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Do we actually learn more by formalising learning?

Simon Broek on why informal and non-formal learning have their merits too

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I’d like to present a critical observation on the distinction between formal, non-formal and informal learning. This concerns not so much the distinction itself (which is disputable though), but the tendency to make formalise what is non-formal and informal.

Sometimes things crumble once you try to formalise and define them. Take for example a moving piece of art, or an inspiring play. Are we fully able to express in words what is happening on the canvas and on stage? Things might look less beautiful, valuable, inspiring and meaningful once described in words (I never saw anyone cry while reading the synopsis of an opera or the back flap of a book).

I will not open up this philosophical debate (for those interested, google Hans-Georg Gadamer), but the same applies to learning: can we fully grasp in words what learners have learned? Most likely not, and we all understand this, but still we’re trying in every way to formalise and define learning.

Formal, non-formal and informal? What’s the difference?

First some refreshment of the terminology. The European Commission, in its Memorandum on Lifelong Learning (EC, 2000) differentiates between:

  • Formal learning leading to recognised diplomas and qualifications. Formal adult learning is provided in public educational institutions for young people, public institutions specific to adults, non‑governmental organisations, community based settings and commercial providers.
  • Non-formal learning does not typically lead to formalised certificates. Non-formal adult learning takes place in a multiplicity of settings, in formal education institutions and in a wide range of non‑governmental non‑profit organisations including civil society organisations. The actual learning places are: education institutions such as schools, colleges and universities; community colleges, education associations, popular universities, centres attached to churches, trade unions, political parties institutions attached to chambers of commerce, professional associations, enterprises, employer associations, commercial education and training enterprises; sites of civil society organisations; public and private museums and libraries; community, cultural and leisure centres. Non‑formal adult learning also takes place via distance learning, through virtual media and in a host of other forms.
  • 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.

Trends to formalise learning

There is a tendency to formalise learning. The most prominent development is the establishment of Qualifications Frameworks and Accreditation of Prior Learning systems. Both initiatives are based on the assumption that learning can be described in terms of learning outcomes.

Thinking in terms of learning outcomes is not a bad thing. As a proxy, it clarifies what people learn; it focuses the development of learning programmes; it allows recognition of prior learning against agreed standards.

But by formalising, do we actually learn more?

The concern is that by emphasising the learning that is definable in terms of learning outcomes, we tend to forget that a lot of learning that is indefinable, leading to a narrow conception of learning.

That what cannot be counted, counts! Given this perspective, shouldn’t we go the other way around? If we truly want to integrate learning and living, maybe we should try to formalise things less: make the living and working environment a learning environment without learners being aware that they are acquiring new knowledge, skills and competences.

By doing this, we might all learn a bit more, all the time – even if it’s not defined by formalised learning outcomes.


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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Yes. In my opinion it's important to formalise the learnings. Adults want it and they feel that it's more serious if we do it on this way. Otherwhise they feel that they dont need to send them kids to school. We just has to see how we formalise the process but it's very important that it's clear.

On my professional experiences with adults the point was always if we need to transform an experience more than this. If the experience is enought in the knowledge process.


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Simon, your interesting idea about the formalising effect of learning outcomes points to an interesting question about the potential for learning outcomes to impact upon the learning process. Of course, one of the premises on which learning outcomes have been implemented is that they are “neutral" with respect to the type of learning leading to them. But it is known that assessment methods can have what is called a “backwash" effect on both what is taught (the curriculum) and how (pedagogy). So the same may be true of learning outcomes if, as you suggest, they are a force for formalisation. Learning outcomes vary quite a lot across Europe in terms of their “granularity" (for example, how many hours it takes to achieve a given learning outcome) and how they are written (for example, whether they break down a skill or competence in great detail or are more holistic). Therefore we might ask: might specific and more detailed learning outcomes have a more formalising effect on adult learning than others? If the answers is 'yes' this would indeed be an interesting development, since it would be an unintended consequence of their use and run counter to their intention. I guess in many countries it is far too early to tell but perhaps it should be monitored. It would be interesting to know what light members of the platform community could shed on this from their experience.
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I can only agree on the remarks given in the article above. Formalisation is a highly important topic of the field of adult education. As I have analysed the effects of a learning offerings (Grundtvig Learning Partnerships) myself, I am convinced about of the efficaciousness of potential learning environments with a small extent of formalisation have for adult learner.

It is not only that these kind of learning offerings are highly individualized - that is to say, customised on a level you barely create by keep formalising learn settings but also that they imply a very low-threshold access to education.

Accordingly, there is a risk in overemphasising the need for more regulation and formalisation, which ought not be underestimated. Developing common educational standards in Europe by sharing values and norms is an important instrument to achievement greater equality of opportunity and comparable results in education. But in so doing, the need for individual access to and treatment in education must not be lost from sight.

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Moim zdaniem, jak najbardziej zasadne jest uwzględnienie podziału uczenia się na formalne, nieformalne oraz pozaformalne. Takie rozróżnienie pozwala na dogłębną analizę oraz dostrzeganie perspektyw i możliwości rozwoju edukacyjnego jednostek zarówno w instytucjach formalnych, organizacjach pozarządowych, a także w procesie doświadczeń związanych z życiem codziennym uczestników procesu edukacyjnego. Formalizacja edukacji niesie ze sobą szansę opracowania i uporządkowania ram kwalifikacji, wiedzy i doświadczeń jednostek biorących udział w procesie kształcenia. Zgadzam się z autorem w kwestii postępującego procesu formalizacji efektów edukacji, żyjemy w czasach, kiedy największe znaczenie przypisuje się formalnym potwierdzeniom uczestnictwa w kolejnym etapach procesu edukacyjnego - dyplomom czy certyfikatom. Taka próba nadawania ram kwalifikacji niesie jednak za sobą ryzyko pominięcia efektów uczenia się, które trudno zmierzyć lub takich, których formalne potwierdzenie jest niemożliwe. Wskutek owego postępowania umniejszona zostaje rola i ranga wiedzy, umiejętności i doświadczeń zdobytych na drodze procesu niezamierzonego, bezpośrednio związanego z doświadczaniem życia codziennego, które również niesie za sobą zdobywanie osiąganie kompetencji i kwalifikacji - równie istotnych i rozwojowych, jednak niemożliwych do formalnego potwierdzenia ich kształtowania i rozwoju. Uważam więc, że przypisując dużą rolę uczeniu się formalnemu oraz przy założeniu, że uczenie się definiują jego efekty, należy jednocześnie baczniej obserwować uwarunkowania oraz efektywność także uczenia się w nieformalnym procesie edukacji. Być może dokładniejsze skupienie się na nieformalnych elementach procesu edukacyjnego pozwoli w przyszłości na stworzenie narzędzia umożliwiającego badanie oraz charakterystykę kwalifikacji i kompetencji zdobytych na tej właśnie drodze rozwoju i edukacji...
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