Informal Learning Groups

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Justin Smith
The Public Sphere Project & St. Mary's University

Overemphasis upon formal education can lead to an oversight of alternative learning methods that could be more appropriate within certain contexts. Particularly, for adult populations looking to increase their understanding on relevant subjects, the option of pursuing formal training is not conducive due to the investment in time and extra resources it takes. As a result, people find it difficult to acquire the skills necessary for them to address a radically changing global economy, and thus many capable people continue to remain behind.


In cities, in villages, in the work place, or an internet cafe, even in a coffee shop amongst friends, learning can and does take place. Individuals and groups of people can come together to share their knowledge in structured or non structured ways to actively engage one another to mutually build each others understandings. When other methods of learning are not available, and yet the skills necessary to gain better employment, or the building of awareness on specific issues facing a community are needed for achieving greater livelihoods; informal learning processes can serve as an effective alternate route to meet the needs of communites and individuals.


In a variety of settings from the workplace to village level development initiatives, informal learning through group interactions and individual self-teaching can be an effective tool for developing new skill sets, alternative ideas and even new approaches to advancing livelihoods.

What is informal learning? There is a hot debate among many educators as to what it really is, especially since its practice has become more common place within developed countries as businesses and employees attempt to stay abreast with the latest developments in technologies, and management practices so that they can collectively and individually remain competitive in a market driven environment.


  • Informal work-related adult education activities that take place without an instructor. Examples of such activities include on-the-job demonstrations by a supervisor or coworker; on-the-job mentoring or supervised training; self-paced study using books, videos, or computer-based software; attendance at brown-bag or informal presentations; and attendance at conferences, trade shows, or conventions related to one’s work or career (
  • Occurs in everyday life and may not even be recognized as learning by the individual. For example, using a television guide may not be equated by an individual as having learned how to use a table. Related concepts/terms include: incidental learning (

To better illustrate, here is a visual aid used to describe informal learning processes based upon information need.

It has been cited that, "Many times we can find the answer in the world around us, through either people, or formal courses, or bits of information. When it's not found (whether it doesn't exist or a search is incomplete), we go into a problem-solving mode. Then we need data, and analytical frameworks. If we do it in conjunction with others, we need collaboration and/or communication tools. Finally, if we solve it, we (should) close the loop by either adapting the materials to account for this problem in the future, or to create new material (Quinn, 2002)".

In the developing country, informal learning has gained a reputation as a tool for meeting a number of goals that not only include skills training, but also civic and health related education that can be acquired through individual inquiry, as well as through group interactions. Similarly, adult literacy projects that utilize an informal education approach (predominately among women populations) have gained increasing prevalence. In fact, women participants of local self-help groups often support one another through imparting knowledge to one another, they can help to tutor each other in their homes for building up literacy and educating each other on personal finance.

When done in a group context an informal learning project can consist of a number of group led demonstrations that relate to managing one’s personal finances, to starting a business, as well as how to use a computer for e-mail and even how to access your political representatives. The learning spaces are as dynamic and varied as the topics and the people often involved in them. Sometimes these groups are started through simple conversations among neighbors, or the group is seeded with support by an outside agency that brings some structure to the initial group development but after time allows the groups to be autonomous and define its own interests and pursuits.

Similarly, online learning groups can assist its members in learning new software, or computer programming. Take for instance the number of user forums dedicated to asking and answer technology related questions. This exchange among participants constitutes an informal learning group in which information is shared that ultimately builds upon the skills of the participants. In this online dialogue, individuals bring to the group their own experiences and expertise to share with other members of the group to help support a mutual sharing of knowledge. Even those not openly communicating with the group can benefit from finding answers to their own questions. As new doors are opened through this process new levels of curiosity emerge that can aid in the further participation in the group.

While these types of learning communities are contingent upon access to information technology; in other contexts these groups can meet within their geographical proximity. Community animator can act as a facilitator by asking participants questions that help them ask new questions or find answers to question that they may have not known how to answer before.

Regardless of how a group is organized the informal learning group serves two basic functions to provide access to information and knowledge creation as well as evoking a deeper level of individual curiosity among participants and to prompt them towards greater levels of self-enrichment, whether that be for financial gains or merely inner personal gains.

Though informal learning has gained greater focus over the years within development related education and beyond, technologies and access to information resources can make this pattern difficult to effectively utilize. While usage of these groups in development initiatives is high its difficult to ascertain whether or not they have had the level of benefit being represented through the increased effectiveness among employees with the corporations of more highly developed countries. While, this does not mean that informal learning groups are inadequate but it perhaps highlights the acceleration of learning possessed by those who have greater access to information on a larger scale. For this reason this pattern could be made more effective within a development related context through the linking with other patterns that emphasize technology infrastructure an alternative access to information for groups.


As an approach to improving the capacities of peoples involved in any number of development schemes designed to address local livelihoods, informal learning groups can provide an alternative avenue for supporting life-long learning spurring individual curiosities and the acquisition of new skills.

Community leaders, self-help groups, development agencies and local employers can all act as initiators in the upstart of informal learning groups and encourage and overall culture of participatory learning geared to meet the interests and needs of the community. All of these can be done through communities meetings, general or directed interactions during tea/coffee breaks, these opportunities can be pursued and developed at the local internet cafe or even time can be set aside by employers who realize the benefits of supporting a more educated and curious workforce.

Overall, the pattern tends to be mutually reinforcing as knowledge is created curiosity tends to be ignited furthering greater levels of self and group directed investigations. It's up to individuals, groups, communities and businesses to promote these endeavors, and thereby increase the intellectual capabilities of its local residents.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Overemphasis on formal education can overshadow more appropriate learning methods. This is especially true for adults with time and money constraints. Informal Learning Groups can support life-long learning, skill-building, and curiosity. Community leaders, self-help groups, development agencies, and local employers can help launch educational projects that encourage a culture of participatory learning to meet community needs.

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