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Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs formal and informal ways of learning

The Music Teachers Association's second collective blogging project continues with responses from teachers reflecting on the article by Göran Folkestad – ‘Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs formal and informal ways of learning’ (2006)

About this series

Dr Steven Berryman, Curriculum Lead for the Music Teachers Association (MTA), has launched a collective blogging project working with the editors of the British Journal of Music Education (BJME), Martin Fautley and Ally Daubney.

Martin, Ally and Steven have curated a selection of articles from the Journal highlighting some of the key debates in Music Education in the classroom.

Teachers have an article to read each week, and can submit a response by the end of the week. Responses are gathered together to form one blog post shared on MUSIC:ED.

Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs formal and informal ways of learning

The Music Teachers Association’s second collective blogging project continues with responses from teachers reflecting on the article by Göran Folkestad – ‘Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs formal and informal ways of learning’ (2006).


During the last decade there has been an awakening interest in considering not only formalised learning situations within institutional settings, but also all the various forms of informal musical learning practices outside schools. Informal musical learning outside institutional settings has been shown to contribute to important knowledge and aspects of music education.

In this article, I will examine research studies which in different ways focus on formal and informal learning situations and practices or formal and informal ways of learning. I will consider the relationship between music education as praxis (music pedagogy) and as research, and the relationship between these two facets of music education and the surrounding society. I will identify four different ways of using and defining formal and informal learning, respectively, either explicitly or implicitly, each one focusing on different aspects of learning: (i) the situation, (ii) learning style, (iii) ownership, and (iv) intentionality.

Formal – informal should not be regarded as a dichotomy, but rather as the two poles of a continuum; in most learning situations, both these aspects of learning are in various degrees present and interacting. Music education researchers, in order to contribute to the attainment of a multiplicity of learning styles and a cultural diversity in music education, need to focus not only on the formal and informal musical learning in Western societies and cultures, but also to include the full global range of musical learning in popular, world and indigenous music in their studies.


Nick Hughes

The focus on didactic teaching that has been bandied around in education for the last few years has forced music teachers to look at, what Folkestad refers to, as the dichotomy of formal/informal learning. The seemingly never-ending focus on what is taught in the classroom and the obsession on sequences of learning, although very important, has taken our gaze away from what happens to a child’s music education when they are not in school and how this informal experience can be harnessed in the classroom. Synthesising these two ‘poles of a continuum’ is a superb way to view our seemingly ‘set-in-stone’ curriculum. This synthesis, in part, comes from really knowing your students. Knowing whether students are PP, SEND, HPA/LPA/MPA, or indeed just knowing their names, is vitally important; however, really knowing them relies upon, amongst other things, knowing what music they like to listen to, and this can help unlock their learning. Today, for example, whilst learning about the Punjab Chaal rhythm with year 8 we discussed its being a ‘galloping’ rhythm, I quickly realised that in this particular class we had two ‘classic-metal’ fans – the mere mention of Iron Maiden’s ‘galloping’ rhythms was enough to have them contribute to the rest of the online lesson.

At a recent Birmingham Music Education Research Group (BMERG) seminar, Simon Glenister was talking about how his social enterprise group, ‘Noise Solutions’ used Deci and Ryan’s ‘Self-Determination Theory’ (2000) to help vulnerable young people with their well-being and mental health. This theory has a focus on competency, relatedness and autonomy, and when people have access to all three of these within a task they become intrinsically motivated. This intrinsic motivation is central to people having a desire to learn. If we allow students to bring their own musical experiences from outside of the classroom, they have more autonomy and can relate to the group/classroom/learning more. This is powerful and important. However, mapping a curriculum that is reactive to our students’ wants and needs into a fixed curriculum, which our Senior Leaders expect us to do clearly and concisely in case Ofsted appears at our door wanting to know what our curriculum ‘implementations’ are, can be problematic in discussions. Unfortunately, Folkestad’s thinking could be viewed as being at odds with the DfE’s obsession with ‘the best that has been thought and said’ and ‘cultural capital’ too. If we are asked about which great composers students learn about, and our answer is ‘whichever ones they want to learn about’, I’m sure a difficult conversation will ensue. So there has to be some middle-ground somewhere. Accountability in education will not go away, and I for one believe it is very important, so we have to be creative in synthesising informal/formal learning in our curriculum and place it within our given framework and the affordances that this offers. Because of this, Folkestad’s piece has further cemented my rallying cry to all music teachers to engage with this research and have difficult conversations with Senior Leaders. I have – it is tiring initially, but absolutely worth the difficult discussions that occur at the beginning of the dialogue. If you lay out research and evidence, particularly in the current climate whereby ‘research-informed’ teachers are heralded as the saviours of learning, then you should have a positive experience.

To go back to Folkestad’s four ways of defining formal and informal learning for a moment, let us consider his comment that ‘expressions such as ‘formal or informally educated musicians’ rather refer to learning to play by written music or ear.’ Let’s take one of Professor Fautley’s favourite citations: Mrs. Curwen. In 1886 she stated that one should ‘teach the thing before the sign’ (Curwen, 1886: vi). Although open to interpretation, my understanding of what Curwen says here is to teach the sound/feeling of a thing before beginning to understand its symbol – ‘sign’ or notation, if you will. During the recent Music Teachers Association podcast, Patrick Johns interviewed Jazz multi-instrumentalist James Morrison. During the interview Morrison was explaining an approach to accessing improvising whereby students learn to transcribe live in the moment. He discussed training the ear to hear the intervals and understanding them sonically. This combination of theory (intervals) and their sonics echoes my interpretation of Curwen’s comments, and also synthesises learning music by ear with notational intervals, as discussed by Folkestad in his paper. Indeed, hearing things first is at the start of Lucy Green’s (2002) much-cited work on informal learning in popular music which formed the basis for the Musical Futures pedagogy, which I’m sure others will be discussing. I use this premise in teaching music technology/production. In helping students understand what a Low Pass Filter (LPF) is and does, I simply play a harmonic-rich waveform (square/saw etc) and reduce the cut-off frequency of the filter. We then discuss what they hear; comments range from ‘sounds like every dance/house tune ever’ to ‘it’s the sound when you go to the toilet at a gig’ and ‘sounds like the music playing from my mates Corsa as he shuts the door and drives away’. Making a connection with the ‘thing’ before even discussing frequencies, harmonics, dB and filters is vital to understanding a quite complex idea. We do similar things with hearing heavy-compression before discussing what compression is and how compressors work too. This could be viewed as bringing the informal before the formal in learning – I’m not sure there should be a defined order on how things are taught, but it is always useful to think about teaching ‘the thing before the sign’.

One also needs to consider and be mindful of the role of ‘tacit learning’ in informal learning and its role within a curriculum. ‘If such formalization of tacit knowing were possible, it would convert all arts into mathematical prescribed operations, and thus destroy them as works of art.’ (Polanyi, 1969). The informal provides a real-world understanding of music and we cannot escape the formality, because as Folkestad states, we are teachers and we teach in a school. As music teachers we need to float through and traverse Folkstad’s pole or continuum where formal and informal are at opposite ends, have difficult conversations with our leadership team, and provide as many inclusive access points to music for all of our students.


  • CURWEN, Mrs (1886). Mrs Curwen’s Pianoforte Method – A Guide to the Piano. Lightning Source, Milton Keynes, UK
  • DECI E.L. and RYAN R.M., (2000). https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_RyanDeci_SDT.pdf accessed on 2nd March 2021
  • GREEN, L. (2002). How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education. Aldershot: Ashgate
  • POLANYI, M. (1969). Knowing and Being, ed. Marjorie Greene. Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Hawys Elis-Williams

  • Head of Music, Pimlico Academy – @HawysEW

My master’s dissertation was titled ‘Informal vs formal ways of learning in music education’ and this article was referenced. I completed my masters 10 years ago, quite soon after my PGCE, and have had most of my secondary teaching experience since. It has therefore been interesting to reflect back on this article and my dissertation.

The sentence from this article which I quoted more than once in my dissertation was ‘that formal – informal should not be regarded as a dichotomy, but rather as the two poles of a continuum’. This is really what chimed with me during my research and still does now. I found that students learnt different things from the formal and the informal lessons.

I agree that lessons in a school setting can never be truly informal as students are in a formal setting. Students sometimes expect more formality and may even be concerned when things are less formal. However, I think we should try to structure some informal situations for students to start to guide their own learning.

I think there is a perception that ‘informal’ lessons are easy to teach as you do not have to ‘do much’ where, when done well, can actually be harder. A teacher who supports students to do a performance or composition task in an informal setting must be able to pick up on what the students are doing rather than just judge them against the criteria that they have taught and expect them to be able to do.

There was a lot of interest in Musical Futures when I did my training and my masters. I wonder how many schools still run MF in what I remember as its original form which was based on Green’s research into how poplar musicians learn: (of what I remember) learning being peer-led, skills learnt by listening to recordings and copying, choosing their own repertoire. I have certainly found that our MF unit has developed into a more ‘formal’ unit – sharing lead sheets and showing students how to play the chords at the beginning of the task for example.

Of course, the advent YouTube videos and the availability tab and lead sheets online has meant that more musicians may be learning in an informal setting at home, by themselves or with friends, but are now getting a more ‘formal’ tuition from YouTube etc.

Even if teachers have retreated somewhat form some of the informal learning practices that started 10-15 years ago. I hope that what it did was make teachers realise that formal – informal are poles of a continuum and that we can still move up or down it when we think it is appropriate.

I remember a bit of a concern amongst music teachers when teaching MF that if we were observed, teachers would not be graded highly as there was not any ‘traditional’ teaching. I have had to explain to non-music specialist teachers observing a music lesson why a teacher who looks like they are ‘not doing much’ are in fact doing a lot but it is a frustrating thing to have to do. We should be looking at what the students are learning, rather than what the teacher is doing which may be more difficult for a non-music specialist to observe.

Gavin Williamson recently said that ‘traditional teacher-led lessons with children seated facing the expert at the front of the class’ is ‘evidence-based’ and ‘everyone flourishes’. This quote leads to a whole host of arguments from teachers and educationalists on twitter. One of my biggest frustrations in education is educationists who refuse to see outside what they consider to be good pedagogy. There is more than one way to teach: let us all try to explore the formal – informal continuum.