Photo: Halliki Põlda
On the one hand, summertime is all about drawing conclusions in the area of adult education – classes, courses, and training sessions end. On the other hand, summertime is also about making new plans, developing schedules, educational programmes, curiccula as well as planning teaching methods. It is this phase that is crucial for any type of education to be a success, but is also closely related to the question of whether a programme should be formal or not. Finally, equally important, summertime is about resting, sporting, sunbathing, gardening... or jam making.
This article actually started with the idea and the practical need to explain the meaning and concept of formal and non-formal learning. It was my responsibility as a linguist and a lecturer on lifelong learning, but I only managed to start writing the article this summer when I got my hands on making apricot jam, which is quite complicated. I am using the word "complicated" as I do not have any formal education in this field (I am not a certified cook), but I have the skill to make jam that I learned from my grandmother, in an non-formal way, and I accidentally (just informally) got into making apricot jam. The metaphor of making jam is the most common in explaining the differences between formal, non-formal, and informal learning – I have heard it different contexts. But what do these concepts stand for?
The educational dictionary defines formal education – using the synonym "school education" – as acquired through general, vocational, and higher education; formal learning, as structured institutional learning that complies with specific standards. When it comes to conventional knowledge, it is the study of any formalised and hierarchically structured system that society recognises and accepts (certified cook, remember?).
However, the meaning of non-formal learning is much more complex. An article published by researcher and practitioner of adult education Katrin Karu and her colleagues this spring – Construing the Meaning of Non-Formal Learning in Political Document – explains that the term is used systematically and inconsistently, but, mostly, as a term that contradicts "formal education". The educational dictionary also defines non-formal learning through confrontation as "voluntary learning in different environments outside school, with a view to self-development". The term "unschooling“(in translation “free study") offered by terminologists has not been widely used in the area of education as the meaning of the word "free" is much wider than the term "non-formal learning" allows. However, the practice of opposing non-formal learning to formal learning is proved in daily use. Non-formal learning does not always take place outside the system, quite the contrary. For example, when it comes to the area of adult education at both Tallinn and Tartu University, the methods of non-formal learning are widely accepted and used, positively within the system. However, it is important that non-formal learning – whether it occurs inside or outside the school system – is targeted. If we go back to our jam metaphor, we should admit that our grandmother's words of wisdom would be useful to any certified cook. This also means that any grandmother can be invited to visit a vocational school to demonstrate how to make jam – in a completely non-formal way, but well inside a formal system, accepting it.
Should the reader now pose the question of what the content of this informal learning could be and how to define it, I must admit that it becomes even more complicated right there. Linguistically, we are talking about a synonym for "non-formal learning" (the prefix "in-" and "non-" do mean the same thing). The synonym "casual learning" offered by the educational dictionary is quite striking, but it has never been used much in practice. Non-formal learning differs from informal learning in terms of lack of a clear goal set, and in terms of learning in everyday situations, casually. Casualness, as a factor influencing learning, is sometimes referred to as luckiness in some learning and development theories (e.g., François Gagné’s theory). Serendipity-learning – wouldn't it just be a lovely synonym? This way, learning and jam making would both be a success, whether formally or not – when it is great and tastes good, nothing else matters!
Halliki Põlda is a Tallinn University lecturer on lifelong and non-formal learning
P.S. This article is meant to be a short summer interlude, but I also hope that it sparks reflection and discussion on the content of formal, non-formal, and informal learning as well as the meaning of these concepts.