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EPALE - Piattaforma elettronica per l'apprendimento degli adulti in Europa


The benefits of non-formal learning

di Mahira Spiteri
Lingua: EN
Document available also in: MT FR DE

Educator Louis Debono teaches in both formal and non-formal environments and greatly believes in the benefits and importance of both. As a teacher at De La Salle Sixth Form, in Malta, he uses formal learning on a daily basis, however he is also a champion for non-formal learning in his roles as a trainer for youth workers and volunteers for the European Volunteer Service, and a human rights trainer within the Council for Europe. Here he shares his experiences.




Non-formal learning is a key phrase in our approach to education today. After all, we know that different learners learn in different ways, and that different topics benefit from being taught in a variety of settings and methods.

But what exactly is non-formal learning, and how does it differ from more traditional and formal methods? Here, educator and trainer Louis Debono explains.

“When I teach in a school, students call me ‘Sir’ and I go into class to give them the information they need; that’s formal,” says Louis. “With non-formal learning all that changes. To begin with, students don’t address their teacher as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’ as both the teacher and participants are on a more equal level. Plus it’s not about imparting information, but about facilitating someone’s learning.”

Beyond that, Louis explains that, with non-formal learning, he believes he doesn’t have any right to impose his agenda on his learners. “Their agenda is just as important as mine, and it’s my job to adapt to what they need,” he stresses. “This, of course, influences the way things work in the classroom. With non-formal learning the focus is on empowering the learner to achieve more, as opposed to be being taught in the traditional sense.”

Looking back on his experiences of teaching in a non-formal environment, Louis recalls a recent session he held for teachers, social workers and youth workers on behalf of the Council of Europe. While he had his own thoughts on what the group needed to learn, each participant brought their own experience into the room, and he explains that these elements has to be accounted for and valued as part of the learning journey. “The learners were adults with their own knowledge and past, and they had to be treated as such,” Louis explains. “So, at the end of the five-day session we probably hadn’t taught them that much, but they left with an influenced attitude that was clearly of value. They were enriched as a result of learning in a non-formal environment.”

Louis has also seen the benefits of non-formal education in younger students. He recalls a teenage boy he worked with at a youth centre who had some difficulties making friends. “He was a very intelligent young man and did very well at school, but struggled a little in social situations. It took a non-formal setting – specifically a weekend seminar – for him to face his own attitude to things and realise that he could be difficult at times. It helped him realise that, outside of a classroom setting, he needed other skills. That weekend really turned things around for him and facilitated him in a way that classroom learning never could.”

However, even with all the benefits in mind, Louis admits that non-formal learning does pose challenges of its own, both for the learner and the educator. “Formal learning is almost ingrained in us, so, in a way, it’s easier for teachers to impart knowledge and learners to take it on board. Non-formal, on the other hand, challenges both to come up with ideas, to argue and to listen, and that’s more difficult. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the benefits of challenging your learners and being challenged yourself as an educator far outweigh the difficulties.”   


Do you want to incorporate more non-formal techniques when educating? Here are some tips from educator Louis Debono:


  • If you’re working with younger students, open their minds to the many non-formal learning opportunities out there. They could take part in an art exhibition, join a talent show or drama class, or sign up to Young Enterprise. Non-formal learning can be anything that takes them away from sitting and studying in a traditional way.

  • Regardless of their age or the setting, get your learners to think about the information they have been given. We live in a world where information is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean that information is correct. Encourage your learners to double-check any information they have been given, and to challenge it.

  • Ask questions and start a conversation. While it might be easier to simply pass your notes onto your learners, it’s far more interesting – for them and you – if you make learning a two-way process.

  • Start with respect. Non-formal learning is all about giving each learner the respect and space to put their opinions across, and I am always impressed by the results that this garners. If you respect a student’s opinion and their right to pass on their knowledge to you as well as vice versa, then you are opening your classroom up to so much more potential for ideas sharing and non-formal learning.

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