Formal, Non-Formal and Informal Education Explained

Where did you learn your most valuable lessons? Only at school? Classrooms are not the only place where meaningful learning happens. This article explores the similarities and differences between formal, non-formal and informal education, and how to use them to foster our own learning.

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once expressed: “Scientists say that we are made of atoms, but a small bird told me that we are made of stories.” With this quote, it is possible to understand how life experiences can influence the way a person thinks and behaves. And these experiences can happen both in the classrooms but also in other spaces. Learning can happen in such a wide variety of moments in our life: from an interesting movie to an insightful book, to a nice TV series, or a deep conversation with your best friend. Given this, pedagogists have grouped these education forms into three groups: formal, non-formal, and informal education.


Formal Education and Its Particularities

The most institutionalized type of education is the formal one. This involves all the learning processes that are facilitated through a systematic, organized, and structured manner. Formal education is usually regulated under sets of laws and policies, usually led by the Ministries of Education at the macro level, and implemented by schools, colleges, universities, and specialized institutions with well-structured curriculums. It is usually organized into levels or careers and results in the award of a degree or a specific certificate validating the achievement of the program’s learning goals.

Given the characteristics of this form of education, it seeks to achieve specific learning objectives and outcomes, academic content, and learning assessments through established methodologies and frameworks.


Non-Formal Education

A second group is a non-formal education. Under this form, the learning process still occurs in an organized and structured way. However, there are certain aspects that occur with more flexibility than formal education, and can even occur outside of schools. Some examples of non-formal education can be workshops, training courses, bootcamps, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), virtual courses, conferences, professional experiences, and others.

Besides its flexibility, non-formal education is effectively planned and structured based on the needs and interests of learners. There is not a special curriculum for non-formal education, but there are specific and flexible learning contents and goals.


Informal Education

The third mode is informal education. Unlike the other two forms, informal education is pedagogically unplanned and unstructured, but rather spontaneous and natural. Informal learning can take place in any experience lived by the individual, such as listening to the news, visiting museums or specific places, reading texts, watching videos, participating in leisure activities, or interacting with family or friends – just to name a few.

These traits make informal education a process that can happen at any moment of life and in many different ways. It is a process totally led and assumed autonomously by the learner and can have a meaningful impact on different aspects of life, such as its social and emotional dimensions. Therefore, informal education is very important for the human development of individuals.


Interdependence Between These Three Forms of Education

Even though these three forms of education are clearly different, they can actually be articulated to stimulate the learning process of each student. For example, school curriculums are facilitated by teachers through formal education. But in the recreational breaks when students have some spare time, they are also exposed to informal education through different experiences, such as sports, games or simply socializing with their friends. And sometimes, students attend summer courses that are not mandatory and show more flexibility in methodology and contents, and this would be a non-formal process.

These three forms of education are not only important for educators, but for every person who aims to strengthen their autonomous learning journey. To expand our own abilities and skills, we can complement our formal education gained in college with some informal and non-formal learning experiences. We can — and should — enjoy our experiences outside school as opportunities for our personal growth.


Illustration: Oleksandra Klestova/Shutterstock


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