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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