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Nonformal vs. non-formal education

Paul and others,

Although in the literature you will most often find "non-formal" education written as I just did, an international nonformal education colleague of mine, Michael Frith, many years ago suggested that "nonformal" without the hyphen would be better because the term "non-formal" defines learning in terms of formal education, i.e. not formal, and often then has the implication that it is a lower-status, not-as-good-as kind of learning, whereas "nonformal" could be considered as a different kind of learning, one growing out of popular education and social change movements, or out of an energetic focus on community needs. Although changing popular usage from "non-formal" to "nonformal" will be difficult, it's an important distinction that this kind of learning, while decidedly different from formal learning, is often at least equal to and sometimes a superior way, particularly for adults, to achieve their learning goals.

David J. Rosen


Paul Rogers's picture
One hundred

Note - I mis-read the original note, so here is an edit.

David, you make a good point, and I actually think the use of the hyphen is ok, but the name of the group is Nonformal, so maybe we should just leave it without the hyphen. As you say it (the term itself, Nonformal or Non-formal) implies that nonformal learning is "not as good" as formal education, a perception which we need to change beginning with discussions on these pages. 

To quote from Sarah Eaton:

Executive Summary

This research report investigates the links between formal, non-formal and informal learning and the differences between them. In particular, the report aims to link these notions of learning to literacy and essential skills, as well as the learning of second and other languages in Canada.

Philosophical underpinnings of this research are:

  • There is value in learning of all kinds.
  • Learning is a lifelong endeavour.
  • An interdisciplinary approach is valuable.

Notions of formal, non-formal and informal learning may be briefly outlined as:

Formal learning – This type of learning is intentional, organized and structured. Formal learning opportunities are usually arranged by institutions. Often this type of learning is guided by a curriculum or other type of formal program.
Non-formal learning – This type of learning may or may not be intentional or arranged by an institution, but is usually organized in some way, even if it is loosely organized. There are no formal credits granted in non-formal learning situations.
Informal learning – This type of learning is never organized. Rather than being guided by a rigid curriculum, it is often thought of experiential and spontaneous.