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Lifelong Learning Profiles

General Summary of Findings from the
First Canadian Survey of Informal Learning

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. A representative survey of 1500 Canadian adults was conducted for NALL between August and October, 1998 by the Institute for Social Research at York University.

As David Livingstone, the director of NALL and principal investigator of this survey, summarizes:

"The major conclusion from this survey is that our organized systems of schooling and continuing education and training are like big ships floating in a sea of informal learning. If these education and training ships do not pay increasing attention to the massive amount of outside informal learning, many of them are likely to sink into Titanic irrelevancy."

Among the most important findings are the following:

The Iceberg of Informal Learning

Informal learning includes anything we do outside of organized courses to gain significant knowledge, skill or understanding. It occurs either on our own or with other people. As this survey confirms, informal learning is like an iceberg--mostly invisible on the surface and immense. The survey assesses participation in 4 aspects of informal learning: employment related; community volunteer work related; household work related; and other general interest related.

Employment-related Informal Learning

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

  • about 3/4 engaged in informal learning projects to keep up with new general knowledge in job/career

  • almost 2/3 involved in informal employment-related computer learning

  • about 2/3 learning new job tasks

  • about 2/3 learning problem solving/communication skills

  • over half learning about occupational health and safety

  • almost half learning other new technologies

Community Volunteer Work-related Informal Learning

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

  • about 2/3 interpersonal skills

  • almost 60% communication skills

  • over half learned about social issues

  • over 40% learned about organizational/managerial skills

Household Work-related Informal Learning

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

  •  60% were involved in learning about home renovations and gardening

  •  about 60% home cooking

  •  over half in home maintenance

Other General Interest Informal Learning

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

  • 3/4 of respondents were involved in learning about health and well being

  • about 60% were involved in learning about environmental issues

  • about 60% were involved in learning about finances

  • over half also involved in informal learning activities around each of the following: hobby skills; social skills; public issues; computers; sports and recreation.

Total Involvement in Informal Learning

Nearly everybody (over 90%) is involved in some form of 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 doing 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 about 3 hours per week if we include the entire population.) The breakdown by province is as follows:


 Average hrs. of informal learning per week



 Prince Edward Island


 Nova Scotia


 New Brunswick












 British Columbia




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 1998 Table 1.7 p. 36). While measuring the iceberg of informal learning remains an elusive task, the available evidence suggests that the amount of time adults are devoting to informal learning is probably increasing.

There is great variation in the total amount of informal learning that people say they are doing:













Prior studies of informal learning have found more variation within social groupings (such as age, sex, level of schooling, income, ethnic groups) than between them. The current survey also finds this general pattern. In particular, those with the least schooling and the lowest incomes appear to be devoting at least as much time on average to most forms of informal learning as those with higher levels of schooling and income:

 Level of schooling

 Avg. Hours per week of informal learning

no diploma


high school diploma


community college


university degree


Participation in Further Education

Participation in all forms of schooling and continuing education has increased dramatically 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. For example, 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. 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 1998 Tables 1.2 and 1.4). Participation in adult education courses in Canada has grown from 4% in 1960 to 20% in the early 1980s, nearly 30% by 1990 (Livingstone 1998 Table 1.6).

The current NALL survey finds that participation in adult education and training courses continues to grow and that the popular demand for greater provision of further education courses remains strong:

  •  about half have taken some kind of course, workshop or training sessions in the past year

  •  with regard to future plans and interest to enrol in further education, the general disposition to participate is even higher:

  •  about half of respondents are planning to take some sort of formally organized courses in the next few years

  •  60 percent of survey respondents 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).

There has historically been a strong tendency for those with higher levels of schooling to continue to participate more highly in further education programs. This gap has been closing as the majority of all adults with a high school diploma or more are now enroling in some kind of further education course annually. The participation of those without diplomas remains lower. But, as the following table shows, a majority of school dropouts would also be more likely to enrol if they could receive recognition for their considerable prior informal learning.


Taken Adult Ed course past year

Plan to take course

More likely to enrol if PLAR*

 # hrs per week informal learning

no diploma





high school diploma





community college





university degree










(*Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition)

In summary, the majority of Canadian adults are now actively engaged in extensive informal learning, taking further education and training courses and planning to take still more courses.

Barriers and Linkages between Education, Informal Learning and Employment

There are major barriers to course participation for many of those who do NOT plan to participate:

  •  about forty percent say that courses are at inconvenient times or places

  •  over forty percent say they have no time to participate

  •  almost 40% cite family responsibilities

  •  about one-third indicate that courses are too expensive

In spite of the great increases in educational participation, about 70% of Canadians say that their most important job-related knowledge comes from other workers or learning on their own, rather than employment-related courses. Only about 4% of respondents say they are underqualified to do their jobs, 2/3 say they are adequately qualified, while 20% say they are overqualified to perform their current jobs.

These indicators, and many others documented in The Education- Jobs Gap, suggest that most of those in the labour force are actively engaged in employment-related lifelong learning, that we are now living in a permanent learning culture, a knowledge society. The most general social problem is not a lack of education and training, but a lack of decent jobs in which more people could actually apply the knowledge and skills they already have and, as this benchmark survey suggests, are continually increasing.

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 -- as also discussed in The Education-Jobs Gap book).


Implications for Education and Training Systems

So what should those responsible for education and training programs do in this context?

  1. recognize the extensiveness of the knowledge society and the varied and often complex learning activities and capacities of their target populations. Virtually all Canadians are active general learners who know a lot more than they will ever be able to demonstrate in specific education and training courses, and they will get more out of these courses if they can put more of their relevant prior learning and experience into them. So, engage in demonstration projects to more fully incorporate the relevant informal knowledge of participants in education and training programs, and develop more inclusive admissions procedures to recognize prior informal learning through such means as portfolio assessment.

  2. give high priority to enhancing the language skills of those who perform poorly in the dominant language and are thereby blocked from gaining other technical skills or, in the case of immigrants, from applying already acquired technical skills. Recognize that many with low levels of English literacy have multiple other useful skills they should be enabled to apply.

    appreciate that skill shortages in specific areas are exceptions that prove the general rule of underemployment of the existing pool of knowledge and skill. Continue to mount short- term programs to fill the specific skill supply gaps that continue to emerge. But place greater emphasis on developing new collaborative programs involving employers, 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. The most important economic role that any education and training programs 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.


David W. Livingstone is Director, National Research Network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL) and Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto OISE/UT).

Further information about this national survey and many related case studies may be obtained by contacting NALL project staff: David Livingstone (416 923-6641 x2703) or Reuben Roth (416 923-6641 x2392).

All background data referred to are reported in D.W. Livingstone. The Education-Jobs Gap which is being published in November, 1998 by Garamond Press, 67 Mowat Ave., Ste. 144, Toronto, Ont. M6G 3E3; phone: 416 516-2709; FAX: 416 517-0571;email: Price: $29.95.

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