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EPALE - Elektronisch platform voor volwasseneneducatie in Europa


Non-Formal and Informal Education: History, Current Issues and Questions

door Thierry Ardouin
Taal: EN
Document available also in: FR DE CS

[Translation (French - English) : EPALE France]



Interview conducted by Thierry Ardouin

Non-Formal and Informal Education: History, Current Issues and Questions

Good morning Stéphanie Gasse. At a time when we are experiencing a global crisis, formal education and training institutions are having to invent new ways of working, disseminating information and providing training. At the same time, people are helping and supporting each other. They are finding solutions among themselves in order to make up for technical, content and relational shortcomings. The issue of non-formal education and lifelong learning is all the more important.

We are going to continue our focus on non-formal and informal education carried out for EPALE in June and July 2019. You coordinated an issue of the journal Education Permanente on "Non-formal education and lifelong learning" (issue No. 199/2014). I would like to know more and hear about your views, because these issues are essential to adult education in general, and are important subjects on the EPALE platform.




- To begin with, can you tell us a little more about yourself, and what made you study non-formal education?

I took graduate studies in foreign languages before turning to Education Sciences. I undertook a Master's degree in Engineering and Training Consultancy with a view to equipping myself and carrying out field actions within the framework of educational projects conducted under the aegis of UNESCO (Burkina Faso, Mali, Paris), and educational NGOs between 1999 and 2003. I received a Doctorate in Education Sciences in 2008, before joining an Institute of Social Development as a trainer in the midst of the reform of social work diplomas, with a view to re-engineering, enhancing and developing training within the National Directory of Professional Certifications. 

Since 2010, I have been a lecturer in the Department of Education Sciences at the University of Rouen in Normandy, and am in charge of a Master's programme in Distance Education Sciences. During my research work and in connection with my experience, I came to focus on educational policies, and in particular countries that were strongly engaged in decentralising education. My doctoral thesis in Education Sciences dealt with non-formal education in the context of the decentralisation policies adopted in West Africa in the fight against illiteracy. My field of observation and experimentation was educational NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), CSOs (Civil Society Organizations) and experts in decentralised cooperation. 

As a member of the CIRNEF laboratory (Normandy interdisciplinary centre for research on education and training), I carried out my research alongside researchers working in the field of adult education. I worked to define what characterises non-formal education, its specificity and implementation, I studied alternative systems, the foundations of adult education, andragogy in its varied forms, while contributing to research on the right to education (accessibility, effectiveness via distance learning systems) and the subjects of law, comparative approaches and organisational development. 

My areas of research were Sub-Saharan Africa and "programmes to combat illiteracy in a decentralised context"; Brazil with the “Forums on Youth and Adult Education", Europe in its plural approaches to education and training (Adult training - Lifelong learning - Right to education - Recognition of non-formal education achievements). 

In 2015 and 2016 I was the winner of a Chair in Human and Social Sciences at the International Scientific Cooperation. I then moved to Brazil where I was hosted at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, the first public university with affirmative policies for the development of access to higher education. This experience has allowed me to collaborate with Brazilian researchers in research groups in literacy and youth and adult education, training curriculum, lifelong learning through audiences, educational policies and processes. 


- The term “non-formal education” is difficult to define, how does it relate to formal and informal education? To your knowledge, when did this term appear, and in what context? What characteristics or elements are important to bear in mind?

Non-formal education is indeed difficult to define because of its apparent negation of form and the vagueness surrounding it. On the one hand, it appears as a highly obscure concept, and on the other hand as a sort of appeal marked by perspectives of social justice and humanist ideology. 

Non-formal education takes place outside the main education and training structures and does not necessarily lead to recognised qualifications or identified diplomas. It can be acquired in a professional context or through the activities of civil society organisations and can be offered as a complement to the formal institutionalised system. Coombs, an educational planner, was the first to attempt a definition in the context of the global educational crisis: “any organised educational activity outside the established formal system that is intended to serve identifiable learning clientele and learning objectives” (Coombs, 1973). The notion of clientelism is associated with the "beneficiaries" of literacy programmes. In the seventies, the Third World ideology was strong and was marked by: “One country helps another", the golden age of non-governmental organisations and international programmes aimed at helping those excluded from formal education, moving towards universal primary education. 

The specific nature of the activities, the characteristics of the target audience, the innovative nature of the approach, the specificities of the strategies, the multiplicity of actors and the flexibility of its intervention framework have long contributed to the fact that non-formal education is seen as the "poor relation" of adult education and training. This effectively accentuates its marginalisation, lack of status and lack of recognition. 

However, while one of the main tasks of formal education is to prepare young people for an independent life, socially and economically, and to prevent exclusion, to the extent that the education system and the labour market develop separately, schools are losing their monopoly on teaching and learning. This suggests non-formal education as one of the forces challenging this monopoly, offering new opportunities, alternatives and places of learning. As a reference system for innovative practices, with transversal competences within an immediate educational environment, the proposed offer is as varied as the beneficiaries for whom it is intended. It thus facilitates the learning of knowledge or skills that can be recognised or are in the process of being recognised. Indeed, non-formal education is now recognised at the European level, following the Memorandum on Lifelong Learning (2000), and is part of lively discussions on educational issues. 


Talking about informal education implies that there is learning. The institutional structure does not justify the term, but there is indeed learning outside of any institution, or even any intention. We will use the terminology from the European education and training policy for 2012: “Informal learning arises from the activities of daily life related to work, family or leisure. It is neither organised nor structured (in terms of objectives, time or resources).  Informal learning is mostly unintentional on the part of the learner". This terminology is meant to be clear, but is cumbersome. The concept is used within the triptych of formal, non-formal and informal for understanding education, training and lifelong learning, but its outline remains blurred when it comes to dissociating the different parts. 

Informal education is something of an extension of acquired knowledge. The multiple uses of the notion of "informal" in the field of education contribute to the opacity of what this term actually designates or qualifies, with its various connotations, whether valued or otherwise.

The main characteristics of non-formal education can be summarized as activities that are: 

  • organised according to the target audience and its constraints;
  • structured, otherwise they would belong to informal education, which is non-systematised or even unintentional;
  • intended for an identifiable target audience (matching needs and expectations); 
  • aimed at a specific set of educational objectives (input-output); 
  • non-institutionalised because they take place outside the established education system and are aimed at learners who are not formally enrolled.


- In your work and research, particularly in French-speaking Africa and Brazil, is the issue of non-formal and informal education particularly important?

In French-speaking Africa, non-formal education very quickly became a defence against the malfunctioning of the dominant formal system. Indeed, the current system excludes a large part of the school-age population and does not guarantee equal access. The recognition of a multilingual environment is, for example, one of the achievements of non-formal education.  This has resulted in the implementation of language policies that emphasise the learner's language in the early years of schooling or adult literacy programmes. Some countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso have even gone so far as to institutionalise non-formal education by creating dedicated ministries. 

Traditional societies have formal education systems that should be questioned without taking the risk of a comparative approach but with the aim of solving issues in the relationship between culture and cognition. 

Brazil is putting up strong resistance, for its government to guarantee its role as "educator", especially since the current political changes are hindering social progress and pushing inclusive approaches or the consideration of minorities and their cultural traditions into the background. Researchers and practitioners in this field prefer to use the term "social spaces of human training" to describe alternative educational measures to the dominant, formal education system. These 'spaces' taken over by a community of educators cover the need for a second chance for those who have not completed secondary education or for low-skilled youth and adults. 

In line with the legacy of Paulo Freire, initiatives are being developed from the perspective that "human activity is intentional and is not separate from a project. To know is not simply to adapt to the world. It is a condition for the survival of human beings and the species". In troubled times, these measures contribute to the exercise of citizenship as an “awareness of rights and duties and the exercise of democracy”. In Brazil, alongside schools, there are also non-governmental organizations, churches, trade unions, political parties, the media, neighbourhood associations, etc. In non-formal education, the category of ‘space’ is as important as the category of ‘time’, as researcher Gadotti points out. Indeed, the time required for learning in non-formal education is flexible, respecting the differences and capacities of each individual.


- Finally, from your point of view, what does the issue of non-formal and informal education have to do with adult learning in general?

As an autonomous and alternative system, non-formal education is, alongside informal education, at the heart of the international community’s ambition to achieve universal schooling and lifelong education and training. 

In 1926, Lindeman described adult education for the first time in an article as “a cooperative venture in non-authoritarian, informal learning, the chief purpose of which is to discover the meaning of experience”. In other words, the specificity of adult education is intertwined with life, in which learning is nourished by experience. Thus, informal education combined with a participatory approach maximizes the formative dimension of the activity. The boundaries of informal education are permeable: social intervention, extracurricular activities, family and community education, ICT, etc.

Experience is recognised as a formative resource in the context of daily life, work and leisure, with the following characteristics: the absence of educational intentions and social institutionalisation; confrontation with the experience of others and the constraint of reality; initiatory paths, voluntary participation without constraint or expectation of recognition and validation of prior learning. Nevertheless, on this last point, progress is being made towards having these achievements recognised. Despite the Council Recommendation of 20 December 2012 on the validation of non-formal and informal learning outcomes, the initial outcomes of this implementation and ownership appear to be mixed. France is a pioneer in the matter, and has extended the legal provisions related to the validation of prior learning, but the results do not guarantee real and rapid progress in the recognition of informal and non-formal learning.

Thank you for this discussion and your contribution.


Gasse, S. (2017). Education informelle. In A. Barthes, J.-M. Lange & N. Tutiaux-Guillon (Dir.). “Dictionnaire critique des enjeux et concepts des “Educations à”. Paris: L’Harmattan. p.385.

Gasse, S. (2017). Education Non formelle. In A. Barthes, J.-M. Lange & N. Tutiaux-Guillon (Dir.) “Dictionnaire critique des enjeux et concepts des “Educations à”. Paris  L’Harmattan. p.392.

Gasse S. (June, 2014). “Education non formelle : contexte d’émergence, caractéristiques et territoires” Journal: Education Permanente. n°199-2014.

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  • afbeelding van Danaé CASTRO PEREZ
    I find this post very interesting. Mrs GASSE's work is very appealing to me. I'm a product of non formal education myself. From a popular neighbourhood in the Canary Islands, I arrived in France 5 years ago thanks to the European Voluntary Service programme. My non formal voluunteering experience allowed me to improve several competences, plus it gave me the self confidence that I needed to go back to school. Currently, I work as a "formatrice des adultes" and i'm a Educational Sciences student (L3 Science de l'Education. FOAD). To me, international/intercultural experiences and programmes can be a great bridge between formal and non-formal education. Thanks for sharing this post ;)
  • afbeelding van Stéphanie Gasse
    So it sounds like it was a good deal in between for you. Thank you for sharing your experience, this is a relevant application about how NFE is taking part of life, experience, culture & can "in fact" materialize projects by formalizing the experience acquired. As you said, in fact a great deal "to build bridge" and navigating in the huge world of education (Formal Education, Non Formal Education, Informal Education). 
    Good luck for your studies & keep that motivation to build your competences using/ improving diferent devices like for example FORSE 
  • afbeelding van Thierry Ardouin
    Bonjour Claudio,
    Merci pour votre commentaire et la question.
    La combinaison des trois niveaux ou systèmes n'est pas simple mais existe. On peut donner différents exemples qui se situent à différents niveaux.
    La validation des acquis de l'expérience (VAE) croise les trois systèmes puisqu'il s'agit de reconnaître et donc de rendre formel (validation) des acquis issus du non formel (formation continue) et de l'informel (du quotidien et/ou associatif).
    A un autre niveau, le Burkina Faso, pays francophone de l'Afrique de l'Ouest, a inscrit le secteur non formel (dont l'alphabétisation des adultes ou l'aide au développement des compétences pour l'autonomie) dans la loi d'orientation de l'école, en parallèle du secteur formel. Le docteur Ambroise Tabsoba a réalisé, en 2017, une thèse sur L'éducation non formelle et qualité de l'éducation" (université de Rouen Normandie).
    Voici un premier élément de réponse. A bientôt. Thierry 

  • afbeelding van Claudio MARQUES
    Bravo pour votre réflexion. Pensez-vous qu'il est possible de faire cohabiter les 3 systèmes dans une école avec un système de validation cohérent e compréhensible? Connaissait vous des projets qu'ils l'on fait?

  • afbeelding van Stéphanie Gasse
    Obrigada Claudio por sua observação e pergunta muito relevante. Quando o não formal muitas vezes permanece uma possibilidade fora do sistema formal, é uma pena identificá-lo frequentemente em oposição. O sistema mostra-se relevante e flexível para diferentes caminhos e perfis quando mostra sua capacidade de absorver a educação informal (cultura familiar ou comunitária, histórias de vida), educação não formal (habilidades adquiridas como voluntários, em diferentes espaços, fora de um programa padronizado). Sua adaptabilidade, flexibilidade torna-se um ativo real para o educador ou profissional e o público-alvo encontra seu lugar sem exclusão. o sistema fica "aberto". A educação popular na Europa defendeu esse desejo feroz de coexistir os diferentes sistemas, sem se opor a eles, para não se dividir, mas unir-se ... para contribuir "para viver juntos", como Edgar Faure enfatiza "aprender, aprender a aprender, aprender a viver, aprenda a ser, aprenda a se tornar ", 1972 ... tão contemporâneo em nosso pensamento atual. 
    No importante trabalho realizado com as comunidades no Brasil e na África Subsaariana, encontramos interessantes exemplos observados de coabitação com os três sistemas através : família, comunidade, escola, educação popular. A questão da alfabetização, a conscientização de Paulo Freire mostra suas possibilidades, essa necessidade de pensar em rede e no nível local "escolas sem muros". Muito obrigada mais uma vez pelo foco