Every time someone introduces me as a trainer and uses the word ‘informal education’, I cringe. Every time a participant complains in the daily debrief about the lack of presentations and immediate solution, I sigh. Every time a client wishes a formal set up for the training and shows me an agenda full of speakers, I want to hold up a big sign “Non-formal education trainer here!”
There is a lot of confusion about the term non-formal education. Therefore, the assumptions and the expectations of the clients and participants don’t often match with the training I facilitate and the methods and approaches I practice. That impact very negatively their capacity to indeed witness and experience the potential and real benefits provided by those learning tools.
Did you see how I used to facilitate learning at the end of the last paragraph instead of to teach? That was a conscious choice as the words “to teach” and “teacher” are connected to a different form of education – formal education. The concept of formal education is universally known as we all were students taught by teachers in subjects we could not choose at schools we were obliged to go. This one sentence summarises pretty directly what is widely understood as formal education, but let me walk you through the different aspects bit by bit.
First, formal education always happened in a clearly described setting. There is the teacher who holds the knowledge authority and the student who receives that knowledge. The knowledge is defined through curricular and other regulating aspects.
Second, formal education learning is always held to a clear pre-defined standard and assessed based on the individual capacity of meeting the criteria of that standard. The focus of this educative method is, therefore, the outcome more than the learning itself. It globally does not factor in the individual circumstances of students.
Third, formal education to a certain degree is mandatory. In almost all countries of the world, the school attendance up to at least primary school is compulsory for all children. This factor does not mean that voluntary higher education, such as a university, does not fall into the concept of formal education. Once you are registered to enter higher education presence and participation are as mandatory as in primary school.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned another form of education – informal education. This form of learning can be described as learning by doing or learning through experience. It is often presented as the opposite to formal education as it is unplanned and not assessed nor monitored. It does not have a defined space but happens in everyday life. One typical example is, that when you as a child put your hand on the hot oven, you learned that it hurts to touch the hot oven. In some theories and definition also socialisation itself is considered informal learning as your family did not have a set curriculum in mind but shaped your behaviour through their own actions and norms.
So these two are pretty clear, right? So what is non-formal education? Let’s look at some official definitions.
“Education that is institutionalized, intentional and planned by an education provider. The defining characteristic of non-formal education is that it is an addition, alternative and/or a complement to formal education […]. It caters for people of all ages, but does not necessarily apply a continuous pathway-structure; […]. Non-formal education mostly leads to qualifications that are not recognized as formal qualifications […] or to no qualifications at all. […]” (UNESCO)
The UNESCO defines non-formal education through the lens of formal education. It sees it more as an offer alongside formal learning opportunities and as a tool for life-long learning. It considers it as a less efficient form of education, notably in term of outcomes.
“Non formal learning is purposive but voluntary learning that takes place in a diverse range of environments […] for which teaching/training and learning is not necessarily their sole or main activity. These environments […] may be temporarly, and the activities […] that take place may be staffed by professional learning facilitators […] or by volunteers […]. The activities and courses are planned, […] rarely […] assess learning outcomes […] in conventionally visible ways.” (Youthpass)
For the Youthpass the primary focus is on the voluntariness of the participation in non-formal education and informal of the setting. Nevertheless, it is structured and planned.
“Non-formal learning takes place outside formal learning environments but within some kind of organisational framework. It arises from the learner’s conscious decision to master a particular activity, skill or area of knowledge and is thus the result of intentional effort. But it need not follow a formal syllabus or be governed by external accreditation and assessment. Non-formal learning typically takes place in community settings […].” (Council of Europe)
In the Council of Europe’s definition, the focus is apparently on the learner itself. She consciously decides to participate in the learning process and put effort into the creation of a result.
All three definitions clearly place non-formal education outside the formal educational system. Nevertheless all state a planned and structured approach through some sort of facilitator. In two of them, the voluntary participation is a defining aspect. Further, the assessment of the learning outcomes is absent in all of them.
For me non-formal education is the space in which participants acknowledge their own expertise, learn how to connect it with their fellow learners and create solutions together. The most valuable takeaway in this process is the moment of self-awareness and growth. The methods I select are aiming to facilitate this process. It is not about me as a facilitator or my opinions. Therefore I believe a non-formal educator/trainer/facilitator does not need to be an expert on the topic of the session. She just needs to know how to create an experience that kickstarts the process and a frame to guide it in its natural flow. Therefore, it is necessary to continually adjust the planned learning journey to the needs and aims of the learner.
So now we know what I understand as non-formal education. Thank you for sticking with me through this long post. But before I let you go, I briefly want to speak about when and where we can use non-formal education.
The approach of non-formal education is universal and can (and should) be used wherever learning happens. Most of the tools of the formal education only benefit a small part of the learners, and the focus on standardised outcomes does not give the individual development of one learner the validation it deserves. Therefore, I advocate for the introduction of non-formal education within our school system, university and even the corporate work world. How far could innovation go, if we were able to harvest the expertise of each and every one in the room!
I hope this journey into a more theoretical background did not just give you some insights into your own learning but also inspires you to discover the world of non-formal education further. As always leave your comments and questions below and I would really appreciate if you like and share this post!
Love and appreciation,