Non-formal anxiety

So there I was, thinking I had finally got it sorted out. Put simply, (and that’s part of the problem!), formal learning, non-formal learning and informal learning are different from each other and I could give some definitions to support that idea. Yes, everything depends on the context and the aims of the learner. In the family (informal); in a youth project (non-formal); in school (formal). Where I was beginning to get confused was in the whole question of whether you could distinguish specific methodologies which applied to one form of learning provision. Still, I thought, I work in non-formal education, and we don’t lecture people, we give “inputs”…

aren’t we too anxious?

Then I read the report called “Informality and Formality in Learning” and it shook up my world. By giving me a much more differentiated view of what we are trying to do. What Helen Colley and her colleagues from the Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Leeds make quite clear to me is that we are too anxious to separate the different forms of learning into little boxes. The temptation is obvious: if we put them in boxes then we can easily say one form of learning is better than the other; then we can put up arguments for more resources and funding and recognition.

It is difficult, if not dangerous, to try to summarise the report in this small space and the authors are very careful in framing their conclusions.

Nevertheless, it seems useful to highlight some of the points which made me put my thoughts into question, in the hope that you might go and have a closer look:

  1. One of the major findings of the research was that it may well be more sensible to see attributes of informality and formality as present in all learning situations. Attributes can be looked at in four clusters: process; location and setting; purposes; and content.
  2. Those attributes and their interrelationships influence the nature and effectiveness of learning. Changing the balance between formal and informal attributes changes the nature of the learning.
  3. All forms of learning have the potential to be either emancipatory or oppressive. This depends partly upon the balance and interrelationships between attributes of in/formality. However, the wider contexts in which that learning takes place are crucial in determining its emancipatory potential.

So, we need to look very carefully at the aims of the learning we are encouraging, look at the context and reflect more on the balance between the different attributes present in our planning. The report can help us to analyse what we do and be more explicit about what we are combining — and the authors are currently busy designing an analytical tool to give us further assistance. If we go deeper into this analysis, it helps to see that, for example, when we add attributes of formal learning to non-formal learning (such as certification) we change the nature of the learning.

think of learning as a stream…

Even though I have read the report a few times and thought about it a lot, I’m still not completely clear about all of the consequences of looking at different attributes of learning in this way. But it sure is liberating to break open the box I had constructed for myself! Discussing these ideas with a friend as I wrote the draft of this article, we thought it could be helpful to think of learning as a stream. A stream whose flow also depends on the conditions surrounding it. Maybe we can find some nice ways to extend the metaphor in the future… Or, like Bob Dylan, just sit here and watch the river flow.

Read more about the report Mark refers to here at the UK National Guidance Research Forum; or simply download the entire report (660 kb) or its summary (120 kb), both in pdf, directly from our site.

Enjoy discussing!

You can contact Mark via email here





8 responses to “Non-formal anxiety”

  1. Andreas Avatar

    The key in this development is complementarity, not contradiction.

    The way the Youth Forum and Pasi Sahlberg and others look at what we do is mainly by institutional factors such as the location of the learning (in school, outside school in a training setting, at home), in consequence referring to formal, non-formal and informal education.

    What Helen refers to is learning though. And formal or informal learning can take place in formal, non-formal and informal education.

    I believe though that their model is missing non-formal attributes – there is something in between formality and informality which they miss out on – nonformality (and this, my friends, is really an unintended correlation to the name of this blog….)

  2. mark Avatar

    Please note that this article was originally published in Coyote magazine, n°9. You can find it here: The marker column in pdf-format.
    I wish you happy thoughts and exciting discussions about all these issues!

  3. mark Avatar

    the train now standing on platform three will leave from platform seven – that’s what my grandma told me, and she was never wrong!

  4. Andreas Karsten Avatar

    Helen has moved on and joined the thriving and innovative research community at the Education and Social Research Institute of the Manchester Metropolitan University.

    Profile Helen Colley @ MMU

  5. Bastian Avatar

    I think when discussing about the setting where learning can take place (informal, non-formal or formal settings) one quickly can drift away from what’s really important: the individual and unique learner him/herself. I belief that learning is a continous process, happening all the time and everywhere. The task of the educator is to provide a forum in which these individuals can learn in a way and to an extend as they have the need to. This does not imply neutrality from the educator or a ‘letting alone’ of the learner. It is merely, as Andreas put it, a complementary process of taking the learners hand guiding, facilitating and supporting, while on the other hand leaving space, freedom and individual solutions. This is for me nonformality – a mixture of guiding and letting go, an offering of possibilities and the trust in the learner to go his/her way.

  6. Andreas Karsten Avatar

    Bastian, I agree with you but want to pick up on a word you have dropped in the conversation: Need.

    Often enough I experience educational situations in which educators challenge learners because they believe that through that challenge the persons concerned can learn most or best or both.

    Certainly, when asked, learners would not invite others to challenge them, would they?

    So from there it throws up questions like: Where does self-determination stop? And under which conditions should challenge be allowed?

    Which brings my thinking to important questions in relation to power between learner and educator — and connected to that, responsibility.

    I’m drifting off.

    Back to your comment: You argue, it seems to me, from the assumption that every learner knows enough about him- or herself and about learning to be able to determin contents, context, path and aim, method and approach of educational processes by themselves.

    I doubt that, and this doubt connects to my thoughts above: Under which conditions am I allowed to initiate an educational process with which, given the chance, a learner would only agree with afterwards — if at all?

    May be worth a separate article… But that’s what we are here for.

  7. Bastian Avatar

    Andreas, I totall agree with you in posing these questions. I ask myself very often: can I assume that I know better than the learner what is ‘best’ for him or her and who entitles me to do so? You read my comment right that my biggest concern currently is NEED. How can I find out what the learner really needs? Is asking enough? Can a learner express what s/he needs if s/he doesn’t yet know what s/he doesn’t yet know? The model of the comfort zone, stretch zone and panic zone always helps me in that. It is the educators task, I feel, to see the potential in a person and guide a process that makes the stretch zone more comfortable to be in. This means challening, this means taking a person to places where s/he might not have gone voluntarily, but where s/he can learn a great deal. Yet, the question stays – who am I to know what is the right learning environment for a person? How can I find out what a person really needs? How can I answer a need that is merely unconciously there and not expressable?

  8. Andreas Karsten Avatar

    Bastian, a while ago I spent a couple of days at the first Innsbruck education days. One of the most interesting interventions was a presentation by Frank Coffield entitled

    “Learning Styles: A Systematic and Critical Review of the Research”

    I always wanted to write something about his findings, and it seems our discussion is encouraging me to do so.

    Speaking of encouragement: If you have some answers to these questions – and I feel certain you do :) – you are most warmly welcome to write them down.

    A few more words on that here.