Informal Learning

Informal Learning

Alan Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Northern Territory, Darwin, is formulating something he calls “the Child’s Theory of Learning” as a result of what he has observed over the years. It contrasts sharply with the way children are expected to learn in school.

He observes the typical classroom: busy beavers industriously engaged in one activity after another, producing all kinds of colourful and creative items to hang around the room. He observes home educators who practise a much more informal method of learning: nothing much seems to happen: they go for walks, read a lot, work on their own projects now and again, take music lessons on Thursdays, help out a neighbour down the road. Yes, there was a lot of discussion about all kinds of things during a typical day, with mum acting more like a mentor than a lecturer or assignment-setter and marker.

Thomas says that what struck him the most was incidental conversation. “Whether we were out walking, sitting around the kitchen table, engaged in some other activity such as drawing, making something, or working on a project, eating or just out in the car, there seemed to be an incredible amount of incidental talk.”

Isn’t it interesting how this parallels our Lord’s instructions to us in Deuteronomy 6:6-7 – “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

Thomas was struck by the reality that children in school rarely get the opportunity to have such lengthy informal conversations with adults. And yet for the first five years of life – before school – this is precisely how children learn: by constant banter with mum and dad all day. They learn huge amounts of general knowledge, numerical concepts, literacy skills as well as how to speak maybe several languages – and this is routinely done by virtually all parents with no particular thought to what they’re doing.

Yet this highly effective Child’s Theory of Learning must be abandoned once they start school. Professors Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes at London University compared the quality of learning of three to four year olds in pre-school, which the children attended in the mornings, with unintentional learning at home in the afternoons. The researchers were struck by the high quality of language and learning at home, irrespective of the parents’ level of education:

At home, children discussed topics like work, the family, birth, growing up and death — about things they had done together in the past, and plans for the future; they puzzled over such diverse topics as the shapes of roofs and chairs, the nature of Father Christmas, and whether the Queen wears curlers in bed. But at pre-school, the richness, the depth and variety which characterised the home conversations were sadly missing.  So too was the sense of intellectual struggle, and of the real attempts to communicate being made on both sides. The questioning, puzzling child we were so taken with at home was gone. Conversations with adults were mainly restricted to answering questions rather than asking them, or taking part in minimal exchanges about the whereabouts of other children and play material.

Could children go on learning in this fashion for years on end….and not do the “school” thing? Roland Meighan of the University of Nottingham School of Education notes that “Families starting out on home-based education who at first adopted formal methods of learning found themselves drawn more and more into less formal learning. Families who started out with informal learning at the outset found themselves drawn into even more informal learning.” He points out that this informal or incidental learning closely resembles the kind of learning so efficiently engaged in by pre-school infants at home. Then Meighan makes the astounding statement: “The sequencing of learning material, the bedrock of learning in school, was seen increasingly as unnecessary and unhelpful.” It seems that at home students can learn very well just by living.

For many home educators, and certainly for many of the more popular packaged curriculum used by home educators, the immovable assumption is the need for a well-planned scope and sequence through which to move the students.  (See Figure 1).

Figure 1:

Conventional Scope & Sequence in Schools

Reading Writing Maths Science History
Level 1 Level 1 Level 1 Level 1 Level 1
Level 2 Level 2 Level 2 Level 2

Level 2

Level 3 Level 3 Level 3 Level 3 Level 3

Barbara Smith of the Home Education Foundation, Palmerston North, New Zealand, recently encapsulated the observation of Thomas, Meighan, Tizard and Hughes when she said: “Children develop their own scope & sequence: it is generally composed of two three-letter words: how and why.”

Indeed. And children use this method of learning with tremendous results, exceeding in amount learned during the first five years all that they’ll learn in the next 20. Why does it have to stop at age five or six when the child is expected to start school and suddenly be expected to learn at a pace, at a place, during a time and concentrating on subjects chosen by someone else totally unfamiliar with the child’s developmental progress to date, his or her family background, culture, interests, abilities, values, beliefs, learning style and inclinations?

Asking “Why?” and “How?”, children will fill in a knowledge grid (see figure 2) which is wider in scope than any used by schools. They will not follow any particular sequence, for life experiences and interesting connections and curiosity do not follow any predictable pattern. Even so the grid will continue to be filled in with each successive question, discussion and conversation, many times to a far greater depth (and certainly with an important emphasis on its relevance to the individual student) than happens in school. And because the child is asking the questions, he will doubtlessly remember much more of the material in that part of the grid than he would of the comparable part in a conventional school-style scope and sequence grid that was covered when the child was absent from school or daydreaming, unwell, distracted, upset or unmotivated.

No wonder Roland Meighan asked in regard to informal home-based education not “Does it work?” but “Why does it work so well?”

Figure 2:

A Possible Child’s “How?” & “Why?” Scope & Sequence

From Keystone Magazine
September 2002 , Vol. VIII No. 5
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