts 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.
NALL researchers 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, with a special focus on the diverse aspects of explicit
informal learning; a variety of social background factors are also addressed.
This research on informal learning draws upon
Knowles' (1970) ideas of andragogy. Knowles 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 Tough (1971, 1978, 1979). Much of
the early research Tough reports was done in the Toronto area, starting with
graduate students 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 have
been conducted, including a 1976 national survey (Penland, 1976; see also
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 the vast majority of social groups (whether distinguished by
gender, age, class, race, ableism, or nationality) showed very similar
distributions in the basic amount of time that people spend on major learning
projects. The average number of hours devoted to informal learning of this
explicitly recognized sort was around 10 hours a week or 500 hours a year (see
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 people learn most of what they learn individually rather than in
collective or relational context. Thus, early empirical research focussed on
individual respondents and documented their self-directed learning projects. But
the collective aspects of 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 Engestrom,
Miettinen and Punamaki, 1999). Collectively conducted learning processes
are the least well documented part of adults' informal learning. 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. The NALL survey did this by asking several questions on
collective learning processes and preferred styles of collective or individual
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 preliminary 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, people of various sexual
orientations, visible minorities, disabled people, and older and younger
generations. The NALL survey was pilot tested extensively with representatives
of subordinate social groups to try to ensure its general accessibility and
further in-depth case studies are in progress.
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?", rather than simply asking people whether
or not they do it, and taking what they say as valid. The basic procedure was
for the interviewer to react skeptically to responses that denied any
significant informal learning, and then proceed with 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 NALL survey gave
respondents numerous thematic cues based on prior empirical studies but accepted
all responses as given without further probing.
Other major challenges 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 in schooling decisions, but people can do informal
learning any time, any where, with anyone. Although it can be planned in a
very deliberate a priori way, 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
Informal learning never ends. But much of it occurs
in irregular time and space patterns. One 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 adults do occurs
in these moments of transition (whether it happens to be a birth, death,
marriage, divorce, transition between careers or locations, or some other major
influential event) which provoke a concentrated period of informal learning. The
most significant informal learning continues to occur in these irregular,
intense moments of people's lives (see Merriam and Clark, 1995).
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?
These key limitations of studying informal learning are
challenges that the researchers in this survey faced. 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 in-depth follow-up survey is also in preparation). But in this article I
aim to generate useful profiles of the basic patterns of the incidence of
explicit informal learning and to 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 NALL survey sample includes adults 18 and over, who
speak English or French, reside in a private home (not an old age, group home,
penal, or educational institution), with a telephone. All provinces, 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 the 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 64% of the eligible households. 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. 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% to 33%, between 1981 and 1996 (see Betcherman,
McMullen and Davidman, 1998). 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, Canada still has one of the 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 (Statistics Canada,
1998), only about 12% of the over 18 population had elementary schooling or
less; 22% had some secondary schooling; 16% had completed secondary school; the
other half of the population had some form of post-secondary experience,
including over 18% with community college diplomas and 14% with university
degrees. The 1998 NALL survey drew somewhat higher response rates from those
with post-secondary certification (40% versus 33% 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. For example, 22% of the NALL
survey respondents had not completed secondary school. For comparison, the
proportion who had not completed secondary school in a recent OISE/UT survey of
educational issues was 12% (see Livingstone, et al., 1999, p. 88). Perhaps this
greater response from the less formallt advocated occurred partly because the
NALL 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 30 years or so there was an increase in adult course
participation rates by a factor of more than 7. But this participation level
remained lower than those in many European countries (see Belanger and Tuijnman,
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 (Statistics Canada, 1998, p. 3). The NALL
wording is: "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. For future plans and interest to enrol in
further education, the general disposition to participate is even higher: (a)
over half are planning to take some sort of formally organized courses in the
next few years and (b) over 60% say they would be more likely to enroll in an
educational program if they could get formal acknowledgment 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*
|High school diploma
*Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition
Table 1 also confirms that the historical tendency for
those with higher levels of schooling to participate more highly in further
education continues.However, the further education gap is narrowing, as greater
proportions graduate from high school and continue to post-secondary schooling.
The majority of adults with at least a high school diploma are now enrolling in
some kind of further education course or workshop annually, but less than a
quarter of those without a diploma 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
were widely implemented. There is majority support in nearly all schooling
levels for PLAR, but it would make a 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 if they could receive
recognition for their prior informal learning. PLAR is therefore a very
important potential means of more effectively valuing 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 finds little support
among the general public. As Table 2 summarizes, over 80% 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% 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" than older people--44% of
those over 55 years of age versus only 13% of those under 35 (Statistics
Canada/OECD, 1995, p. 79). Only a small and diminishing minority of Canadian
adults appear to have significant really 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 (cf.
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
course last year
| At least adequately
qualified for job
The NALL survey also found that even among the minority
who did not plan to participate in further education courses, less than 10%
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% feel they have no need for such
courses. However, there are major material barriers to course participation for
many of the over 40% who do not plan to participate in the near future. Nearly
half of these people say they have no time to participate; about 40% say that
courses are at inconvenient times or places; almost 40% cite family
responsibilities; and about one-third indicate that courses are too expensive.
This is consistent with findings by McEwan (1998).
In summary, the data on participation indicate that
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.
Types of 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
assessed participation in four 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:
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 their 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; and any other
employment-related informal learning activities.
In subsequent 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 follow.
Employment-related informal learning. Those
in the current labour force or expecting to be soon (about 2/3 of the
total sample) averaged about 6 hours a week in informal learning related to
their current or prospective future employment. The most common learning
activities included: (a) about 3/4 engaged in informal learning projects to keep
up with new general knowledge in job/career; (b) almost 2/3 were involved in
informal employment-related computer learning; (c) about 2/3 were learning new
job tasks; (d) about 2/3 were learning problem solving/ communication skills;
(e) over half were learning about occupational health and safety; and (f) almost
half were learning other new technologies.
Community volunteer work-related informal
learning. Those who have been involved in community work over past year
(over 40%) devoted about 4 hours a week on average to community-related informal
learning. The most common learning activities included: (a) about 2/3 were
learning interpersonal skills; (b) almost 60% were learning communication
skills; (c) over half were learning about social issues; and (d) over 40% were
learning about organizational/managerial skills.
Household work-related informal learning.
Those involved in household work over the past year (about 80%) averaged about 5
hours per week in informal learning related to their household work. The most
common learning activities included: (a) over 60% were involved in
learning about home renovations and gardening; (b) nearly 60% were learning home
cooking; and (c) over half were learning home maintenance.
Other general interest informal learning.
Most people engaged in some other types of informal learning related to their
general interests. Those who were doing so (around 90%) spent on average about 6
hours a week on these learning activities. The most common ones were: (a) 3/4 of
respondents were involved in learning about health and well being; (b) about 60%
were involved in learning about environmental issues; (c) about 60% were
involved in learning about finances; and (d) over half were engaging in informal
learning activities around 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. When asked which of
these learning activities are most important to them in the respective areas,
Canadians' most common responses in the NALL survey were: 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.
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 for the entire
population). The iceberg metaphor for detectable adult learning is not exact but
close enough.--an iceberg is approximately 90% invisible, adult learning
approximately 80% informal.
This finding is higher than prior Canadian case studies
and U.S. surveys of self-directed learning activities in the 1970s, which 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 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 Sawchuk, 1999). Although 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
has increased in recent years.
There is great variation in the total amount of informal
learning that Canadian adults say they are now doing, as Table 3 illustrates.
However, as Table 4 illustrates, 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. 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
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 in the implications section.
Table 4 Incidence of Informal Learning by
Level of Schooling, Canada, 1998
Level of schooling
|Avg. hours per week of informal learning
|High school diploma
This lack of difference across major social groups is an
extremely important finding for comprehending the full character of Canada as a
knowledge society. Anyone can engage in informal learning on his or her 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 Engestrom, Miettinen and Punamaki,
1999; Thomas, 1991). 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 the
modern "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.
Implications of the Findings
The Transmission of "Really Useful Knowledge" Through the Adult
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 participation in education that appears to float above it. Given the
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, whereas only 10% of those
over 65 did so. Those under 24 also indicated that they spent 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, especially within advanced industrial societies; this
organizing often includes 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.
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. Although
further education course participation does drop off rapidly, this is not
primarily because of declining interest in learning activities but because
adults increasingly replace course participation with their own independent
informal learning efforts. The older people are, the more likely they are to
rely on their own prior learning experiences as a guide for further learning.
Table 5 Adult Education Course Participation, Preferred Form of
Learning, and Average
Hours of Informal Learning per Week, Canadian Adults, 1998
||Preferred Form of Learning
Furthermore, the older people are, the more likely they
are to be looked to by others as a source of these other persons' learning.
Elders in advanced industrial societies get relatively little respect compared
to many communally-based societies, but younger people nonetheless rely heavily
on elder people's 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 % of the knowledge individuals acquire about their 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.
Just as with employment-related learning, the vast
majority of all learning throughout the adult life course probably occurs
informally. Effective reproduction of most really useful knowledge involves
older people handing on their informal knowledge to younger people. 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 paid and unpaid work. The OECD's (1998)
"new approach to lifelong learning" asserts: "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" (p. 9) 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
||Most improtant source of job knowledge
| Independent efforts
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 people engage
in, coupled with their 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 members of the potential labour
force can apply their employment-related knowledge. Canada may 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.
About half of the employed Canadian labour force
believe that it would take someone with the same formal education as they have a
year or more to become fully skilled at their job. About a quarter think their
jobs could be mastered in a few months or less. But regardless of the perceived
difficulty of their jobs, the overwhelming majority of Canadian workers feel
they are at least adequately qualified for their jobs. Very few think that they
are underqualified and about seven times as many believe they are overqualified.
Among those whose jobs only require a few days to learn, the majority think they
are overqualified. But even among those with jobs that take over 3 years to
master, only 5% feel underqualified and twice as many think they are
overqualified. This is just one indicator among many (see Livingstone, 1999, pp.
52-132) that Canadian workers' formal and informal learning is being
substantially underemployed in current paid workplaces.
Table 7 Self-Rating of Job Qualifications by Length of Time to Learn
Your Job, Canadian Labour Force, 1998
Self-rating of job qualifications
||Self-rating of job qualifications
|Time to learn job
|Few days (9%)
|Several weeks (9%)
|Few months (11%)
|Less than year(14%)
|1-3 years (20%)
| 3+ years (32%)
|Depends on person (5%)
In spite of widespread conditions of
underemployment of current knowledge in current paid workplaces, there is very
substantial unfulfilled demand for access to further education courses among the
less affluent. A large and increasing majority of people now regard an advanced
education as very important to get along in society (Livingstone et al, 1999).
Access to further education programs is the institutional key to responding to
adult demand for knowledge. But, as Table 8 summarizes, the differences between
actual and desired participation in further education courses vary greatly
between occupational classes in the active labour force. (For emprically
grounded discussions of the differences between these occupational classes in
Canadian society, see Livingstone & Mangan, 1996).
Table 8 Schooling, Further Education, Interest in PLAR Credit and
Incidence of Informal Learning by Occupational Class, Canadian Labour Force,
workshop last year
|Interest in courses if PLAR
Class differences in the incidence of different types of adult
learning activities confirm 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 working class people 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.
Future Canada-wide surveys may 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. Surely 15 hours
a week is 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. Furthermore, 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. Informal learning research
can enable governments, trade unions, and employers 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. Although 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,
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, 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 area of
detectable informal learning beneath the iceberg cap of visible institutional
adult learning and the icebergs' movements in this sea has only begun.
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