Learning Despite School

While organised education and deliberate, goal-oriented practice has its place, and is indeed critical, it needs to be balanced with the development of social competence and intrinsic motivation. The vast majority of learning happens in informal social situations within communities of like minded people, where individuals take initiative and learn to work with other people in meaningful settings. Schools may hinder this important avenue of growth and increase stress and anxiety.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” ~ Lao Tzu.

The role of informal learning

The importance of informal learning in all areas of life cannot be overstated. For anyone observing people going about their life, it is obvious that every waking moment (and indeed, also sleeping moments) presents experiences which shape our brains, and thus, learning happens. Historically, informal learning has been off the spotlights since it is more difficult to study than organised forms of education. However, during the 21st century, surveys have shown that the majority of learning happens in informal settings[1], and even governmental policies have changed to encourage informal learning[4].

Learning within workplaces can be divided into non-formal and informal learning. If these terms are unfamiliar, here are short definitions:

  • Formal education is highly institutionalised, bureaucratic, curriculum driven, and formally recognised with grades, diplomas, or certificates.[1]
  • Non-formal learning is organised learning outside of the formal education system.[1]
  • Informal learning occurs in community, where individuals have opportunities to observe and participate in social activities.[2]

The clear majority of learning within workplaces is informal[3], even though companies spend huge resources on non-formal training of their employees.

Many office workers receive training in these surroundings. Results could be better.

Likewise it can be argued that a large portion of learning that happens in schools stems from informal activities, such as social interactions during recess. The magnitude of this informal learning clearly depends on how strictly pupils and their time use are controlled by the faculty. Most resources in educational systems are spent in the advancement of formal education.

How Finnish schools enable informal learning

Finnish primary schools consistently rank high in various international studies, and produce excellent educational outcomes. While there are several reasons behind the success of Finnish schools, one of their typical features is the large amount of free time pupils are given.

  • For every 45 minutes of class time, 15 minutes of recess are provided. Recess is free undirected time, usually spent outdoors.
  • 30–45 minutes are reserved each day for lunch, provided by the school.
  • Children enter school the year they turn 7, giving them more years of free childhood than in most other educational systems.
  • School days are short, starting with 4–5 hours in the lower grades, and growing to 6–8 in higher grades.
  • The amount of homework is light, usually between 0–4 hours per week.
  • Classroom time often includes group work, project work, and personalised learning activities.

All this generates lots of time in children’s lives where they can independently (or with partial guidance) decide what to do, explore their surroundings, and experience new things. All of this is informal learning and it can cultivate skills such as independence, critical thinking, accountability, social competence, self-efficacy, metacognition, time management, planning, and emotional intelligence.

Balancing academic, social and physical development

Finnish studies on pupils’ hobbies and free time use show that the constructive and positive spirit in classrooms increases as pupils spend more of their free time with each other; as their classmates become closer friends, motivation to attend classes increases; and continuing into higher education is more likely. Results also highlight the importance of non-programmed time, where teens are not supposed to do anything or achieve something. Exploration and experimentation are important. Creative crossing of boundaries of accepted behaviour is also important for the teens’ ethical development.[5] Social competence even as early as age 5 has been shown to be connected with adult life quality and productivity[8].

The effects of physical exercise to cognitive capacity and ability to focus are clear and are changing even workplace practices (e.g. walking meetings). Studies of Finnish students have shown that physical exercise has a positive effect on learning and cognitive functions, such as memory and executive functions, and can possibly affect academic achievement[6].

On the other hand, it is clear that to develop top talent in any field (including sports), young people need a balance of training, competition, and free play and exploration. Focusing too early on serious practice activities that are not enjoyable will damage intrinsic motivation[7].

In countries where schools control their pupils more strictly, opportunities for informal learning are diminished. Children then tend to focus their interests and motivation on their hobbies that happen after school. In some countries, children spend nearly all their waking hours on formal learning tasks, which may produce good academic outcomes, but limits severely the benefits that informal learning could provide. Finnish schools show that an approach that emphasises children’s natural tendencies for exploration and learning, can also provide excellent academic results.


A clear majority of learning for any individual happens in informal settings. While formal education and on-the-job training play a role, they will be more effective if they can acknowledge and accommodate informal learning that individuals will engage in regardless. In practice this means at least giving time for non-directed social activities, reflection, and physical activities. In addition, utilising learners’ own life interests in making formal training more engaging and relevant will increase learning outcomes significantly. Combining formal and informal is at the core of learner-centric approaches.


  1. Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.) New York: Wiley.
  2. Paradise, R. and Rogoff, B. (2009), Side by Side: Learning by Observing and Pitching In. Ethos, 37: 102–138. doi:10.1111/j.1548–1352.2009.01033.x
  3. Kim, K., Collins Hagedorn, M., Williamson, J., Chapman, C. (2004). Participation in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning: 200001 (NCES 2004–050). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  4. Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (2009). The Learning Revolution. ISBN 978–0101755528
  5. The Good Leisure Time Development and Research Project 2013–2017. Finland.
  6. National Board of Education. (2012). Physical activity and learning. Status review October 2012. Finland. http://www.oph.fi/download/145366_Physical_activity_and_learning.pdf
  7. Wall, M., & Côté, J. (2007). Developmental activities that lead to dropout and investment in sport. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 12(1), 77–87.
  8. Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health, 105(11), 2283–2290. http://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302630

About the Author

Tarmo Toikkanen is Chief Learning Scientist at LifeLearn Platform. He has over a decade of research experience in the fields of learning environments, participatory design, and educational psychology. His passion is to save the world by helping people learn and teach in better ways. This article is part of a series to explain LifeLearn Platform’s ideas on learning.