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A conceptual analysis of accidental learning as an educational activity

David Matheson
Faculty of Education, University of Central England, email:

Presented to the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Hamburg, 17-20 September 2003


It is almost tautological that the majority of what we know, we never set out to learn. There was no specific purpose in the acquisition of this information and yet it is acquired. Indeed our society, if decades of game shows from Brain of Britain, through Mastermind to Who wants to be a millionaire? are anything to go by, it is information which is highly prized - at times. This so-called 'general knowledge' is generally acquired incidentally and is only of lasting effect in that it may allow us to sound knowledgeable in conversation or, if the occasion arises, to not look too foolish in a game show. Indeed what we loosely term 'general knowledge' is most frequently the product of incidental learning. The first aim of this paper is to introduce and discuss a very specific form of incidental learning. Not one of marginal impact on our general lives but one which acts as a sort of Damascene experience with lasting effects on the learner. It is what I wish to term accidental learning, a form of unplanned learning, taking place in spite of one's best efforts but which is pivotal in determining one's perception of oneself as a learner. It is not the result of 'a planned, intentional preparation, [as] an aid to coping, a way of short-circuiting personal experience by drawing upon the accumulated experience of others' (Lawson 1982: 47-48). And yet as I shall argue, accidental learning is features in much, if not all, major scientific discovery. The second aim is to relate the notion of accidental learning to the concept of education and to discuss whether this concept can, in terms of any definition of education, be defined as such and to discuss whether, in fact, it actually matters at all. This will enable a comparison of the knowledge gained through accidental learning with the concept of the educated person.

I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.

Winston Churchill

The idea of humans as learning machines is of a certain vintage. From Erasmus, for example, from whom we have 'man is not born man, he becomes him or rather ... he makes himself man' (Margolin 1981: 172) to Malcolm Tight ['Learning, like breathing, is something everyone does all of the time' (Tight 1996: 21)] and beyond this refrain has been repeated in diverse guises ever since and continues to resonate.

By our very nature we acquire incidentals, trivia, scraps of information. We get better at some tasks and entrench bad habits in others. Regardless of the political rhetoric of the moment, we are inevitable lifelong learners. But we are learners of things which in the main we do not set out to learn. We acquire information without purpose as to its acquisition, which is not to say that we might not later devise a purpose for it. Indeed, without our fantastic appetite for trivia, there would be very little, if anything, in the way of 'general knowledge' game shows1. Little of this trivia is of lasting impact, unless of course it permits us to win a million! Or at the very least allow us not to look too ignorant in conversation.

There are however other learning experiences which are pivotal. These include the notion of the critical incident and, in particular, a form of critical incident which is the focus of this paper: accidental learning.

By its nature, the critical incident acts to shift any combination of one's opinion, one's values and one's perception of oneself as a learner. It can be the 'break-through' moment when striving suddenly comes to fruition. It can be provoked by an actual apple falling from a tree, as opposed to the apocryphal one related to Newton. It can easily be part of that conceptually and otherwise much contested domain which is education in that arguably a good educator, when faced with learners in difficulty of any sort, will press, push and cajole them until the light comes on and what previously was dim appears bright. This kind of critical incident is like a diminutive cousin of the Zen concept of satori or enlightenment, worked at, sought strenuously and then suddenly provoked into being by some event or another.

In all these cases, the critical incident acts to enable attainment of that which was being sought.

There exists another form of critical incident which acts to enable attainment of something which was not being sought at all. Like what we might term its positive counterpart mentioned above, it brings about changes in one's perception of oneself as a learner and does so in a lasting manner. This is what I wish to term accidental learning.

Accidental learning and the self
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett

Accidental learning is the fruit of circumstances which contrive and combine to provoke an unexpected learning turn. It may even have us learn something which we would have strenuously avoided had we been given the choice. Let me provide one example from my own history:

I began to accidentally learn to play the violin when I tried to tune my daughter's violin, couldn't do it [as I have no musical education whatsoever and had no musical knowledge whatsoever] and bought an electronic tuner. I had previously failed at every instrument I had ever tried and had long since given up hope of ever learning to play even the Kazoo. I was entrenched in the belief that I could not, under any circumstances, learn an instrument. Not only that, I was sure that of all the instruments in the world, the one I least wanted to play was the violin. Indeed I hated solo violin music.

I tuned my daughter's violin, looked at the fingerboard, saw the dots for the finger position, looked at the music, saw the numbers for which finger to use and I gave it a go. The tune was an arrangement of Clair de la lune as a very simple melody for absolute beginners. I played and I was awestruck. My attempt at the tune could have sounded like a creaky door but to me it was symphonic and I was launched as a violinist. Within two years I was in the first violins in the Glasgow Fiddle Orchestra and nine years after starting I am still playing.2

Within a matter of seconds, a major belief structure, replete with excuses, had been torn down and replaced, not with the idea that I was a born fiddle-player but that I had the potential and dexterity to become a fiddle-player. This minor epiphany underlines the idea that 'acquiring a belief is like catching a cold' (Heil 1999: 47). No matter how I might contrive to 'catch' whatever metaphorical virus transmits a belief, no matter how I might believe myself willing to acquire the said belief, it is only when conditions are just right that I will acquire it.

Indeed I learned in those few first seconds of fiddle playing that my conception of myself as a lifelong learner had been fundamentally flawed. I was purposefully learning in certain domains but except on rare occasions I was building on skills and knowledge I already possessed although I was open to new influences in my academic work.

In addition, I was, as I would suggest are many adults, very adept at making excuses for not undertaking new learning activities. I possessed a plethora of excuses which I readily believed and would provide to others as the occasion arose, complete with supporting arguments I deemed convincing. Fundamentally, I was seeking to avoid failure by avoiding trying.

In accidentally learning to play the violin I also learned to fail in a constructive fashion. I learned that sometimes attainment can be far more worthwhile when the goal set is not the goal reached.

Accidental learning, scientific discovery and goals
Happiness is not best achieved by those who seek it directly.

Bertrand Russell

The notion of achieving goals is one which seems deeply embedded in our cultural make-up. We seem in all manner of fora to indoctrinate ourselves - as a society - with goal-attainment as a positive end in itself. I am not going to decry the merits in setting goals and striving to attain them - though I do feel that there is much room for debate over what sort of goals are ethically attainable.

Unfortunately with the stress on goal attainment, the god of the right answer is perennially worshiped and alternatives usually ignored. Certainly, there are many questions to which there is a right answer. If, for example, we count in base 10 and adopt the mathematical conventions of the Peano Axioms3, then 2 + 2 = 4. It cannot be anything else.

Where this comes home to me personally to its greatest extent is in the teaching of science. I am not referring here to the descriptive aspects of science or indeed to the solving of mathematically based problems but rather to teaching learners how to do science.

The standard science experiment may be simply described as repeating that which many others have done before and coming to the same conclusions. The skill is in carrying out the requisite steps, taking the appropriate measurements and applying the correct analysis. An experiment works if it concurs with previous attempts at the same thing. This is all well and good when one seeks to illustrate that the contents of science texts are not mere figments of the imagination4 but it does little to show how science actually progresses and, more especially, it does nothing to show how a scientists actually thinks.

It is ironical that while teachers, especially at elementary and secondary levels, discourage their learners from guessing, guessing is exactly what scientists do as a matter of course. What is a hypothesis if not a guess? Certainly it is not - or ought not be - a blind guess. Rather it is one made in as much knowledge of the circumstances pertaining as is possible. Still, it is a guess.

In what might be termed the 'popular' model of scientific discovery, the scientist proceeds methodically and plods, in a manner akin to a farmer ploughing a furrow, steadfastly towards a goal. The goal may be set in the manner of the school science experiment where a problem is laid out and painstakingly probed until it reveals a solution.

However, unlike the school experiment, the scientist is having to hypothesise solutions to each step - having worked out and reworked out what these actually are - and to use his/her imagination to envision not only the goal but the successive sub-goals on the way to its attainment. There are frequent logical leaps - though these are perhaps more like little hops - when things don't pan out as expected. In some senses, there are unexpected moves - not necessarily progress - when in some manner things go wrong. If I have envisioned a method of solving a problem and get it wrong then I have in a literal sense failed to do what I set out to do. Simple consideration of the sheer length of time involved in scientific explorations - other than those that tread well worn paths and are using known techniques - suggests that failing to attain goals and having to try other approaches to solving a problem is an essential part of the scientific method. So, from this perspective, failure itself is a major part of the scientific method.

That such an approach has resulted in major break-throughs is undeniable. However our teaching of science carefully under-estimates the value of getting things wrong although some acknowledgement is granted to Einstein's use of major intuitive leaps - perhaps due in no small part to the plethora of aphorisms and often apocryphal tales which surround the man.

Our teaching of science under-estimates even more so the progress which has been made by scientists radically failing to attain set goals, as opposed to those whose gaol-attainment failure did not deter them from their chosen direction.

While James Clark Maxwell was proceeding in Edinburgh, using a rigorous though plodding method, to put Michael Faraday's electrical theories into a mathematical form and coming to the conclusion in the process that the speed of light in a vacuum was fixed, the commonly held theory was that light, being a wave, required a medium - the [lumiferous] ether - to travel through. In 1881, AA Michelson attempted to find the speed of this ether. In a series of experiments on his own and later with E Morley, he could not find it and made the crucial discovery that the ether does not exist. Michelson and Morley set out to attain one goal and ended up attaining one radically different but which is of critical significance to the development of physics as we know it today. [For details of the original experiments, see Michelson and Morley 1887]

Fleming's discovery of penicillin is another example and the more one looks into major scientific advances, the more one becomes aware of the role of accidental learning, in the sense described here, as being a common occurrence in the scientific world.

I would further suggest that, if we take some moments to consider our own life histories, we will find moments when setting out to do one thing and ending up doing another has had major and lasting impact. This need not be earth shattering or of significance to anyone other than ourselves. It could be at the level of an entry in my then six year-old son's school which read 'my dad plays in the kitchen.' Attending a parents' evening at his school, I read this and suddenly found myself examining what it was that distinguished work and play. His interpretation of the meanings of work and play set me thinking and made me question the dichotomy we create between them.

Accidental learning and education
That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way.

Doris Lessing

The literature on education is replete with attempts to define education, either directly or by the aims attributed to it.

Richard Peters claim that 'education implies that something worthwhile is being intentionally transmitted in a morally acceptable manner' (Peters 1966: 25) is frequently a starting point for students of philosophy of education, especially in Anglophone countries is fraught with problems that need no rehearsal here. Suffice to say, that unless we can conceive of transmitting something to ourselves, any form of self-generated critical incident fails to reach the bar. Accidental learning is doubly doomed as it does not satisfy any notion of intentionality. Indeed, by its definition as given here, it is totally unintentional.

One of the problems with any discussion of accidental learning as education per se is the all too frequent equation of education with school, such as do Winch and Gingell (1999) despite Abbs' assertion that 'education and school can refer, and often do, to antithetical activities' (Abbs 1979: 90). Unfortunately Abbs does not help us out of this particular hole by offering us his own definition of education, being much more ready to discuss the idea of being educated. Winch and Gingell (1999), for their part and recognition of the difficulties inherent in trying to define education, finally term education an essentially contested concept.

Things are made no better when one considers the learning aspect of accidental learning. For Hamm (1989), for example, a criterion for learning to be occurring is intentionality. 'Learning is an activity that one engages in with purpose and intention to come up to a certain standard' (Hamm 1989: 91) which is a point of view which immediately condemns to some other category of human activity all acquisition of information, knowledge and skills that one has picked up inadvertently. What Hamm engages in is a false equation between learning and studying. If I study, then it is to be hoped that I have a clear idea of what I am attempting to learn and, even more hopefully, I will have some benchmark or form of examination [be it self-examination or otherwise] to determine the extent to which I have succeeded in this endeavour. Winch and Gingell (1999) pursue a similar tack, although they at least give cognisance to the self-educated. Nonetheless, the equation of learning with studying is evident. Interestingly though, they do allow for an element of teaching unintentionally by 'accidentally leaving [a book] open for someone to read' (Winch and Gingell 1999: 133). This creates a bit of a paradox since, given that teaching and learning are conceptually linked (Hamm (1989); Winch and Gingell (1999) the unintentional teacher can only be causing another person to learn if the other has the intention so to do. If I stumble on the answer to the question on life, the universe and everything5 just because you left a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy lying open on a table, then, despite any absence of intention on my part, have I not learnt something? And this despite not having studied it in any shape or form?

The literature on adult education is of just as little help. Attempting to move radically away from the notion that education and school are synonymous, the 'definitions' on offer are marked by their wooliness. To give one example: 'Education focuses on the experiences which influence learning' (Cropley 1979). By trying to get away from the difficulties inherent in Peters' somewhat more developed and highly influential definition, Cropley demonstrates just difficult it is to pin down a definition of education which avoids the requirement for a transmission model.

It is only to the woolliest of definitions, such as Cropley's, that accidental learning even comes close to qualifying as education. However, does it matter? I might contend that learning from an education, whatever that it is, matters not one whit unless at the end of this process I might be deemed in some shape or form to be educated. It seems self-evident from the gross ignorance that abounds - one only has to read the popular press to observe the limited range of human experience which merits comment or indeed one might conduct a general knowledge quiz with one's students - that education does not result in all cases in the educatee being an educated person, at least in the sense that if one is educated then one will have a worldview which extends beyond the boundaries of one's parish. Indeed, if Maskell (1999) is to be believed, those whom we might term 'educated' are all too often themselves in want of an education.

Being educated is no less contested than is education. It may be the acquisition of the 'crap detector' à la Hemingway (Barrow 1999) which Postman and Weingartner (1972) regale in as the principle aim of any education. On the other hand, the capacity to expound upon and employ the literary canon, or some other set of knowledge, may be the scale against which one's being educated is measured. Barrow (1999) draws these together and states that 'it is to have a developed mind, which means a mind that has developed understanding such that it can discriminate between logically different kinds of questions and exercise judgment, critically and creatively, in respect of important matters' (Barrow 1999: 139). Such discrimination and judgment inevitably need to be based upon a significant amount of knowledge. Just how much is significant and about what sort of knowledge we are talking is, of course, open to debate and will vary according to circumstances. My being educated in horticulture may be of little use when faced with a burst pipe in my living room.

All this implies that, while we may wax about general education, the sheer scope of knowledge and skills which are there to be acquired, at least in theory, is such that we must forcibly remain uneducated in at least some, if not many, domains. However, the Barrowian argument, in company with many others, implies very strongly that education is the antithesis of indoctrination, although it may be argued that education must perforce contain elements of indoctrination, if only to convince some learners of its own worth.

As an anti-indoctrinatory pursuit, if education develops in us our faculty in discussing and questioning the world then is accidental learning, with its unexpected turns and its calling into question previously held beliefs and attitudes, not a part of it? If I am thrust by a conjuncture of circumstances to question that which I previously held to be true, or to move in a hitherto untried direction, or simply to reassess the fundamentals of what I am doing with some aspect of my life, then am I not calling into question my worldview, interrogating it in some manner and hence being educated?


Adams, D (2002) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. London: Picador.

Cope, P (2003) 'Adult Learning in Traditional Music'

Cropley, A. J. (1979) 'Lifelong Learning: Issues and Questions', in Cropley, A. J. (ed.) Lifelong Education: a stocktaking. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute of Education.

Heil, J (1999) 'Belief', in Dancy, J and Sosa, E (eds) A Companion to Epistemology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lawson, K. H. (1982) Analysis and Ideology: Conceptual Essays on the Education of Adults. Nottingham: University of Nottingham.

Margolin, J-C (1981) L'éducation à l'époque des grands humanistes, in Vial, J and Mialaret, G (eds) Histoire mondiale de l'éducation.. Tome 2. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

Maskell, D (1999) 'What has Jane Austen to Teach Tony Blunkett?' Journal of Philosophy of Education. 33 2 pp157-174.

Michelson, AA and Morley, E (1887) 'On the relative motion of the Earth and luminiferous ether' American Journal of Science XXXIV, 203 pp 332-345

Peters, R. S. (1966) Ethics and Education. London: Allen and Unwin.

Postman, N and Weingartner, C (1972) Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tight, M (1996) Key Concepts in Adult Education and Training. London: Routledge.

Winch, C and Gingell, J (1999) Key Concepts in the Philosophy of Education. London: Routledge.


  1. The concept of general knowledge is fraught with problems since quite clearly what is mundane for me might be esoteric for you and vice versa. By its name, general knowledge implies that it is held widely within the population. It may even be ascribed the title of 'common knowledge.' In both instances, there are multiple assumptions and cultural dependency. To give two examples of common knowledge:
Brick mortar contains one part cement to four parts sand;
James IV was the last king of Scotland to speak Gaelic and was killed at the battle of Flodden in 1513 when a cannon he was inspecting exploded.
How common or general are either of these?
  1. See for example the work of Peter Cope on adults learning traditional music.
  2. The Peano axioms are usually written as [despite 0 not being a natural number]:

There is a natural number 0. (or 1, if 0 is excluded).
Every natural number a has a successor, denoted by a + 1.
There is no natural number whose successor is 0.
Distinct natural numbers have distinct successors: if ab, then a + 1 ≠ b + 1.
If a property is possessed by 0 and also by the successor of every natural number it is possessed by, then it is possessed by all natural numbers.

  1. The adage whereby if it moves, it's biology; if it's smells, it's chemistry; if it doesn't work, it's physics speaks volumes [especially in the physics case] as to what really happens in science teaching.
  2. The answer to the question on life, the universe and everything is 42 (Adams 2002). As is often the case, it is the question itself which is much more interesting. The road leading up to the question is more interesting still.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 04 February 2004