Myth or Mystery?

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Do you know how good non-formal education really is? I mean, it must be good, naturally — there is an ever-growing demand for it, people feel good and enjoy themselves much more than at school or university, and one can feel, sometimes even see the impact. But do you really know just how good it truly is?

You don’t? I don’t either. And I don’t believe anyone who says they do. Like many good things in life, non-formal education is slightly absurd: One reason it’s so good is that nobody is tested to demonstrate their learning. No tests, no grades. It puts people’s minds at rest and makes participation a choice rather than a duty. That freedom has a price, though: It makes it rather difficult to analyse the level of quality of learning.

That’s the crux of non-formal education. You cannot start giving people grades to show how impressively well they have done in your training, because if you did they wouldn’t do well anymore. Yet, as more money and hope flows into the sector, pressure and demand are increasing to prove how good this whole non-formal education business is.

The whispered stories of success, are they myths to be disproved or the truth wrapped in mystery?

For quite some time these questions have been at the centre of discussions in pubs and meetings alike. Where else could the debate progress better than in Leuven, the city of beer, at “Bridges for Recognition�?, the latest conference to promote recognition of youth work across Europe? Consequently it was right there and then for more than 45 trainers to agree to voice their own opinion more strongly.

We the trainers, and our qualifications, have been discussed for quite some time. Irritated and agitated, we reluctantly followed the process, usually pointing out that defining quality standards (not to speak of quality assessment!) is against the nature of non-formal education. After all, what good is non-formal learning when it all becomes formalised?

On the other hand we claim that trainers and teachers are alike — at least in the sense that both have an enormous amount of responsibility as educators. Responsibility for the money they spend and others invest, of course. But we especially mean the educational responsibility, constituting a power which is easily misused and sometimes even abused.

Who can blame the rest of the world for wanting just a “hunch�? of accountability? We tell parents that something magical is going to happen to their kids, asking them to entrust their children to us for training courses, youth exchanges, and even outdoor education activities. We tell funders that non-formal education stabilises democracy, promotes human rights and human dignity, facilitates intercultural communication and produces mature young people with social skills unheard of, inviting them to finance our educational programmes. We tell politicians that our work is complementing formal education to a near-perfect match, calling for more recognition and support.

Our calling has been heard: The sector of non-formal education has grown in terms of financial investment, political recognition and educational influence. This, in return, has brought up a demand hardly anyone of us thought of in the beginning and almost everyone tried to ignore for a long time. It brought up the demand to prove that our work is as good as we say – and made others believe.

It is a demand no one can sensibly argue, it’s by all means justifiable. People want to see that their money is money well spent, and that their trust in our educational skills is based on fact rather than hope. From this point of view it seems just a little inconsistent to me to radically refuse accountability for the trust requested so loudly before. My feeling grew stronger that the youth movement, once so successfully lobbying for the recognition of non-formal education, was disconnecting itself from the change and progress of the past years.

But in the spirit of Alan Kay, the trainers attending “Bridges for Recognition” decided to predict the future by inventing it themselves. After all, who is better qualified and trained to set quality standards and criteria for non-formal youth trainers than us?

Our ad-hoc hot issue workshop was joined by a surprising number of stakeholders: researchers, trainers, and representatives from international institutions, national agencies, the European Youth Forum and national government. The support was certainly there for the idea!

And the result is not bad either: The workshop developed a proposal for an open, transparent and inclusive process to create an occupational profile of non-formal youth trainers – a first at European level and a proposal to the Training Partnership between the Council of Europe and the European Commission which won’t be ignored.

Naturally this proposal, which can be read and discussed on the you@etv virtual platform can not provide answers to all the questions opening up. Neither can I, to be honest with you — I don’t even know all the questions which have to be asked and answered. But I believe in the truth of the following words by Sir Arthur Charles Clarke: “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.�?

It may seem impossible today to think of a reliable and adequate set of quality standards and a just and open system of quality assessment in non-formal education. But the day will come when we know better.

Reference: Clarke, Arthur Charles (1962): Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible.

Also published as a print article in Coyote Magazin 10.





6 responses to “Myth or Mystery?”

  1. Chris Armbruster Avatar
    Chris Armbruster

    One should never let the schooling interfere with one’s education — I can’t remember who said this, but I have found it to be true for learning languages. Rather than just comment, I would like to extend the argument. As far as I am aware, language learning technologies and methods have changed dramatically over the past two decades to better match with learners’ needs. But all of this has happened outside of schooling. Whenever I attend a language course at a university, be it a philology faculty, a modern language department or even a language centre set up for the express purposes of foreign/second language acquisition, I run into the same old unimaginative and sub-optimal teaching and methods. I write in English and German. All other languages I want for person-to-person communicative purposes, i.e. listening and speaking first, then maybe some reading. Be it Polish, Russian or Italian, I found that the classroom would not do, I had to do it myself, informally. And that was the right choice, because it was faster and more fun too. Thankfully, all kinds of advanced self-study courses are available now and then one can proceed to set up a language tandem or just go out and meet people. It works, so three cheers for nonformality!

  2. Andreas Karsten Avatar
    Andreas Karsten

    “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education”

    It’s a quote by Mark Twain, and there are a number of different linguistic versions flying around: Wikipedia uses “Never let school interfere with your education”, for example.

    Thanks for your cheers, Chris! I agree with your argument that formal education very often uses teaching techniques proven to be inefficient, not seldomly even iniquitous.

    Isn’t it ironic that parts of the research on learning is happening in formal education institutions?

    On the other hand there also are areas in which formal education is way ahead of the non-formal sphere. What I am aware of most at the moment is the whole area of information technology – what I have seen and read about its usage in the classroom is absolutely exciting and imaginative!

  3. mark taylor Avatar
    mark taylor

    So, please tell us what made you most excited about IT in the classroom! Be very interested to hear!

  4. Andreas Karsten Avatar
    Andreas Karsten

    Hi Mark, the day when I wrote this comment I had stumbled upon a story by Will Richardson on Weblogg-ed, describing one example of language teaching using IT. Many more stories like this, of course, but I think it gives a good picture, and the Weblogg-ed blog is a good starting point to explore. So here you go: Students producing Content for real audiences!

  5. Andreas Karsten Avatar

    Tine chimes in with some thoughts on quality of youth work and youth training over at his blog.

  6. Pedro Avatar

    Hi there,

    Just would like to express what for me itas a big flaw: The social “elitism” of the Youth Work.
    i would say theres a lot of elitism, in the way that the empowerment of youngsters is one of the big aims. Also it should be a “raiser” of citizens for Europe, and for the World.
    But… I see a lot youngsters, and youth with good lifes, missusing funds, and doing a lot of things, but actually doing nothing, besides talkng and, and talking, and doing their work in bubbles (meaning that, the outcomes (if there is any) stay within.
    I ight be seing things from a too “pink and fluffy” perspective but… where are the oppurtunities, for youngsters with less oppurtunities, youngsters who would really need some non formal education, because the one they get, is not really existing, leaving then many times alone in their thoughts and decisions.
    Maybe I have a wrong perspective of youth work. Or I’m Utopic.
    Enjoy your lifes.