No one can deny that a formal education is hugely beneficial for success. We know that education is the greatest weapon against poverty, allowing people to gain employment and maintain healthier lifestyles. But we also can’t deny that some people do not respond well to education delivered in a formal style. This could be because they have issues with accepting authority, are not confident in speaking up in class or can’t find a course or programme that adequately addresses their skills set or interests. To assume these people are less able than others is naïve and ignorant – many people simply respond better to different learning environments. Even when people have a well-developed formal education, they may find that the learning they have received in other areas of life, perhaps through knowledge passed down from older generations or through socialising with friends, has been more beneficial than anything they learned in school. We could argue that informal learning has more benefits than a formal education.
Informal learning vs formal learning
To succeed in life, a formal education has always been important – educational institutions and employers use qualifications to gauge a person’s intellect and commitment to a subject. What a student has studied in secondary school impacts on what they can study at college and university. The same can be said for employment and career choices – an employer that wants to hire a journalist isn’t looking for someone who has a background in mathematics. Formal qualifications provide definite proof of someone’s knowledge and skills.
Informal learning can be harder to prove, but even within the jobs market it often forms an important part of the interview process. Interviewers may ask questions about a person’s personal interests, the greatest challenges they have overcome and even who has been the most influential person in an interviewee’s life. These experiences can easily come from an informal learning process as opposed to a formal one and they ask these questions deliberately to gain an understanding of a person’s character.
Should employers be looking for soft skills rather than formal qualifications?
Employers certainly do look for soft skills, such as communication and people skills, emotional intelligence and personality traits. These are often discussed in cover letters, as an applicant for a job role is aware that these are important aspects of a potential fit for the role. Despite this, the formal qualifications are often considered the most crucial in putting an application forward to the next stage. This is understandable and we touched on this idea earlier with the mathematics / journalism concept. Even so, people can change careers at any point in their lives and prove that they are able and worthy in a range of completely different roles.
This begs the question as to whether employers and educational institutions should start focusing more on informal learning experiences than a formal education. Many skills are transferable and often the most transferable will be soft skills. Of course, formal education settings will enable a person to build their soft skills, but to say they are better at building them than informal learning experiences is naïve. We often learn skills such as emotional intelligence and good communication when socialising outside of school. Teamwork can be learned by helping our families and our friends.
What is the most valuable thing people have learned in life?
Here we asked people what is the most valuable thing they have ever learned. We did not tell them that their responses would form a formal / informal learning argument, simply to tell us the most valuable knowledge they have gained in life. These were their responses:
“Never ignore your bills.”
“Shakespeare is overrated.”
“Don’t gamble – stick with what you’ve got.”
“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.”
“Things can be super fragile – if you just chill and don’t actively sort out what you want in life, it can go wrong very quickly. Think conservatory in life form.”
Most of these responses appear to be lessons learned in informal ways. Never underestimate the power of informal learning and how it can impact on a learner’s life.
You might also be interested in:
- My greatest informal learning stories: a collection of stories (blog) - different stories from Ecorys staff describing the informal learning experiences that have had a positive impact on their lives
- My greatest informal learning stories: a collection of stories - continued (blog) - different stories from Ecorys staff and others describing the informal learning experiences that have had a positive impact on their lives
- Turning your hobby into a career - the delights of non-formal learning (blog) - discusses how personal interests can be transformed into great career opportunities and hobbies that are best suited to non-formal teaching
- Groundwork's Community Gardening Project Toolkit (resource) - covers how community gardening projects can be hugely beneficial to communities and encourage a stronger sense of citizenship
- European guidelines for validating non-formal and informal learning (resource) - The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) released guidelines for validating non-formal and informal learning