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Learning Informally - what life learning parents taught an educational researcher.

Learning Informally
By Alan Thomas

What life learning parents taught an educational researcher about the nature of learning.

The story of how I became interested in informal learning mirrors what many home educating parents go through. I had felt there was something not quite right about my own schooling.

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. The upshot of this was an article called “Individualized Teaching,” published in 1992 in the Oxford Review of Education.

In essence, the obvious idea is that in order to teach efficiently you must discover what each child knows and how they think so that you can lead them on. Even in modem 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.

I was working in Australia at this time and returned for a year to England where I went to see author and individualized education proponent Roland Meighan. I was proud of my article on Individualized Teaching but I was a bit bemused to hear him say to someone else as I entered the room, “Ahhh, that Alan Thomas has got this thing about teaching.” After talking for a time, he showed me a letter he had just received from a home educator saying, “Would anyone like to spend a week with us living in to see what it’s like?”

I spent a week with that home educating family. The first morning I was down early. I had breakfast, went upstairs, cleaned my teeth, came back down again and sat down with my clipboard. What happened next? Nothing happened. Half an hour later, still nothing happened. And then this boy came past me with a book in front of him, reading the book and totally ignoring me. And that’s how the week continued. By the end if you had asked me to document what I’d seen in the way of teaching I would have said, “Not very much.” I offered to teach the children probability and the mother very politely said, “Well, maybe later in the week.” And on Friday morning she said “Maybe this afternoon.” In the afternoon she said, “Well now it’s too late. It’s not worth you starting.” Very gently she’d pushed me out of teaching.

But on Wednesday, a chance event happened. They were sitting round the table in the kitchen doing projects that were of interest to them. The mother was there cooking and I was sitting there with my clipboard and the conversation ranged from the political to “Can we have sticky buns for tea?” All sorts of topics came up. I thought, “Wow! This is learning through social conversation.” There were little nuggets of learning in there! Nobody knew it; they all simply accepted it somehow.

So the next article I wrote in the Oxford Review of Education was called “Conversational Learning.” Again, you can’t do this in a school because you don’t have social conversation in a school. You have peer/peer conversation but you don’t have social conversation with somebody who knows more than you. The teacher/pupil relationship is very set in its ways. At the end of the article I said the only way to find out more is through studying children who are home-educated. I went back to a book that I had dismissed before – a wonderful 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 – that if you were middle class the level of language would be better at home and if you’re working class the level would be better than in school.

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.” That child had asked the question, “Can you cut it in half for me please?” There is a totally different quality of language between the two.

I went out to interview home educators. This was early in the 1990s. This was quite difficult at the time, as there was a lot of resistance to anyone coming from the outside who “might dob you in to the authorities.” What started as a very small-scale research project blossomed into a study of a hundred families based in Australia and in England. I found a very wide range of approaches from extremely formal (one family rang a bell at 9am and the children came in from the garden for the lessons to start) to the other extreme where the children did what they wanted with no apparent structure whatsoever.

In the beginning, when I had about 20 families in England, I gave a paper at a psychological conference where my listeners could be divided into those who were genuinely interested to those who thought that home education should not be allowed. On returning to Australia, I had a phone call from somebody in Tasmania who said, “Would you like to come and do some research?” I asked how he knew about me and he said, “You were in the paper the other day.” I went down to the state library and looked up the local paper The Hobart Mercury and couldn’t find any reference to me anywhere. Then I looked at the World News and there it was: “Academic Says Home Education Works!”

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,” 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.

However, I got interested in informal learning because I think formal learning at home isn’t a big deal. A lot of professional educators think just taking a child out of the school system is a massive undertaking, but it’s not really. There is no reason why anyone can’t take a child through a textbook, if they are determined to. Informal learning is in a different category altogether. I was especially interested in those parents who had started formally and had gradually become informal because they are the ones who are discovering it for themselves and were not accepting any ideology.

How Do Parents Become Informal Home Educators?

There are two influences: first, 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 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 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. Within six months or a year, they are reading at an adult level. So when they are ready they will learn and they will enjoy it.


A brief word on literacy. I was not expecting literacy to feature too much in my research, but what I found was surprising. Parents were telling me that their children had learned to read at anywhere from the ages of two to 11. I thought that was odd. I’ve seen other studies that some children learn to read late without any apparent drawback. In fact, because children are forced to learn to read, whether they like it or not, whether they’re interested or not, you get a rise in the standard of literacy in schools. That’s like saying that if you swim three hours a day then there will be a rise in the swimming ability and, in the same way, if you go on and on about literacy it increases. However, this other research then showed that those children whose level of literacy had increased were less likely to read for pleasure. In my research, when the children learned late (say they were not reading at nine and then they started reading,) it was said to be “like being on a downhill train”!

How Do We Understand Informal Learning?

There are some people who have researched adult informal learning who describe it as “elusive,” “evanescent,” “implicit,” and very, very difficult to get hold of. Learning without knowing you’re learning is very hard to document. How many people know how their children learned to talk? They just learn to talk. You see them learning sometimes and you get glimpses into the learning process but, first of all, they are not taught. Informal learning is very difficult to pin down.

I was very lucky in the first book I wrote to meet one parent who became obsessed with keeping a document of all her child’s informal learning. I have a pile of exercise books to prove it! Over a period of time, I spent weeks with this family when I was doing my research in Tasmania. Of course, relying on informal learning can be a bit scary. As the child’s mother put it: “I don’t know where it’s all going. There are threads going here and threads going there and threads that don’t seem to be going anywhere. I don’t understand what’s happening! 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.

So trying to understand informal learning is difficult. You have all these little bits and pieces picked up from here and there. How on earth does a child in their brain – or me or you – put the pieces all together into what becomes a coherent body of knowledge?

It seems there is informal learning that is implicit – things you pick up without knowing you are picking them up. People sometimes say, “I don’t know how I know that but I know it” and often it may be quite profound. 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.

Research Into Informal Education

At this point in my education, I decided to write an article on informal learning to try to pull together anything I could to understand it. To that end I have been collaborating with an anthropologist, Harriet Pattison, and we wrote an academic article in which we explore informal learning theoretically and in depth. This was also partly in response to an Irish home educator who said that he feared the authorities would never understand informal learning.

So we looked across the board and there is some very interesting research into adult informal learning. One piece is with people in professions. The researchers wanted to know what informal learning had contributed to the advancement of professional knowledge. The problem was that the professionals (doctors, lawyers, social workers, etc.) didn’t know what the researchers were talking about. The researchers had to explain what informal learning was. The upshot was that some of these lawyers and medical specialists came to understand that they were picking up a large amount without knowing they were learning it, just by being with colleagues.

A lot of research into informal learning is related to work. People go into a new job and they pick up a lot of their information informally. There is some research that shows people learn more efficiently informally than if they have specific little courses designed to teach certain skills. A good example of this is a study with Brazilian carpenters who, without ever having been on a course, 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.

So we then looked at early learning. We all know that you cannot teach infants to talk, but there is very little research into informal early learning because it is assumed by the educators that, even with very young children, it is always adult-led, that any learning that’s of any use must come from the adult, maybe fairly informally, but the adult sets the agenda. What I want to reinforce, however, is the pro-active nature of informal learning. Children will learn what they need to in the culture that they are in. In other words, as somebody said, “We are predisposed to learn our culture.” Now if that culture includes intellectual elements: basic math, being articulate, learning to read, then this knowledge will be acquired.

How do children learn to read informally? Well, there are words around you all the time. There are shop names, street names, and you see adults reading. It is something that you do in the culture and because it is part of what you do in the culture you are interested in doing it; hence children of three or four will pretend to write because it is a cultural skill they want to acquire. Another thing is that parents read to children. Many children just learn to read. Not all, of course; some have problems, but a lot just seem to learn to read without being taught.

This is really shocking to a professional educator! In fact, the chief inspector of schools for Ofsted [the UK’s Office for Standards in Education] said, and I quote from The Guardian newspaper on October 6, 2004, “The idea that children could learn to read by osmosis is plain crackers.” Now that really riles me because you have somebody here who is supposed to be well-educated himself, but he is not willing even to think of anything else; he just goes along with one simple ideology without allowing for any other possibilities!

We made an interesting finding when looking at learning through play, such as happens in nursery schools, for example. There is a debate between the “free flow” play people and the educational “managers” who say that no play is worth anything unless it is properly managed with educational objectives within the play. And yet it has been observed that if you simply leave children to play, they will learn their culture by practicing being in their culture. This is not to learn the culture in order to be in the culture – the child is in the culture from the start. Someone has described this as being like a club; the child is a member of that club and therefore it is assumed s/he will gradually acquire adult ways of behaving, adult values and attitudes and intellectual knowledge that is integral to the culture.

Learning through play is accepted for young children. We know that children continue to learn through play after they have reached school age, and yet in schools it is looked upon as a waste of time and of recreational value only. However, there are countless examples of children learning and trying out quite complex things through play.

How Do Children Learn Informally?

How do they learn on a minute-by-minute level? One way is through observation – by watching what people do. There was a lovely advert on the TV in Australia aiming to cut down on alcoholic consumption. It showed two little children acting like their parents. The Mother was in the house and the Father came in saying, “Oh, I’ve had a hard day!” and this little kid of three or four went straight to the refrigerator pretending to get his beer and drink it. So the little girl said, “Well I’ll have a glass of wine” and the caption was “Everything you do they are watching…and learning!” We all use observation as a way to learn and so do young children.

Another way of learning we came across in my research was practice. You may think, “Oh no, that sounds boring; it’s what children in school do!” but we found that children learning informally do a lot of practice. There was one little girl being educated informally and we were in the car once when, out of the blue, she said, “In six years time I’ll be 13,” and her mother said, “That’s right; how did you work that out?” and the little girl replied, “I always do add ups and take aways in my head.” She was practicing. She wasn’t being told to; it was just an informal thing to do, and this was how she was able to refine and extend her mathematical knowledge.

Another way of learning we observed was “intellectual search.” Tizard and Hughes (Young Children Learning at Home and in School, 1984, Fontana) use this phrase in their research. When they are very young, children ask questions all the time, following a logical train of thought either on their own or with parents or whatever. As children grow older this seems to be extended. I have found in my research that older children who are educated at home informally are able to follow something as far as they would like. One boy studied only chemistry for a year. This is advanced intellectual search.

However, we still don’t know how, from all these little bits and pieces of knowledge and without realizing it, children come to “know” in informal learning. There might be elements of teaching, such as when a child asks something and you tell them, but that is very different from a parent saying, “Right, I am going to teach you something now.”

So what do we conclude from all this? Two things. Firstly, insofar as intellectual skills and knowledge are part and parcel of culture, they can be acquired without being separated from all the social things that people are doing, simply as a part of growing up. The best parallel is learning to talk. Children learn the grammar of their language, which is very complex, without any teaching at all.

Secondly, the kind of learning that is going on during the first few years can be extended beyond early childhood and through to the later years. Professional educators cannot see this. Suddenly there is a cut-off and children are exposed to a totally different kind of pedagogy. The first pedagogy is proactive and informal. The second is, “I will tell you what to learn.” They are very, very different.

Dr. Alan Thomas is a developmental psychologist. He has been a teacher at all levels, from primary school through to university in the UK, Holland, Spain and Australia. For many years, he has been a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London, researching home education, especially informal/autonomous/unschooling/natural learning. He has written three books and worked with hundreds of home education families in the UK, Australia, and Ireland. He has a particular interest in informal and conversational learning. This essay first appeared in “Learner-Managed Learning and Home Education: A European Perspective,” Leslie Barson, ed, (2006 Educational Heretics Press.) It was published in Life Learning Magazine in 2007.

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