Review of Informal Learning by Dr Alan Thomas

Informal Learning

Dr Alan Thomas
(Review by Craig Smith)
Group of Children
In their book A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of
Disorder, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman show that
moderately disorganized people and institutions are
frequently “more efficient, more resilient, more creative
and, in general, more effective than highly organized
ones.” And probably more successful too. They
cite a survey that found that the higher the salary, the
messier the person: “Sixty-six percent of Americans
making $35,000 or less are self-described ‘neat freaks,’
whereas only 11 percent of those earning above
$75,000 claim the same.” Abrahamson and Freedman
are at the forefront of what one might call the “anti
anti-clutter movement.” They are encouraging people
to invite confusion into their lives in order to be more
creative and productive both personally and at work. In
an article in Inc. magazine, they advise us to “be inconsistent,
pile up, blur categories, make noise, bounce around, get
distracted.” Sound like any kid you know?
Unschooled kids are a good example of how making a
mess gets things done. And usually, the more they’re
learning, the bigger the mess they create. Places that
stress neatness, order and quiet might make good retreat
spas, but they don’t function well as learning environments.1
When I first heard about unschooling and read up a bit
on its number one promoter, a life-long bachelor and
career school teacher named John Holt (author of
Growing without Schooling), I was put right off by
much of Holt’s radical secular philosophy. However,
I’ve met a few young people who have been home educated
in this manner, and I must say, they were articulate
and creative. Maybe not as disciplined nor as methodical
nor as predictable as most Christians would
like their children to aspire to, nor generally as reverent,
but these are only generalities. And not everyone
defines “unschooling” as did Holt. Our family consider
ourselves “unschoolers” in the academics (but very
hands-on in character training) for we consciously
adopt unschool-like, non-institutional-like ways, even
though we realise the term “Christian unschoolers” is a
contradiction in terms to American homeschoolers.
Nevertheless, a lot of what is written about unschooling
rings true.
Dr Alan Thomas is Visiting Fellow at the University of
London Institute of Education. He was formerly at the
Northern Territory University, Darwin, Australia. He is
a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. In 2006,
he wrote an essay on this topic that started out just as
we’d all like to read:
Originally, the research I wanted to do was into
what children actually learn in the classroom. My
gut feeling was that schooling was totally inefficient,
that children spend a lot of time learning very little.
At the back of my mind all the time was the question,
“What is it that is wrong with the way children learn
in school?” An advantage of teaching in a university
was that I had the freedom to research what I
wanted. So I thought, “Well, how do children learn?
Let’s look right back to classical times to see what
philosophers and other educational thinkers had to
say about children’s learning. Across more than two
millennia, what they nearly all said was that the best
way to “teach” children was individually.2
Dr Thomas points out how everyone knows this, including
the schooling establishment: Even in modern
times, educators talking about the best way of teaching
children refer to individualized teaching. The interests
of the individual are paramount. It simply doesn’t
make sense to teach 30 at the same time. You can’t
individualize in the classroom. But the rhetoric of
classroom teaching is that this is exactly what you do.2
Most of us home educators, like Dr Thomas here, have
long recognised that schools say one thing and do
something quite the opposite. On top of that, classroom
teachers often belabour a point unnecessarily, hoping
to teach a nugget of wisdom, when the fact is, the children
already know it. Dr Thomas refers to a book by
Barbara Tizard called Young Children Learning at
Home and in School (1984, Fontana):
The book studied children who were half-time at a
nursery and half-time at home, a standard thing in the
British education system. They wanted to see what
their language was like at home and in school. What
they expected was a big class difference…But what
they found astounded them. Working class or middle
class, the level of language used between children and
parents at home was of a far higher standard than that
used in school. Not only was it of a higher standard,
but also the children themselves were able to follow
their own logical means of enquiry. Whereas in school
the typical example they give is when a child walks up
to a teacher with a piece of paper and says, “Can you
cut it in half for me please?” and the teacher thinks
“Aha! Here’s a teaching opportunity.” So she says,
“Go and get the scissors then.” And the child gets
them. By now the teacher has been distracted by a lot
of things and then says, “Now what am I doing now? I
am cutting it in …, what am I doing to this piece of paper?”
“You’re cutting it,” the child says. “Yes, but
what am I cutting it into, in two pieces, so what am I
cutting it in?” The child says, “You’re cutting it for me
into two pieces.” This goes on for a bit until the teacher
says, “I’m cutting it in half.”2
Sadly, the teacher never picked up on the fact that the
child’s initial question was, “Can you cut it in half for
me please?” NZ’s own Dr Graeme Nuttall of Canterbury
University confirmed during a whole lifetime of
educational research that students already know at least
50% of what teachers teach.3
Dr Thomas was invited to Tasmania to do some research
on home educators there: “Eventually I got a
total of a hundred families taking part in my research. I
found a few who carefully stuck to a school approach,
a majority doing some structured work in the mornings,
leaving the rest of the day free, and a small number
who were completely and utterly informal, doing
what the North Americans call “unschooling,” what is
sometimes known in Britain as “autonomous,” and in
Australia as “natural learning.” I would not for a moment
say one approach is better than another. Perhaps
the best advice, commonly given to new home educators
who are unsure of themselves, is to start with a
structured approach and adapt as you go along.”2
In his research on this idea of “informal” or “natural”
learning, Dr Thomas came up with two influences that
seemed to shift parents toward adopting such an approach:
[F]irst, the gradual realization that school at
home doesn’t work. You don’t need a timetable. These
families had started with, for example, planned lessons
and then learned it was not necessary. You just carry
on from where you were before. Lesson planning, curriculum
planning and timetables just aren’t needed at
all, even if you stay fairly formal. There is no point in
giving exercises because if you can do something, you
can do it. There is no need to prove it over and over
again. There is no need for marking or assessment because
you know exactly what your child is up to. The
beauty of it is the interactive element. Because you always
know where your child is at, you’re not wasting children
are learning anyway outside the formal system,
then there is a move away from formal learning.
Some parents abandoned formal teaching altogether as
a result. This is fascinating because it pointedly challenges
establishment wisdom and educational theory.2
Trying to understand informal learning is difficult.
Learning without knowing you’re learning is very hard
to document. One home schooling mum in Tasmania
illustrated the phenomenon like this:
“I really feel sometimes I want to say, ‘Right, let’s get
that text book out and let’s get on with some proper
learning!’.” But she didn’t and the child continued to
learn. In fact, this child learned everything except what
her mother tried to teach her, which was the multiplication
tables, and this was when she was 10 or 11. But
she did learn her 20 times table before any of the others
because she found out that you could get money from
supermarket trolleys. At the time this was 20 cents, so
when she was only about five or six years old, she
knew her 20 times table. The motivation was there to
learn. By the age of 11 she was on a par with what
children in school had learned.
Then there is informal learning that is goal-directed –
for example a child spurred to find out about Roman
life after seeing a film. There is a world of difference
between this kind of learning and being taught it as
part of a curriculum in school.2
Current research into “informal Learning” shows that
professional people, lawyers and doctors, are constantly
learning and advancing through their everyday
work and by being with colleagues. Dr Thomas referred
to a good example of this in a study with Brazilian
carpenters: [W]ithout ever having been on a course,
[they] have a better understanding of math related to
carpentry than do apprentices who have just finished a
taught course of the same material. These people are
simply learning alongside others who are better at it
than they are, and they gradually pick it up.2
Very young children apparently will learn quite a lot in
a similar way. They are pre-disposed to learn what is
important in their own culture: that is, the Lord has us
wired up at least from birth to pick up clues all around
us and discover those things that others around us
deem as important. These things very young children
will mimic and strive to learn: when they see that
adults value reading and writing, they will pick up pencils
and books and pretend to read and write. It is well
known that many children, by no means all, will actually
teach themselves to read.
Certainly, doing school at home is generally far less
productive than one-to-one interaction over the course
of performing everyday chores and errands and projects.
The basic skills that must be mastered – reading,
writing and arithmetic – may require some intensive
formal tuition, but all other subjects can be taught –
that is, picked up by the student – by reading books
together, doing projects, going on field trips to museums,
science centres or other more relevant areas of the
real world such as the home, the community, the work
any time and it’s highly intensive.
That’s getting informal already by official educational
standards, but it goes further than this because the parents
realized that their children were learning a lot outside
the formal system. Because it was so intensive,
most parents in my study group came to restrict teaching
or structured learning to an hour or two in the
morning. They came to realize that their children were
learning a lot outside this time without being taught.
Phrases like, “I don’t know where he got that from, he
just knows it,” or even, “We do a course in math but
more math seems to happen.”
The second very important influence was from some of
the children themselves. These are children who resist
formal learning. At first this was terrible for the families.
Parents told me that they were prepared to teach a
very interesting lesson, and the children resisted learning
in this way; their eyes would become glazed…they
weren’t interested! Now, there is a significant difference
here between school and home. In school you
don’t have all the children listening all the time, but
you can’t just say, “Well we’ll stop there and do what
you want for an hour.” You have to continue to teach
the lesson regardless of who is listening or not listening.
But at home, the feedback that you get is acute,
and parents find it is pointless to keep teaching in this
way. If you ally this with the observation that these
place and the market place.
“Does not wisdom cry out, And understanding lift up
her voice? She takes her stand on the top of the high
hill, Beside the way, where the paths meet. She cries
out by the gates, at the entry of the city, At the entrance
of the doors,” (Proverbs 8:1-3). We can introduce her
(wisdom) to our children out there in the real world…it
is debatable whether she is hanging around in an artificial
classroom setting.
1. From the Editorial by Wendy Priesnitz, Life Learning,
March/April 2007,
2. Alan Thomas, “What life learning parents can teach the
world about the nature of learning,” www. This essay
first appeared in “Learner-Managed Learning and
Home Education: A European Perspective,” Leslie Barson,
ed, (2006 Educational Heretics Press.) For information,
3. “It’s About Bluff,” Keystone, Vol. XIV, No. 73, January
2008, p. 11.

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