Nonformal learning

Nonformal learning

Non-formal learning is a distinction in learning between formal and informal learning. It is learning that occurs in a formal learning environment, but that is not formally recognised. It typically involves workshops, community courses, interest based courses, short courses, or conference style seminars. The learning takes place in a formal setting such as an educational organisation, but is not formally recognised within a curriculum or syllabus framework



Non-formal learning normally occurs outside of traditional educational or training institutions and is not formal recognised by way of certification or a qualification. It can take place in the workplace or community and is initiated by either an individual or is a by-product of organised activities that have structured objectives and timeframes. Non-formal learning sits in between and overlaps formal and informal learning and is increasing recognised alongside the concept of life-long learning by the OECD, EU and employers around the world.

Non-formal Learning: A Definition

Non-formal learning occurs in a planned but highly adaptable way, in institutions, organisations, the workplace and situations outside the spheres of formal or informal education. It shares with formal education the characteristic of being mediated, but the motivation for learning may be wholly intrinsic to the learner. Examples of non-formal education for children include learn-to-swim programs for toddlers, community-based sports programs, and programs developed by organisations such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Guides Girl Guides. Examples of non-formal education for adults include community or non-credit adult education courses, sports or fitness programs, professional conferences and continuing professional development. [1]

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.[2]


Non-formal learning can be characterized as follows:

It normally takes place outside of an education or training institution and typically does not lead to certification or qualification.

It is however, structured in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support.

It can be undertaken by the individual or be part of an organised activity that occurs within the workplace or community.

Non-formal learning is intentional from the learner’s perspective


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 challenge by Scribner and Cole[3] 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.[4]

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” [5] strategy in 1996. This includes 23 countries from five continents, who have sort 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 certificate 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

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)[6]

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))[6]

Non-formal Learning: see definition above.

Contested Definitions

"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) [7]

If the 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.

Eraut’s [8] 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)[9]

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) [6]

Livingstone’s [10] adults formal and informal edu ation, 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)[9]

Billett [11] (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)[9]


Many countries within the developed world are suffering from declining birth rates, ageing workforces and skill shortages. To address these issues within their labour markets, both the OCED and EU have been acknowledging and focusing on the processes of formal recognition for both non-formal and informal learning. This recognition states that all learning is of value and that non-formal and informal learning are equivalent to formal learning.

This validation or measuring the value of lifelong learning requires a process whereby individuals have their overall skills they have acquired formally acknowledged. This would require systematic documentation for non-formal learning within the workplace or youth organisations, coupled with recognition within the relevant industry for this form of non-formal learning. Moreover, within higher education or universities that non-formal learning is accepted as a formal knowledge within the relevant specialist field. Both the UK and Australia higher education institutions and universities now accept and grant non-formal learning as credit towards a qualification.

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.[12]

Different Countries Approaches

There are different approaches to validation between OCED and EU countries, with countries adopting different measures. The EU, as noted above, through the Cepofd 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)[13]

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
Swizterland x
United Kingdom x

The Future

With increasing demand for a highly skilled workforce and the movement towards an knowledge economy, recognition of non-formal and informal learning shall become important tools as governments adapt to these demands. This is linked to the ‘lifelong learning for all’ agenda of the OECD, that is reshaping how we learn to better match the needs of the 21st century knowledge economies and open societies.

Suggested Links

OECD Recognition for Non-Formal and Informal Learning home:,3343,en_2649_39263238_37136921_1_1_1_37455,00&&en-USS_01DBC.html

Directorate General for Education and Culture on Valuing learning outside formal education and training:

Cedefop European guidelines for validating non-formal and informal learning:

Conclusions of The Council of the European Union May 2004:

Department of Education, Education and Workplace Relations, Australia Government. Country Report:


  1. ^ [Eaton, Sarah Elaine. Formal, Non-Formal and Informal Learning] Archived 22 May 2011 at WebCite
  2. ^ [SEEQUEL.] Archived 13 February 2011 at WebCite
  3. ^ [Scribner, S. and Cole, M. (1973) Cognitive Consequences of Formal and Informal Education, Science, 182, 553 – 559.]
  4. ^ [Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]
  5. ^ [OCED Lifelong Learning for All] Archived 13 February 2011 at WebCite
  6. ^ a b c [Cedefop Glossary]
  7. ^ [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:]
  8. ^ [Eraut, M. (2000) Non-formal learning, implicit learning and tacit knowledge, in F. Coffield (Ed) The Necessity of Informal Learning, Bristol: Policy Press (2000)]
  9. ^ a b c [Ined:Non-Formal Learning]
  10. ^ [Livingstone, D.W. (2001) Adults’ Informal Learning: Definitions, Findings, Gaps and Future Research, Toronto: OISE/UT (NALL Working Paper No.21) at,(2001)]
  11. ^ [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, 8th –10th November]
  12. ^ [European guidelines for validating non-formal and informal learning; Routes from learning to certification. figure 2 p.18.]
  13. ^ [ 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]

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