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I know what I don’t know and need help: what are the stimulating factors for non-formal and informal learning?

Adult learning colleagues, I have found a research gap and I need your help to fill it. If you’re well-read in the area of informal and non-formal learning (or if, like me, you’d like to learn more), read on.

Too often when discussing learning, we actually think about schooling. For most of us, the formal education side is dominant, blurring our perspective on other forms and modes of learning which are more relevant for adults. Indeed, adults do learn in schools and classrooms, but also on the job, as well as at the computer, at home, at their sport/hobby club etc. We can be aware of learning but unaware that we learn. All in all, we learn everywhere and all the time.

However, in discussions on non-formal and informal modes of learning, it is not the issue of how adults learn, what is learned and how to stimulate these modes of learning – the issue is how to validate the learning taking place. How do we capitalise these modes of learning?

I touched upon this in one of my previous posts but now I’d like to look at what the stimulating factors are for informal and non-formal learning.

As there is, to my knowledge, a lack of policy-related and academic documents at the European level concerning conditions for non-formal and informal learning (only in relation to validation; see here). Below I explore some more remote sources on this issue, associated with workplace learning, development work and youth work.

  1. Literature on workplace learning says that organisations can facilitate non-formal and informal learning through culture, policy and specific procedures. According to Kyndt, Dochy and Nijs (2009) there are five learning conditions, namely:
  • feedback and knowledge acquisition
  • new learning approach and communication tools
  • being coached
  • coaching others
  • information acquisition

Different groups of employees have different chances for non-formal and informal learning. As indicated by these academics, there isn’t a lot of research that focuses on learning conditions for non-formal and informal learning, surther research is needed on this topic.

  1. Documents on European youth work indicated the following quality criteria and standards for non-formal education and training (Fennes, Otten; 2008):
  • The activity meets identified needs in the community
  • The activity is consciously conceptualised and framed to meet identified and appropriate objectives as well as to allow for unexpected outcomes
  • The activity is well designed, planned and carried out, in both educational and organisational terms
  • The activity is adequately resourced
  • The activity demonstrably uses its resources effectively and efficiently
  • The activity is monitored and evaluated
  • The activity acknowledges and makes visible its outcomes and results
  • The activity integrates principles and practices of intercultural learning.
  1. Some work on this subject seems to be done in the framework of development work. In countries with poor formal education systems, the reliance on quality non-formal learning systems is bigger. Some development organisations work on setting up quality assurance systems. These systems are mirroring QA systems for formal education and are based on general quality cycle (for example Commonwealth of Learning; 2012):
    • Need analysis
    • Vision, objectives, values
    • Inputs and stakeholders
    • Implementation of programmes
    • Assessing outcomes

Again, no answer is provided on what are stimulating conditions for non-formal and informal learning.

To be honest, although interesting, I do not find these findings satisfying at all, and unfortunately, overarching literature and evidence to answer this question is lacking.

When re-thinking the question, the issue at stake even gains importance, for us as people working in the sector, as well as for policy makers: according to the Adult Education Survey, most learning takes place in a non-formal way. As these forms of learning are generally less expensive, would it not be wise to stimulate non-formal and informal learning? Is the stimulation of informal and non-formal learning even more important than the validation of it?

I need help from you on this and call upon the adult learning community to provide:

  1. Evidence and studies on stimulating conditions for non-formal and informal learning
  2. Best practices related to stimulating non-formal learning
  3. Frameworks for stimulating non-formal learning at policy level
  4. Lessons learnt in adult learning and other sectors on this topic

Thanks in advance!

Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.

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