Nonformal learning

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Khamla Panyasouk of Big Brother Mouse in Laos reads to children

Non-formal learning is a loosely defined term covering various structured learning situations, such as swimming sessions for toddlers, community-based sports programs and conference style seminars, which do not either have the level of curriculum, syllabus, accreditation and certification associated with 'formal learning', but have more structure than that associated with 'informal learning', which typically take place naturally and spontaneously as part of other activities. These form the three styles of learning recognised and supported by the OECD.[1]

Examples of non-formal learning include swimming sessions for toddlers, community-based sports programs, and programs developed by organisations such as the Boy Scouts or the Girl Guides, community or non-credit adult education courses, sports or fitness programs, professional conferences and continuing professional development.[2] The learner’s objectives may be to increase skills and knowledge, as well as to experience the emotional rewards associated with increased love for a subject or increased passion for learning.[3]


The debate over the relative value of formal and informal learning has existed for a number of years. Traditionally formal learning that takes place in a school or university and has a greater value placed upon it than informal learning, such as learning within the workplace. This concept of formal learning being the socio-cultural accepted norm for learning was first challenged by Scribner and Cole[4] in 1973, who claimed most things in life are better learnt through informal processes, citing language learning as an example. Moreover, anthropologists noted that complex learning still takes place within indigenous communities that had no formal educational institutions.[5]

It’s the acquisition of this knowledge or learning which occurs in everyday life that has not been fully valued or understood. This led to the declaration the by OECD educational ministers of the "life-long learning for all" [6] strategy in 1996. This includes 23 countries from five continents, who have sought to clarify and validate all forms of learning including formal, non-formal and informal. This has been in conjunction with the European Union which has also developed policies for life-long learning which focus strongly on the need to identify, assess and certify non-formal and informal learning, particularly in the workplace.

Countries involved in recognition of non-formal learning (OECD 2010)

Austria Denmark Italy South Africa
Australia Germany Korea Spain
Belgium Greece Malta Slovenia
Canada Hungary Mexico Switzerland
Chile Iceland Netherlands United Kingdom
Czech Republic Ireland Norway

Formal, informal and non-formal learning[edit]

Although all definitions can be contested (see below) this article shall refer to the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (Cedefop) 2001 communication on 'lifelong learning: formal, non-formal and informal learning' as the guideline for the differing definitions.

Formal learning: learning typically provided by an education or training institution, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and leading to certification. Formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective. (Cedefop 2001)[7]

Informal learning: learning resulting from daily life activities related to work, family or leisure. It is not structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) and typically does not lead to certification. Informal learning may be intentional but in most cases it is not-intentional (or "incidental"/random)(Cedefop 2001))[7]

Non-formal learning: see definition above.

Contested definitions[edit]

If there is no clear distinction between formal and in-formal learning where is the room for non formal learning. It is a contested issue with numerous definitions given. The following are some the competing theories.

"It is difficult to make a clear distinction between formal and informal learning as there is often a crossover between the two." (McGivney, 1999, p1).[8]

Similarly, Hodkinson et al. (2003), conclude after a significant literature analysis on the topics of formal, informal, and non-formal learning, that "the terms informal and non-formal appeared interchangeable, each being primarily defined in opposition to the dominant formal education system, and the largely individualist and acquisitional conceptualisations of learning developed in relation to such educational contexts."(Hodkinson et al., 2003, p. 314)[9] Moreover, he states that "It is important not to see informal and formal attributes as somehow separate, waiting to be integrated. This is the dominant view in the literature, and it is mistaken. Thus, the challenge is not to, somehow, combine informal and formal learning, for informal and formal attributes are present and inter-related, whether we will it so or not. The challenge is to recognise and identify them, and understand the implications. For this reason, the concept of non-formal learning, at least when seen as a middle state between formal and informal, is redundant."(p. 314)

Eraut’s [10] classification of learning into formal and non-formal:

This removes informal learning from the equation and states all learning outside of formal learning is non-formal. Eraut equates informal with connotations of dress, language or behaviour that have no relation to learning. Eraut defines formal learning as taking place within a learning framework; within a classroom or learning institution, with a designated teacher or trainer; the award of a qualification or credit; the external specification of outcomes. Any learning that occurs outside of these parameters is non-formal.(Ined 2002)[11]

The EC (2001) Communication on Lifelong Learning: formal, non-formal and informal learning:

The EU places non-formal learning in between formal and informal learning (see above). This has learning both in a formal setting with a learning framework and as an organised event but within a qualification. "Non-formal learning: learning that is not provided by an education or training institution and typically does not lead to certification. It is, however, structured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support). Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective." (Cedefop 2001) [7]

Livingstone’s [12] adults formal and informal education, non-formal and informal learning:

This focuses on the idea of adult non-formal education. This new mode, ‘informal education’ is when teachers or mentors guide learners without reference to structured learning outcomes. This informal education learning is gaining knowledge without an imposed framework, such as learning new job skills. (Infed, 2002)[11]

Billett [13] (2001): there is no such thing as informal learning:

Billet’s definition states there is no such thing as non-formal and informal learning. He states all human activity is learning, and that everything people do involves a process of learning. "all learning takes place within social organisations or communities that have formalised structures." Moreover he states most learning in life takes place outside of formal education.(Ined 2002)[11]


Cedefop has created European guidelines to provide validation to a broad range of learning experiences, thereby aiding transparency and comparability across its national borders. The broad framework for achieving this certification across both non-formal and informal learning is outlined in the Cedefop European guidelines for validating non-formal and informal learning; Routes from learning to certification.[14]

Different countries approaches[edit]

There are different approaches to validation between OCED and EU countries, with countries adopting different measures. The EU, as noted above, through the Cedefop -released European guidelines for validating non-formal and informal learning in 2009 to standardise validation throughout the EU. Within the OCED countries, the picture is more mixed.

Countries with the existence of recognition for non-formal and informal learning (Feutrie, 2007)[15]

Full Program Partial Program Limited Program No program
Austria x
Australia x
Belgium x
Canada x
Chile x
Czech Republic x
Denmark x
Germany x
Greece x
Hungary x
Iceland x
Ireland x
Italy x
Korea x
Malta x
Mexico x
Netherlands x
Norway x
South Africa x
Spain x
Slovenia x
Switzerland x
United Kingdom x


  1. ^ "Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning - Home". OECD. 
  2. ^ [Eaton, Sarah Elaine. Formal, Non-Formal and Informal Learning] Archived 22 May 2011 at WebCite
  3. ^ [SEEQUEL.] Archived 13 February 2011 at WebCite
  4. ^ [Scribner, S. and Cole, M. (1973) Cognitive Consequences of Formal and Informal Education, Science, 182, 553 – 559.]
  5. ^ [Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]
  6. ^ [OCED Lifelong Learning for All] Archived 13 February 2011 at WebCite
  7. ^ a b c [Cedefop Glossary]
  8. ^ [McGivney, V. (1999) Informal learning in the community: a trigger for change and development (Leicester: NIACE). Cited in ‘Helen Colley, Phil Hodkinson & Janice Malcolm (2002) Non-formal learning: mapping the conceptual terrain. A Consultation Report, Leeds: University of Leeds Lifelong Learning Institute. Also available in the informal education archives:]
  9. ^ Hodkinson, Phil; Colley, Hellen; Janice Malcolm (2003). "The Interrelationships Between Informal and Formal Learning". Journal of Workplace Learning 15: 313–318. 
  10. ^ [Eraut, M. (2000) Non-formal learning, implicit learning and tacit knowledge, in F. Coffield (Ed) The Necessity of Informal Learning, Bristol: Policy Press (2000)]
  11. ^ a b c [Ined:Non-Formal Learning]
  12. ^ [Livingstone, D.W. (2001) Adults’ Informal Learning: Definitions, Findings, Gaps and Future Research, Toronto: OISE/UT (NALL Working Paper No.21) at,(2001)]
  13. ^ [Billett, S. (2001a) Participation and continuity at work: A critique of current workplace learning discourses, paper given at the conference Context, Power and Perspective: Confronting the Challenges to Improving Attainment in Learning at Work, Sunley Management Centre, University College Northampton, 8 –10 November]
  14. ^ [European guidelines for validating non-formal and informal learning; Routes from learning to certification. figure 2 p.18.]
  15. ^ [ Feutrie M. (2007), Validation of Non-formal and Informal Learning in Europe: Comparative Approaches, Challenges and Possibilities, communication at the conference on .Recognition of Prior Learning: Nordic-Baltic Experiences and European Perspectives., Copenhagen, 8 March 07]

External links[edit]