JITE v40n3 - Informal Learning: An Exploratory Study of Unstructured Learning Experiences of T&I Teachers Enrolled In an Alternative Teacher Teacher Education Program

Volume 40, Number 3
Spring 2003

Informal Learning: An Exploratory Study of Unstructured Learning Experiences of T&I Teachers Enrolled In an Alternative Teacher Teacher Education Program

Janet Z. Burns
Karen Schaefer
Georgia State University

Historically the examination of the extent, nature, and development of teacher education courses and programs has produced a substantial amount of theory and research to guide teacher educators. Traditional teacher education programs stress elements of discrete planned experiences used to instruct people how to perform specific portions of the job of the teaching. A review of the literature revealed that teacher education, either preservice or inservice, is typically dominated by courses, workshops, and other structured events. These programs typically are based on direct instruction and readings, and are intended to produce explicit knowledge (Knight, 2002). Explicit knowledge can be expressed in formal and systematic language and is shared in forms such as data, scientific formulas, and specifications (Nonaka, Toyama, & Konno, 2001).

Although teacher education researchers tend to concentrate in the areas of either preservice teacher preparation or inservice professional development, many new trade and industrial education (T&I) teachers do not fit neatly into either preservice or inservice categories. Formal training before entering the workplace is the exception, rather than the norm. Nor in the majority of cases do T&I teachers follow the same teacher preparation as academic teachers (Crawford-Self, 2001). Usually T&I teachers are employed by schools while participating in their teacher education process. Therefore, an amount of their daily learning takes place on the job, in real time, through real work. Consequently, some of what the T&I teachers learn may occur through informal practice.

Purpose of the Study

While researchers in the area of human resource development have explored the role of informal learning in the workplace as it relates to the training and development of employees, there is a lack of investigation relating to informal learning in T&I teachers enrolled in alternative initial teacher preparation programs.

This study attempted to add to the emerging literature in the field of informal learning by providing some evidence that informal learning does indeed take place with new T&I teachers and by describing and categorizing what new T&I teachers considered their most important piece of workplace learning. This study was an examination of the experiences of three years of new teachers' experiences. The following research questions were addressed by this study.

  1. Does informal learning take place for new T &I teachers outside the formal learning experiences?
  2. What is the nature of informal learning among new T&I teachers enrolled in a teacher education program while already employed?
  3. How can this informal learning be categorized?

Review of the Literature

Conceptual Framework - Informal Learning

Informal learning has been defined as learning that is predominantly unstructured, not taking place in an institution of learning. It is experiential and, due to its nature, unable to be fully preprogrammed. Informal learning takes place spontaneously within the context of real work and does not lead to predetermined outcomes (Marsick & Volpe, 1999). Most informal learning is tacit and taken for granted. Tacit knowledge has been described as new knowledge not created explicitly, and is referred to as the knowledge in people's heads created by contextual implication (Polanyi, 1967). Bandura (1986) suggested that informal learning is accomplished through social modeling. Other definitions of informal learning by Marsick and Volpe (1999) suggested that informal learning is triggered by an internal or external jolt, not highly conscious, haphazard, and inductively occurs through action and reflection.

Some research has suggested that informal learning takes precedence over formal learning and that much of what we learn, both in and out of the workplace, occurs during informal practice (Fox, 1997). Other researchers pointed out that while some structured workplace learning occurs, informal learning comprises the majority of learning that occurs in the workplace (Leslie, Aring, & Brand, 1998; Lohman, 2000). Despite the fact that teacher expertise is developed through formal training, when one considers that T&I teachers spend the majority of their time in the workplace during their education process, it seems important to explore how informal learning fits into how teachers develop their professional expertise.

Theoretical Development and Research on Informal Learning

The term "informal learning" was introduced by Malcolm Knowles (1950) in his theoretical work in the area of adult education. However, while the workplace has long been considered an important setting in which adults learn, it has only recently emerged as a setting for the formal study of adult learning (Dirkx, 1999). Informal learning has attracted considerable attention in the literature relating to the workplace, but not in the area of teacher education. Informal learning research began appearing the literature in the 1980s (Edwards & Usher, 2001).

Brook's (1989) research identified some of the informal learning components stemming from a variety of work experiences, a liberal arts education, consciousness-raising seminars, open-ended assignments, modeling of others' critical reflective learning, encouragement of questioning, feedback, and listening to others.

Marsick and Watkins (1997) developed a learning model based on the premise that individual behavior is a function of their interaction of their environment. The model suggests that the workplace is primary for shaping learning, problem definition, problem solving, and reflection. In a study conducted by Crossan, Lane, and White (1999), participants stressed informal and tacit learning over formal learning as having greater impact on their jobs. Johnson (1999) found that individuals learn moment by moment, not just by being provided information or knowledge. Further, much of this learning is informal and comes from more experienced workers through listening and peer interactions.


Capturing informal learning is challenging because it is not highly conscious. Because informal learning takes place on the job, it is best explored through action research in a particular school setting (Hopkins & Antes, 1990). Action research often relies on reflective practice for data gathering. Therefore, one method of revealing informal learning is through reflective practice. By employing the reflective teaching model, the teacher educator serves as an action researcher by encouraging students to bring reports of their field or workplace experiences to class and to analyze their teaching strategies with their mentor and colleagues. Reflective practitioners think about, analyze, evaluate, and sometimes write about what they do at work (Cranton, 1989).


An "availability sampling" approach (Keppel, Saufley, Jr., & Tokunaga, 1991) was used in this study. All subjects attended a major university located in metropolitan Atlanta and were enrolled in an alternative teacher certification program for health occupations and T&I education. The study took place over a three-year time period with a total of 50 subjects. All subjects were classified as adult learners and ranged in age from 27 to 56 years.


A simulation work exercise was adapted from Brookfield (1995) for use in this study. This exercise asked participants to imagine that they have won the lottery and are leaving their current position. They have decided to write a memo to their successor containing their best piece of advice on how to survive in the job: what they know now that they wish someone had told them as they began their work in this position. Subjects worked individually and then in a group to place the advice into categories: instrumental, emotional, and political. The work simulation took approximately one and one-half hours. The most recent group of subjects also rank ordered the advice that had been collected over the three-year time period. Additionally, formal lesson plans, syllabi, and supplemental materials employed in the teacher-training program of the study participants were analyzed to provide insight into the program as well as to confirm knowledge obtained by the subjects through formal methods. With regard to data analysis, data reconstruction was used (Stake, 1995). The levels of data analysis included categorical aggregation, direct interpretation, and pattern determination.


By writing memos of survival advice to an inexperienced teacher, provisionally certified T&I teachers revealed the broad extent of informal learning they had acquired through trial and error their first year on the job. The areas in which these teachers had gained expertise and proficiency ranged from practical "how to" techniques for managing the classroom environment to more subtle awareness of the labyrinth of unwritten codes that often govern a school's political scene. Within the span of the teachers' comments, common themes arose in their memos, making it possible to apply Brookfield's (1995) classification system to group the teachers' suggestions into the three broad categories of instrumental, emotional, and political advice. Into the first category, instrumental advice, fall those comments that pertain to classroom management and instructional skills. Suggestions offered by the teachers for maintaining personal and emotional balance in a potentially stressful workplace are classified as emotional advice, while political advice covers the methods the T&I teachers discovered for deciphering and maneuvering through a school's multiple hidden agendas.

In addition to writing the memos, one group of teachers was given alphabetical lists of the common themes established over a three-year time period, arranged in Brookfield's (1995) three categories. To determine the teachers' perceptions of the relative importance of the advice within the three categories, each teacher in the group was then asked to rank order the items in each category. In the instrumental and emotional survival categories, there were 13 items; and the teachers rank ordered them by number, 1 to 13, according to which item they considered most vital to their survival, with 1 being most important and 13 being least important. There were nine items in the political survival category; therefore, those items were ranked from 1 to 9. The individual rankings for each item were averaged and shown by the rank averages in Tables 1-3. The items were then assigned weighted scores according to the importance given to them. For example, in a list containing 13 items, an item receiving an average ranking of 1 (most important), would be given a weighted score of 13. These scores are reflected in the weighted averages in the tables. In order to provide a uniform basis for comparison among the three categories, all of the scores were converted proportionally to a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most important and 1 being least important. These are shown on the tables as the scaled averages.

Table 1
Instrumental Advice
Advice Rank Weighted Scaled
  average average average

Daily lesson plans 3.6 10.4 8.0
Know the curriculum 4.5 9.5 7.3
Classroom management plan 5.0 9.0 6.9
Consistent rules 5.2 8.8 6.8
Atmosphere of respect 5.2 8.8 6.8
Motivate students 6.5 7.5 5.8
Stay organized 6.6 7.4 5.7
Teach at students' level 7.0 7.0 5.4
Be a role model 7.5 6.5 5.0
Know your students 8.4 5.6 4.3
Ask for information 9.7 4.3 3.3
Be available for students 9.8 4.2 3.2
Persistent with requests 11.1 2.9 2.2

Table 2
Emotional Advice
Advice Rank Weighted Scaled
  average average average

Find a mentor 4.1 9.9 7.6
Set priorities 4.6 9.4 7.2
Be patient 6.2 7.8 6.0
Have fun 6.6 7.4 5.7
Expect the unexpected 6.7 7.3 5.6
Be flexible 7.0 7.0 5.4
Find balance in your life 7.0 7.0 5.4
Reasonable expectations 7.1 6.9 5.3
Stay positive 7.1 6.9 5.3
Do not worry about incompletes 7.2 6.8 5.2
Recognize a teacher's many roles 8.1 5.9 4.5
Accept adolescent behavior 8.8 5.2 4.0
Realize teaching can be lonely 11.9 2.1 1.6

Table 3
Political Advice
Advice Rank Weighted Scaled
  average average average

Know school policy 2.4 7.6 8.4
Keep documentation 2.4 7.6 8.4
Work with administration 4.4 5.6 6.2
Know who is in charge 4.4 5.6 6.2
Keep your cool 5.1 4.9 5.4
Know the hidden curriculum 5.7 4.3 4.8
Know faculty and staff 5.9 4.1 4.6
Avoid sharing confidential data 6.0 4.0 4.4
Guard your territory 8.4 1.6 1.8

Survival Advice

Instrumental Advice

Because most T&I teachers arrive in the classroom fully versed and experienced in their vocational field, subject area expertise may be assumed as a given. Nevertheless, the importance of subject knowledge was not taken for granted by the T&I teachers; and several listed it in their survival advice memos. A succinct "Know your stuff" summed it up for one teacher. Others offered the following advice.

  • "Know [your field] your text, and your local, state, and national curriculum."
  • "You need to teach what you know."
  • "Know the content."

But knowing one's field and teaching it effectively are distinct and separate skills. The provisionally certified T&I teachers, new to the classroom, faced a sea of pedagogical unknowns. During their first year practicing their new profession, they came to recognize the necessity of establishing a smoothly running classroom before productive teaching could be accomplished. Most agreed that, first and foremost, this required thorough and thoughtful preparation. In their survival advice memos, they stressed the importance of consistent planning for their classes. Plan for lessons, they advised; plan for labs; plan for structured classroom management; plan for the efficient use of every class minute. At the same time, they added a caveat of caution: Be prepared, they warned, to abandon even the most carefully laid preparations when, invariably, something unexpected upends the plan.

  • "You must plan for every day. Do not wait until 7:30 in the morning to start planning your activities."
  • "Plan. Keep structured lesson plans."
  • "Make sure you always come to class prepared."
  • "Prepare lesson plans as a guide only. Be prepared to deviate from them."
  • "Be flexible. Expect the unexpected."
  • "Planning, planning, planning. Try to have lesson plans, classroom management plans, and lab plans done before you step into the classroom."
  • "Use your time wisely. Have a weekly schedule with a daily activity for [the students] to complete the first 15-20 minutes of class. Having a daily activity helps students get in the room, get quiet, and start working. This time also gives you a chance to take roll, grade some papers, or just catch your breath."
  • "The best advice I can give is plan, plan, plan! If you don't have enough for the students to do during class, you will make your life miserable. Class will run smoothly if you have a variety of activities for the entire class period."

Dealing with paperwork was another area where the T&I teachers found that planning was essential. The teachers underscored in their memos the need for devising a method to keep up with the flood of paperwork that is part and parcel of their daily routine. They cautioned that to stay abreast of the multitude of clerical duties, a teacher must establish a practical and efficient organizational system.

  • "In order to stay afloat, it helps to be organized and be prompt with any assignments given to you."
  • "Pace yourself. Use a calendar faithfully and plan ahead."
  • "Paperwork can be overwhelming. After going to your mailbox each day, read mail while walking down the hallway. As soon as you get into the classroom, trash anything that you will not use within the next month and anything that you don't have to reply to."
  • "Use the trashcan."
  • "Organization is so important. There is so much paperwork in teaching. If you don't have a filing system, you will quickly become overwhelmed."
  • "In order to stay afloat with your job, get very organized. There is so much paperwork to do it really gets you bogged down."
  • "Plan ahead, plan well, keep up with paperwork, and be flexible."

A major hurdle for many new teachers is effective classroom management. Reflecting on their own experiences, the T&I teachers summed up strategies they had learned during their first year of teaching that had enabled them to establish routines and rules that had kept their classrooms running smoothly. Hand in hand with securing a system of order, the teachers realized the worth of fostering an atmosphere of mutual respect by conveying to their students a sense of fairness, concern and caring.

  • "Discuss your class rules on the first day. Make sure they are understood. Put them on paper and pass them out. Post them where everyone can see them."
  • "On the first day of class, let students know your expectations and set the classroom rules. I had my classroom rules in writing in the syllabus. The students and their parents had to sign and return them to me. That way no one could say they didn't know."
  • "Stick to your rules. Hold students accountable."
  • "It is very important to be mindful of the way you treat others. A smile or an encouraging word goes a long way in building relationships. You can be a positive or a negative presence. It is much easier to walk into a classroom when the [students] trust you and are happy to see you."
  • "Show respect to your students, and they will come around to respect you."
  • "Show that you care. This makes all the difference in the world to the students. Get involved in [their activities]. Your enthusiasm is contagious. They want your advice. Constantly provide it. Also, let them know you care about them. Make yourself available and be willing to listen to them."
  • "Do not put down the students. Do not embarrass them. Do not try to make them feel stupid. Treating these students as young adults, with respect, will earn you the respect that you need in order to run your class. Behavior problems become severe when the teacher becomes an enemy. It is very important that there is a level of respect and that it is maintained."
  • "Also praise those students that have a difficult time of it. Find at least one thing that you can genuinely praise them on. It means the world to them and helps boost their interest and desire to get involved and they will work harder for you."
  • "No favorites, blanket love! Blanket discipline!"
  • "These students really need you. They may not always show it, but they do. Students don't care how much you know. They want to know how much you care."
Emotional Advice

In their survival advice memos, many of the T&I teachers addressed the problem of finding ways to alleviate the emotional stresses and strains that accompany teaching. Looking back on their first year on the job, the teachers saw how they had employed a variety of techniques to preserve their emotional equilibrium and to assist in balancing the countering demands of their professional and private lives. When the teachers rated these techniques by relative importance, seeking help from a friend or mentor ranked of greatest value.

  • "Find your own buddy-teacher to help you."
  • "Ask for help."
  • "When concerns arise, do not give up. If something comes up that seems to be an immovable obstacle, reach out to others. The different perspectives can really help dispel the shadows and illuminate the truth of the problem. Many have faced similar problems before. You are not alone in the journey."
  • "Become close to Mrs. Porter (a pseudonym). She is like everyone's second mother. She will take care of you."
  • "Mentor with an experienced teacher."
  • "Seek out someone to talk to. When talking it out, things generally become clearer and solutions surface. Do this before taking further action to avoid an embarrassing setback."

Under the pressures of a heavy workload and the constraints of limited time, the teachers discovered that it was useful not only to set personal priorities, but also to hold reasonable expectations both of themselves and of their students.

  • "Promote the programs or projects you do, but also be honest with teachers about what you can and cannot do. Learn to say 'no'."
  • "Sometimes you have to walk away and leave a task undone or unfinished. This is probably the toughest lesson I've had to learn. Set priorities and stick with them. You cannot be 100% available to everyone at all times."
  • "Do not expect to set the world on fire right away."
  • "Relax. Whatever it is you are stressed about will be there the next day."
  • "If you can't get something done, don't worry. Deadlines are made to be broken."
  • "Calm down. There is so much new information coming your way-a new school, a new career-that, if you let it, can become stressful. Do your best and realize that the first year is the hardest."
  • "Do not think or assume that you can influence, save, or teach all students."
  • "Challenge students daily [but realize that] some you will reach, others you won't."
  • "Don't expect to be perfect."
  • "Prioritize the important things in your life. Once this is done write it down so it is a constant reminder and your job does not consume you and your life."
  • "Leave your frustrations at Yorkville High School (a pseudonym). Go home and have a life."

It did not take the T&I teachers long to realize that the profession they had entered entailed far more than simply disseminating information. To be an effective teacher they found they also had to possess many differing sensibilities. Foremost among these were the qualities of flexibility, patience, and composure. In their survival advice memos they offered tips on how to develop and nurture these traits.

  • "When you feel upset or stressed by the students' behavior, take a deep breath, count to 10, and remain calm."
  • "Most importantly, always be patient. Without patience you will never make it the full 30 years you need to retire."
  • "Be patient with yourself. Take one day at a time."
  • "Be patient with your students. Do not hold a grudge."
  • "Process every request a student makes before giving an answer."
  • "Don't make mountains out of molehills."
  • You must have flexibility. I feel this will be your biggest key because each day will bring unique challenges."
Political Advice

Managing a classroom and maintaining emotional composure may carry teachers a long way toward success and career longevity, but the T&I teachers learned that it was also critical to understand the politics and power bases that underlie the workings of their schools. Their memos proposed cautionary advice for new teachers on how to negotiate the political climate of a school outside the four walls of the individual classroom. Most important, they counseled, is to know the school's policies, those that are stated overtly as well as those tenets that are equally potent, though perhaps camouflaged within a school's hidden curriculum.

  • "Know the school policy."
  • "Have a training course on school advisory responsibilities and school policies."
  • "Find out who is in power at the school. It might be a group other than the administration. The administration might be on the way out. It could be the football coach."
  • "Do not make a secretary mad!"
  • "To stay afloat at this job, be sure to be nice to secretaries, custodians, and lunch room people. Make sure to get along with everybody."
  • "Get to know your faculty, especially janitors, administrators and media center workers. A little diplomacy can go a long way."
  • "Work as well and as close as you can to the administration. They can be friends or enemies. You hold the power as to which one they will be."
  • "Find out from the school's registrar about registration and its procedures."
  • "Don't assume that administrators or vocational directors are your friends. Be friendly, but keep in mind that they can bite you in the rear."
  • "Understand that you will be the only person in this school that understands your program. Even the administrators have ideas that are not compatible with yours. Do not lose heart. When addressing an issue with faculty, check your information in advance, especially if it comes from the county office or the state, and then be passionate. Passionate for the benefit of the students first, the program second, school and community third. Personal benefit should remain as a by-product of improvement."

As another safeguard for long-term political survival, the teachers affirmed the importance of keeping fair and accurate documentation.

  • "Document."
  • "Document everything."
  • "Keep accurate records on every student."
  • "Keep a detailed grade book and documentation. If something happens you will not necessarily be backed by administration, so documentation is imperative."
  • "Keep a firm and honest paper trail."


Conservatively, the following three conclusions can be drawn from this study. First, informal workplace learning takes place with new T&I teachers, as revealed through the simulation work exercise. This conclusion seems reasonable, given the data that was provided by the participants in the study. This study suggests that the T&I teachers amassed an amount of implicit knowledge over the course of their first year practicing their new profession. The categories of informal learning the teachers had acquired were revealed through the reflective survival advice activity.

Second, critical practice appears to be an important teaching model for T&I teachers in alternative certification programs. While the critically reflective teaching model is promoted in numerous teacher preparation programs (Sparks-Langer & Colton, 1992; Valli, 1992; Novak, 1994), among teacher educators who have embraced critical reflection, reports of success have been limited (Dinkelman, 2000). There are unanswered questions as to whether reflective teaching is a realistic goal for preservice teachers. Some suggest that critical reflection is beyond the typical preservice teachers' development and is better suited to teachers who have several years of classroom experience (Berliner, 1988; Kagan, 1992). Although reviews of critical reflection about the job for preservice teachers are mixed, studies have suggested that critical reflection upon experience is an effective technique for inservice teachers participating in professional development programs (Knight, 2002). Because T&I teachers are generally older than the typical preservice teachers and come into teaching from backgrounds in business and industry with life experiences behind them, their ability to examine and interpret the situations they encounter may exceed those of the more traditional preservice teacher. This study points to the use of critical reflection upon experience, or self-learning from experience in natural settings as an effective technique for the training and professional development (Licklider, 1997) for T&I teachers. The data from this study suggests that by reflection, these participants captured implicit knowledge that had been gained from many often informal and subliminal sources that sometimes eluded consciousness.

Third, further research in this area is needed to confirm these initial findings. Given the study's finding that informal learning does occur with new T&I teachers and the fact that informal learning can't be preprogrammed, the need for research devoted to how to maximize its benefits seems clear. Despite the prevalence of informal learning in the workplace, little is known regarding how it can be supported and developed in the teacher's work environment. Therefore, studies should be undertaken to explore the contextual factors of the teachers' workplace setting that may shape their informal learning as well as the facilitation of informal learning. More qualitative research must be done to discover the experiences new teachers have in coping with their career change and aiding in professional development. Quantative research could test the different variables that may impact the effectiveness of informal learning in the teacher education process, and the effects of informal learning, both positive and negative. For example, does what a teacher learns informally contribute to teacher turnover? Finally, and perhaps most important, research should be conducted to investigate the appropriate balance of formal versus informal learning for new T&I teachers. The answer to this question could provide data that either supports or suggests changes to current alternative T&I teacher-training programs.


Because informal learning is an unstructured and often subliminal accumulation of knowledge, methods must be provided to bring into focus the wisdom gained and lessons learned through it. Haphazard as informal learning may be, by channeling the knowledge acquired through its process into reflective teaching activities, some of its value can be captured and recorded. While informal learning plays a role in the lives of new T&I teachers, informal learning is not a substitute for structured training or education. Often learning is much more productive if it is planned and facilitated. One should not make the assumption that the personal and practical theories derived by informal learning are valid. Knowledge and assumptions gained through informal learning should be questioned and investigated. T&I teacher education programs that support critical reflective thinking through such activities as keeping reflective journals and holding forums that encourage the discussion of essential questions and promote the mutual exchange of ideas can assist new teachers in recognizing the advancement on their own learning curve, as well as question the assumptions and informal learning of the new teacher.

The categories described in this study may provide some areas in which teacher educators should further develop formal learning experiences. Perhaps concrete examples should be extracted from the generalizations provided in this study. Without concrete examples or practical application experiences, the advice contained in the survival memos becomes platitudes. For example, if informal learning has taught a teacher that he/she needs to "get organized", formal learning experiences should be developed from that learning. One method may be videotapes of teachers explaining what they were doing and what they learned moment-by-moment, similar to the tapes used by athletes after a sports event. At the very least, an integrated approach consisting of informal and formal learning experiences may improve the professional effectiveness and personal lives of novice T&I teachers.


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Burns is Associate Professor and Schaefer is Instructor in the Department of Middle-Secondary Education and Instructional Technology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. Burns can be reached at jburns@gsu.edu.

Tracy Gilmore