CASAE/CSSE Joint Symposium, June 12,1999, Sherbrooke, Québec.

EXPLORING THE ICEBERG: Findings and Implications of the First Canadian Survey of Adults' Informal Learning Practices

This symposium will analyze the findings of the first large-scale (N=1562) Canada-wide survey of the general informal learning activities of Canadian adults which was conducted in 1998. These analyses have been conducted under the rubric of the SSHRC-funded national research network on New Approaches to Lifelong Learning, or NALL (for further information see website: http://edu.oise.

They are informed by prior case studies and related survey work on informal learning, schooling and further education by network members, including Tough (1979), Thomas et al. (1982), Rubenson (1991), Doray et al.(1994), Lowe (1992) and Livingstone et al (1985, 1997), as well as an extensive review of other recent empirical studies of informal learning (Adams et al. 1997). The general conceptual framework for this survey identifies paid workplaces, households and communities as sites of informal learning and emphasizes the social relational context of learning.

This representative random sample survey establishes benchmarks on the extent and character of informal learning in this country, as well as differential patterns by social background. The survey was administered by the Institute for Social Research at York University. The survey provides profiles of informal learning in paid workplace, household and community spheres, and indicators of past, current and planned participation in schooling and further education, as well as information on many social background factors.

The symposium will present some of the major empirical findings and discuss related theoretical, methodological and policy issues. The findings suggest that Canadians are now spending an average of 15 hours per week on informal learning. Prior Canadian case studies and U.S. surveys of self-directed learning activities in the 1970s found averages of 10 hours or less per week (see Livingstone, 1998, Table 1.7 p. 36). Two Ontario surveys which contained comparable items found that the incidence of informal learning activities increased from 12 to 15 hours between 1996 and late 1998 (Livingstone, Hart and Davie, 1999). While measuring the iceberg of informal learning remains an elusive task, the available evidence suggests that the amount of time adults are devoting to informal learning appears to have increased significantly in recent years. Better understanding of this iceberg of adult learning is vital to planning further institutional education in the emerging knowledge society.

In spite of much rhetoric about the emergence of a "knowledge economy" and "learning organizations", there is substantial evidence that the general learning capacities of adults are being systemically underutilized in the paid workplaces of OECD countries (Livingstone, 1998). Participants will be invited to discuss ways of more effectively linking specific types of informal learning with economic, political and educational change initiatives.

Paper 1: D.W. Livingstone (OISE/UT). The Limits of Lifelong Learning in Class Societies: A Canadian Perspective

This paper develops Vygotsky's (1987) activity theory of learning in class, age, gender and race-specific terms to explain differences in adult learning practices as grounded in differential power relations. Findings from the first Canadian survey of informal learning are analyzed to test this revised theory.

Nous essayons à developer la théorie de Vygotsky (1987) en regard de la classe, de l'âge, de la sexe et de la race pour expliquer des différences en l'apprentissage selon des différences en la pouvoir. Nous étudierons des résultats du premier sondage d'apprentissage privé au Canada pour vérifier cette théorie.

The survey confirms that those with higher levels of schooling continue to participate more highly in further education. The majority of adults with more than a high school diploma are now enroling in some kind of further education course or workshop annually, while only minorities of those with a high school diploma or less are doing so. Less than a quarter of those without diplomas are enroling in further education. Future planning for further education courses shows similar tendencies. But this gap would probably be much smaller if prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) were widely implemented. There is majority support in all nearly social groups for PLAR, but it would make a much greater difference for the less formally educated. Almost twice as many school dropouts as currently plan to take future courses say they would be more likely to enrol in further education courses if they could receive recognition for their prior informal learning. PLAR is a very important potential means of more effectively valorizing the informal learning of the less highly schooled.

Nearly all Canadian adults (over 95%) are involved in some form of informal learning activities that they can identify as significant. The survey provides estimates of the amount of time that all Canadians-- including those who say they do no informal learning at all-- are spending in all four areas (employment, community, household, and general interest). The average number of hours devoted to informal learning activities by all Canadian adults over the past year was around 15 hours per week. This is vastly more time than Canadian adults are spending in organized education courses (an average of around 4 hours per week if we include the entire population.) The iceberg metaphor is not exact but close enough.

When asked which of these learning activities are most important to them in the respective areas, Canadians' most common responses are: computer skills related to employment, communications skills through community volunteer work, home renovations and cooking skills in household work, and general interest learning about health issues.

Prior studies of informal learning have found more variation within most social groupings (such as age, sex, level of schooling, income, ethnic groups) than between them. The current survey also finds this general pattern across most of these social differences as well as occupational class differences. In particular, those with the least schooling appear to be devoting at least as much time on average to most forms of informal learning as those with higher levels of schooling. This lack of difference across major social groups is an extremely important finding for comprehending the full character of our knowledge society. Anyone can engage in informal learning on their own volition and schedule, and apparently people in the most socially disadvantaged statuses are just as likely to do so as those in the most socially dominant positions. The submerged informal part of the iceberg of adult learning does not have the same hierarchical structure as the exposed pyramid of organized education. While we are really still at the "ether stage" of understanding the processes and outcomes of informal learning, case studies of the actual learning practices of adults with limited formal education-- such as recent ethnographic research in the situated learning theory tradition (e.g. Engestrom, 1992)-- strongly suggest that much of this learning involves quite high levels of skill competency. Much as it contradicts the dominant meritocratic ideology of our "credential society", the less schooled are in many instances and significant dimensions of knowledge at least as competent as the more highly schooled.

If the hidden part of the iceberg of informal learning among adults is so wide and deep, surely it must have important connections with the visible pyramid of education that appears to float above it. Given our very rudimentary understanding of the processes and outcomes of adult informal learning, there has to date been virtually no substantial research on these interrelationships (see Livingstone, 1998, pp. 236-240). The NALL survey provides several basic clues confirming common sense expectations about the intergenerational and class dynamics of these relations.

As many prior surveys have found and Table 1 reconfirms, there is a very strong relationship between age and level of participation in further education courses. Two-thirds of Canadian adults under 24 participated in a further education course or workshop last year, while only 10 percent of those over 65 did so. Those under 24 also indicate that they spend more time in informal learning than older adults. Entry into adulthood is probably the period of most intense and extensive new organizing circumstances in all spheres of most peoples' lives within advanced industrial societies, often including initial career choices, major household and community choices not governed by parental authority, and generally establishing one's own life style. Young adults are not only the most likely to take further education courses to aid in these transitions, they are also most likely to rely more on organized courses rather than their own independent informal efforts in their learning projects, with nearly three-quarters indicating a preference for courses over informal learning. But, clearly, younger adults are doing a lot of informal learning as well as a lot of formal courses.

However, as Table 1 also indicates, aging is not very significantly associated with decline in the incidence of informal learning beyond the intense period of entry into adulthood. Contrary to the stereotype of older adults' active interests rapidly diminishing as they approach and enter their retirement years, the survey findings suggest that they spend nearly as much time on informal learning activities as middle-aged adults. While further education course participation does drop off rapidly, this is not primarily because of declining interest in learning projects but because we increasingly replace course participation with our own independent informal learning efforts. The older we are, the more likely we are to rely on our own prior learning experiences as a guide for further learning.

Table 1 Adult Education Course Participation, Preferred Form of Learning, and Average Hours of Informal Learning per Week, Canadian Adults,1998
Age Group Course participation Preferred Form Informal hours per week
Courses On own
% % % hours
18-24 67 73 22 23
25-34 63 48 37 16
35-44 63 47 40 15
45-54 47 38 50 15
55-64 32 22 63 12
65+ 10 19 64 12
Total 50 44 44 15

Finally, class differences in the incidence of different types of learning activities confirm once more the existence of a massive egalitarian informal learning society hidden beneath the pyramidal class structured forms of schooling and further education. As Table 2 shows, corporate executives, managers and professional employees have much higher levels of formal schooling than working class people and are also more likely to have participated in a further education course or workshops last year. However, they are not more likely than the working classes to want to take courses if they receive recognition for their prior learning. The gap between current and desired participation is much greater for working class people. Most significantly, the incidence of informal learning among workers and the unemployed is at least as great as among more affluent and highly schooled classes.

Table 2 Schooling, Further Education, Interest in PLAR Credit and Incidence of Informal Learning by Class, Canada, 1998




Degree (%)



Last Year


Interest in

Courses if






Corporate executives 70 71 61 17
Small employers 40 52 58 16
Self-employed 28 52 69 14
Managers 52 72 62 13
Professionals 76 76 69 15
Service workers 12 54 73 17
Industrial workers 8 37 73 17
Unemployed 16 38 82 20
Totals 26 50 70 15


The paper concludes by arguing for the centrality of recognizing class and age-specific patterns of informal learning in order to overcome social barriers to linking this learning more equitably and effectively to institutional education programs and employment opportunities.

Paper 2: Pierre Doray (Centre Interuniversitaire de Recherche sur la Science et la Technologie, Université du Québec à Montréal).L'apprentissage informel: une comparaison entre le Québec et le Canada [Informal learning : comparaison between Québec and Canada]

L'entrée dans une économie de la connaissance est une occasion stratégique pour s'interroger sur les processus d'apprentissage des adultes. Celui-ci peut se réaliser de manière formelle ­c'est souvent celui qui vient spontanément à l'esprit-- alors des adultes suivent des cours ou des stages dans le cadre de leur travail ou de manière volontaire. Au Canada, près de 40 % de la population adulte participe annuellement à des cours de durée plus ou moins longue. Mais il ne faut pas oublier que nombreuses connaissances s'apprennent de manière plus informelle au travail, à la maison, par la participation dans des associations.

The development of the knowledge based economy called for a re-examination of ones understanding of the process of adult learning. The most prevalent form of adult learning is through formal course. In Canada, 40% of adults participate annually in formal training of variable duration. But, one should not forget that many people learn informally much knowledge in variable context : employment related, community volunteer work related, house work related and general interest related.

La présence communication s'intéresse à l'apprentissage informel chez les Canadiens et veut saisir les mécanismes sociaux qui influencent cet apprentissage. Déjà les résultats préliminaires d'un sondage sur la question indique que 90 % de la population canadienne ont réalisé des apprentissages informels, ce qui semble indiquer leur importance dans la vie quotidienne. Toutefois, il existerait des différences selon les provinces. Ainsi, le Québec serait la province qui aurait la plus faible moyenne hebdomadaire, 12 heures alors que la moyenne nationale est de 15. La communication cherchera à comprendre pourquoi il existe une telle différence. Deux pistes peuvent être proposées. Une première tient à la structure des apprentissages, les québécois réalisant les apprentissages qui ont une plus faible durée. La seconde tient aux déterminants sociaux et économiques tels les facteurs socio-démographiques, le niveau de formation et la situation professionnelle. A cet effet, il faut porter l'attention sur les pratiques des entreprises en matière de formation, les études antérieures sur la formation en entreprise indiquant que les firmes québécoises investissent moins que les firmes canadienne en formation, qu'il s'agisse de la formation formelle ou informelle.

The purpose of the paper is to identify the social mechanisms that determine or shape the process of informal learning in Canadian. Results from the NALL survey suggest that 90% of Canadians have been involved in some form of informal learning activities on the average of 15 hours per week. But, these data conceal important interprovincial variations. In the case of Quebec, the average learning falls to 12 hours per week. This paper sets out to explore the reasons for this difference. The paper proposed two approaches to the question. The first concerns the structure of learning activities. For instance, one could suggest that Quebeckers are involved in activities with a low duration. The second approach looks to social and economic determinants. Indeed, we have to pay attention to corporate training practices. Prior studies indicated that Quebec's firms invest less than Canadian firms in formal and informal training.

Paper Three: Alan M. Thomas (OISE/UT). Wrestling with the Iceberg

The rediscovery of private (informal) learning in Canada prompts the question of its function in terms of both process and outcome. The paper explores some of the implications of this discovery, and of the proper relationship between Education (public learning) and private learning, including the value of regular public exploration of the latter.

La revelation, encore de l'apprentissage prive en Canada suggere la question de sa fonction toutes les deux que processus et consequence. Le communication examine quelques sous-entendus de cette revelation et du rapport entre l'education (l'apprentissage publique) et l'apprentissage prive, compris l'examen regulier publique de l'apprentissage prive.

The recent NALL survey of Informal Learning in Canada reminds us, as Allen Tough did in the 1970's that private learning, as distinct from Education, public learning, is alive and well. It is, of course, Education, as the guardian of not only what should be learned, but how it should be learned, that makes private learning an "iceberg"; random, isolated, and sometimes menacing. The interesting question is what is, or should be, the relationship between the two.

Taken as a whole, that is to consider learning as an activity without regard for specific outcomes, the iceberg insists on being acknowledged. Human beings like to learn, engage in learning often without even being aware that they are learning, and invest themselves entirely in the activity. Literature suggests that we are at our most attractive as human beings when we are learning. It would appear that we are in an historic period, again, when learning is outstripping Education, in both volume and variety. The response is not to capture it, as Education is prone to do, but to understand the proper relationship between the two, and make it work more effectively. Among other things, regular surveys of the sort that NALL has accomplished ought to be undertaken in Canada. Among other things we would probably improve the morale of Canadians on the same regular basis, since individuals like to have their learning taken seriously.

The other aspect of the iceberg is to see it not as one big iceberg but as many individual ones. In this case we take seriously not only that individuals learn on their own, but that what they learn is important not only to them, but to the society as a whole. Imagine what might have happened had such a survey of the individual learning been undertaken in Iran before the revolution, or in Yugoslavia, before the collapse. And if the results had been made public! Would that have made a difference? Will it make a difference in the future if most societies take private learning seriously, other than to ignore it or persecute it?

Contemporary civil societies are by definition societies in which a great deal of private learning takes place. We do not have much experience with societies in which learning is the basis of the mobilization of that society, but it would seem imperative to explore the proper relationship between that development and Education.

Paper Four: Kjell Rubenson (UBC). Lifelong Learning for All: Competing Evidence.

Policy documents from various nations, as well as reports from intergovernmental organisations (e.g. the European Union, OECD, and UNESCO), uniformly promote lifelong learning as the foundation for adult educational and training policy. This brings the question of adults' readiness to actively engage in learning to the forefront of the research and policy agenda. Despite the emphasis on lifelong learning for all, even a superficial reading of the international literature indicates several contradictions in the discourse surrounding lifelong learning and a lack of serious interest in who benefits (Rubenson, 1997).

At the very core of lifelong learning is the informal or "everyday" learning, positive or negative, which occurs in day-to-day life (Dohmen, 1996, p.46). Here, the issue is the nature and structure of everyday experiences, and their consequences for a person's learning processes, ways of thinking, and competencies. What challenges do people face? What possibilities do these challenges create, not only for restrictive forms of learning, but also for investigative learning promoting new ways of acting (see Engeström, 1994). Of special interest is the relationship between everyday learning (nature and structure of everyday experiences) and participation in organised forms of adult education and training. For example, does everyday learning increase or decrease the knowledge gaps between ethnic and social groups?

The study involves secondary analysis of 2 data sets. The data on adult literacy and participation in structured adult education and training come from the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), which is a collaborative effort by 12 countries, including Canada (OECD, 1997). The information on involvement in informal learning comes from the NALL survey.

The IALS findings clearly show that readiness to learn as an adult can be explained by "the long arm of the family." There exists a strong link between an individual's level of functional literacy and the literate culture of the family in which the person grew up. The same social and cultural forces that are behind the relationship between early literacy and family background also link the distribution of educational attainment as well as reading and writing habits as an adult across different socio-economic groups (OECD, 1997). Thus, participation in adult education and training is closely related with level of educational attainment.

IALS data on participation also confirm an influence perhaps best characterized as "the long arm of the job. Further, the analyses show that the likelihood of an employee receiving some support for education and training from the employer is strongly related to occupational status and the engagement in literacy activities at work. The overall conclusion of the IALS findings is that Canada faces major challenges in extending lifelong learning to all its citizens.

The NALL survey paints a different picture. Firstly, involvement in informal learning is almost universal among Canadians. Secondly, the very disturbing inequalities that can be observed in IALS concerning membership in the Learning Society are much less pronounced in NALL. In this respect the involvement in informal learning in the 1998 survey is very close to what Tough found in his study of self-directed learning in the 1970s (Tough, 1978).

We are thus left with two pictures, according to the data on informal learning it appears that "the Kingdom of heaven" is already here while IALS and other similar studies of structural learning lead us to ask what drastic changes are necessary in order for that kingdom to materialize.

The contradictory results highlight the need to situate the debate on lifelong learning for all in a normative context. Thus, we have to ask to what extent different forms of learning result in greater equality as reflected in economic life as well as in civil society. Theoretically the issue can fruitfully be approached through the welfare concept as expressed by British socio-political theorist Richard Titmus (1963). The focus will be on how various forms of lifelong learning affect the individual's disposition of resources in money, possessions, knowledge, skills, physical and psychological energy, social relations, confidence etc., with the help of which the individual can control and consciously command her/his life situation.

In this respect it is of interest to note that studies on inequalities in structured education seem to show that the better an education pays off in the form of income, status, occupation, political efficacy, cultural competence and related factors, the greater the socio-economic differences between participants and non-participants.


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Dohmen, G. 1996. Lifelong learning. Guidelines for a modern education policy. Bonn: Federal Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Technology.

Doray, P. et al. 1994. Formation et entreprise au Quebec. Quebec: Conseil de la science et de la Technologie du Quebec. Gouvernement du Quebec.

Engeström, Y. 1994. Training for change, Geneva; ILO.

Engestrom, Y. 1992. Interactive Expertise: Studies in Distributed Working Intelligence. University of Helsinki, Helsinki: Department of Education. .

Livingstone, D.W. 1998. The Education-Jobs Gap: Underemployment or Economic Democracy. Boulder: Westview Press and Toronto: Garamond Press.

Livingstone, D.W. et al. 1985, 1997, 1999. Public Attitudes Toward Education in Ontario: OISE/UT Survey. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lowe, G. S. 1992. Human Resources Challenges of Education, Computers and Retirement. 1989 General Social Service Analysis Series No. 7. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

OECD (1997). International adult literacy survey, Paris: OECD.

Rubenson, K. 1997. "Adult education and training: the poor cousin. An analysis of Review of National Polices for Education", mimeo, Paris:OECD.

Rubenson, K. 1991. "Participation in adult education and training: Between the market and policy". The Finish Journal of Research on Adult Education, 11, 2, 66-75.

Thomas, A.M. et al. 1982. Adult Learning About Canada. Ottawa: Department of the Secretary of State.

Titmuss, R. 1963. Essays on The welfare state. London: Allen & Unwin.

Tough, A. 1979. The Adult's Learning Projects: A Fresh Approach to Theory and Practice in Adult Learning. Toronto: OISE Press.

Tough, A. 1978. Major learning efforts: Recent research and future directions. Adult Education, 28:4, 250-263.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1987. The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. (Edited by R.W. Rieber and A.S. Carton.) New York: Plenum Press.

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Prepared August 3, 1999 by the ACÉÉA/CASAE Internet Working Group