Informal Learning

Learning and Reflecting on Your Own

Thorsten HölzerBonn (GER), December 2017 - Thorsten Hölzer is a psychologist who specializes in media and organizational psychology, and is a lifelong learner in the fields of pedagogy and learning technology. As a technical-concept specialist at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a German-government-owned company that oversees the country’s international cooperation efforts, he has been working at the organization’s in-house academy for over a decade in the qualification of administrators and technical specialists being sent abroad. His subject area at the LEARNTEC Convention is formal and informal learning.

What level of importance does GIZ attribute to informal learning?

Thorsten Hölzer: People can only acquire new knowledge and technical or methodological skills in particular by themselves -"mediation" of learning is not possible. Thus it is irrelevant to learners whether acquiring knowledge, gaining experience, or proving their skills is done in formal or informal contexts. The important thing is that reflection on learning events engenders new incentives for personal development.

The Academy’s didactic concept places the individual learning process at its core. When designing any measure to develop competence, the most appropriate learning format - or the best possible combination of formats - must be selected. Both formal and informal learning contexts have this as their planning goal. 

Of course the Academy has a large number of training programs, most of which are formal. Through the didactic principles employed and the desire to empower learners to assume responsibility for their own learning process, these courses usually incorporate stimuli from the realm of informal learning. These include self-learning components, the creation of spaces for gaining various types of experience, and networking opportunities organized by the Academy during or after the training sessions. 

Where do you see the most pronounced efforts toward self-organized learning? In Germany, for example, the current assumption is a figure of only about 5% of intrinsically motivated self-learning. And what is GIZ's experience with this?

Thorsten Hölzer: The extent to which individuals reflect and learn independently depends in part on their motivation in regard to personal development, the sources of which can vary greatly. Profound motivation is often observable when learners perceive a direct benefit from what they have learned or when the learning path is embedded in one or more higher-level long-term goals. Exceptionally strong motivation boosters are experiences during which something learned leads to failure, incongruities, or confusion.

Attitude is also decisive for learning success: Is there really any need for me to develop further? Am I open to new things? Am I personally responsible for my further development? How do I view open learning opportunities that are not linked to an institution?

The absolute basis of self-organized learning is the possibilities and abilities to establish the conditions for it: a place, time, and access to information resources (people and material).

One of the situations in which serious efforts in the realm of self-organized learning are observed is among German administrators and technical specialists being sent abroad to participate in international cooperation projects, who are given an opportunity at the GIZ Academy to strengthen key skills required for living and working in their host country. In this environment, high motivation to learn is natural, and we offer adequate space for program participants to reflect on their own attitude.

In addition to formal learning programs, a special training format provides the participants with mentors who help ensures optimal conditions for self-determined and self-organized learning. The participants greatly appreciate this format, and it and has led to some remarkable learning outcomes.

As informal learning gains increasing importance, what role will educational certification play in the future -at least in the industrialized world?

Thorsten Hölzer: My personal opinion is that in the future, greater emphasis will be placed on people’s skills rather than on where and how they acquired them, which, actually, is a secondary matter when dealing with most challenges. When there are no prescribed paths, the development of competences becomes a personal thing. I think the need to document one’s expertise will depend on why and to whom information about the knowledge and skills has to be provided and will thus vary from case to case.

Will certificates based on formal education enjoy the status they now have in the medium to long term?

Thorsten Hölzer: In spite of what’s been said about individualized learning paths and various ways to develop competences, I believe that formal education certificates will retain significance. However, these degrees are increasingly being viewed as an item in a list of types of evidence and sometimes even fall below others in significance. Depending on the context, this is happening at varying speeds.


Thorsten Hölzer will answer the question "Can Synergy Be Created by Combining Formal and Informal Learning?" at the LEARNTEC Convention on 31 January 2018 from 17.30 to 18.00. (presentation in German)