Myth or Mystery?

Speak out

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.

Nonformality online

For such a long time thinking and writing did not seem to go with the world wide web, it was depressing.

Technology wasn’t there yet, of course. Only in recent months and years software has evolved enough to survive the missing physical presence of the other. Coming to think about it, this geeky stuff actually almost renumerates, because you can have decent discussions and exchanges with people you have never met and never would. Quite amazing, really.

Good old typewriter

Technology wasn’t the only problem, though — the people weren’t there either, were they? Just remember the resistance of so many, refusing to use the internet… Let alone go beyond consumption to a more pro-active approach. And still today, on this blog and elsewhere, there are some who cannot or would not post their article themselves — they submit their stories and contributions in Word documents, as handwritten scripts, or typed with a good old typewriter.

Writing had to come a long way, too. How do you write for the world wide web — for a virtual audience? The same way one would write for print media? Certainly not. The same way one would talk with their friends? Even less so. Like a book? A radio show script? A cartoon?

It seems though that we live in a priviliged time in which things, at last, come together: The technology exists to allow for a discourse of high quality. People think and increasingly use the internet to share their thoughts and observations. And more and more often they do so in ways which are readable, sometimes even more than that — enjoyable, provoking, thoughtful, inspiring, arguable.

And this is exactly what Nonformality is here for: to provide technology and space for meaningful thinking and constructive discourse on learning.

Come in and enjoy to think, disagree and discuss!