Our traditional system of formal education – with a teacher or professor in front of a classroom of passive listeners, backed up with a blackboard and lots of chalk – is becoming increasingly unfit for purpose. It’s generally good at tackling the basic needs of a fairly homogeneous group of people – mainly children and young adults from 6 to 18 with the possibility of ‘extension’ to college or university for those who ‘performed well’ in the first two levels of the system. But today’s world needs so much more.
In a fast-changing society with substantial technological advancements and unlimited global connectedness, lifelong learning has become a necessity, often long after people have left the formal education system. What’s more, the needs of specific groups of people don’t fit well in the current system and should be targeted in different ways.
As an example, we can think of the immense group of refugees who have arrived in Europe over the last five years with backgrounds ranging from an unfinished high-school education to advanced degrees in engineering, medicine, information technology, languages and so on.
There are also many contemporary challenges – such as migration, global warming, radicalisation and inequality – that are extremely complex and need a holistic and interdisciplinary approach. In turn, this requires very specific combinations of skills and knowledge. But the traditional education system is focused on disciplinary specialisation, rather than interdisciplinary combinations of skill sets.
The need for non-formal education
I believe that ‘non-formal education’ is the way to fill the growing gap that results from today’s more advanced and heterogeneous educational needs. Compared with formal education, non-formal education is less focused on the general and overall public needs of large groups in a society. It has been described as a complementary ‘educational activity carried on outside the formal system to provide selected types of learning to particular subgroups in the population, adults as well as children.’
Informal education – which encompasses all acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes from any kind of experiences – is an even broader, but also more ambiguous, form of education. Hence, compared with informal education, non-formal education happens in a more organised and structured way.
This distinction is significant, as non-formal education therefore requires a minimal level of resources to support an organisational structure. It can also be applied to focus on a particular group of people or niche activity; and it can be strategically managed in order to reach particular educational goals for such target groups.
Consequently, non-formal education is mainly provided by civil society and/or non-profit service organisations, and it can fill the gap between what is left open by formal education and what is naturally transferred through people’s daily social interactions. Given its organisational structure, it can be actively managed to provide educational solutions for concrete and tangible problems.
Non-formal education has different functionalities. A major one is participant functionality. This means that non-formal education brings direct benefits for its participants, such as skills, experiences and personal networks.
Non-formal education also has social functionality, as it enables people to engage in society and it provides a platform for discussing and tackling local, regional and global problems. For example, in a study of the global scouts movement, I find that the social functionality of this non-formal educational movement is perceived very differently across countries.
Some questions for researchers and practitioners
Starting from the growing gap between the traditional educational system and desirable social outcomes, several questions for researchers and practitioners can guide us to shape the future of non-formal education:
- First, can a full-scale non-formal education sector exist in addition to the traditional formal education system without both sectors being in too strong competition for the same resources?
- Second, can both sectors strengthen each other, where the strengths of one sector compensate for the weaknesses of the other? For example, should the ‘efficiency’ of one sector be traded-off against the more adjusted targeting of the advanced and heterogeneous needs of the other sector? Or can accreditation, certification, evaluation of both sectors and the skills acquired in each sector be integrated. A starting point lies in a seminal set of first recommendations.
- Third, how can non-formal education organisations – which are often operational as non-profit and/or social profit organisations – increase their legitimacy and public reputation to assure long-term resources for their mission and achievements?
- Fourth, what steps should researchers, funding organisations and policy-makers take to quantify the needs and benefits of non-formal education? More and better data on non-formal education – similar to the PISA efforts for formal education – would be likely to result in more robust scientific insights and better policy recommendations.
- Finally, how can participants/students improve their short- and long-term wellbeing through combining both educational systems in their lifelong learning path?