Formal vs. Nonformal in learning

Tens of thousands of trainers. Maybe hundreds of thousands of trainers. That is the number of trainers that Europe has at this point. The result of a boom in trainings for trainers, many of them still have a problem with differentiating between formal and nonformal learning.

If asked about the main difference between those two, the answers vary and the temptation to tackle any of the following is big: it’s the setting (formal/informal), it’s the recognition (yes/no), it’s the learning objectives, it’s the learning style and so on…

I strongly disagree: I believe that what makes the difference is level to which the needs of the subjects (students/participants) are taken into account both when setting the learning objectives (and yes, nonformal learning should have clearly definied learning objectives) and when designing the learning experience.

Basically, for all learning programs, two different categories of needs need to be taken into consideration: the organisational and the individual ones. In the category of organisational needs we have on the side of formal education, the needs identified by the ministries of education (comprised by the school curricula) and on the side of nonformal lerning, the needs of the organisation facilitating the learning process such as the development of the organisation, the promotion of the organisation and its values and so on.

Many formal education systems are nowadays promoting the idea of student – centred education which would mean that the learning also takes into consideration the needs of the students. And most of them have come to naught.

On the other hand, nonformal learning has the needs assessment as a core component of the development of a training program.

Or at least it should have it: we develop bulletproof methodologies to asses the needs of the participants before the training program and also throughout the training program. And we put them in practice. Unfortunately, there are times that they remain just that: a bulletproof methodology because the organisational needs are stronger and we cannot adapt the learning process. And that is the point were nonformal lerning becomes formal: the organisation knows better what the participants need… And that is not only a low quality learning process but also very sad…

So, when was the last time you totally changed the learning process that you designed because the needs of the participants asked for it? When was the last time you developed your training concept and methodology also after going through the applications of the participants? When you last told the participants that you are willing to change everything if they ask for it, did you really mean it?


•    Formal learning takes place in education and training institutions, leading to recognised diplomas and qualifications.

•    Non-formal learning takes place alongside the mainstream systems of education and training and does not typically lead to formalised certificates. Non-formal learning may be provided in the workplace and through the activities of civil society organisations and groups (such as in youth organisations, trades unions and political parties). lt can also be provided through organisations or services that have been set up to complement formal systems (such as arts, music and sports classes or private tutoring to prepare for examinations).

•    Informal learning is a natural accompaniment to everyday life. Unlike formal and non -formal learning, informal learning is not necessarily intentional learning, and so may well not be recognised even by individuals themselves as contributing to their knowledge and skills.

Until now, formal learning has dominated policy thinking, shaping the ways in which education and training are provided and colouring people‘s understandings of what counts as learning. The continuum of lifelong learning brings non-formal and informal learning more fully into the picture. Non-formal learning, by definition, stands outside schools, colleges, training centres and universities. lt is not usually seen as ‘real‘ learning, and nor do its outcomes have much currency value on the labour market. Non-formal learning is therefore typically undervalued.

But informal learning is likely to be missed out of the picture altogether, although it is the oldest form of learning and remains the mainstay of early childhood learning. The fact that microcomputer technology has established itself in homes before it has done so in schools underlines the importance of informal learning. Informal contexts provide an enormous learning reservoir and could be an important source of innovation for teaching and learning methods.

(Source: A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning, European Commission, Unit E-3)

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