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“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”

B.F. Skinner

The attributes of non-formal learning

The Council of Europe has set up the first symposium on non-formal education in 2000. The professionals who attended this event concluded a universally definition of non-formal education was neither possible nor desirable in a world that values respect for the diversity of learning practices. The evaluation report provided common elements and essential characteristics among the various forms of creative, experiential and participatory learning. Even if these characteristics were identified in the youth sector, they may be applied to many other sectors:

Key characteristics of non-formal learning

Coexistence and balanced interaction between the cognitive, affective and practical dimensions of learning

Linking individual and social learning, teaching/learning relationships oriented to partnership, solidarity and symmetry

Participatory and learner-centred learning

Real-life concerns, experiential and learning-by-doing oriented teaching, promoting intercultural exchange and encounters as learning tools

Voluntary and (preferably) free access

Priority to the transmission and practice of the values and skills inherent in democratic life

Reference: Council of Europe Symposium on Non-Formal Education: Report (2001)[2]


They also identified 4 main methods of non-formal education:

Education/training and non-formal learning methods

Communication-based methods

Activity-based methods

Methods which focus on social issues

Self-managed methods













Reference: Council of Europe Symposium on Non-Formal Education: Report (2001)[3]

A holistic approach

Non-formal education follows a holistic approach. The figure below shows that in non-formal learning, a balance is needed between body, mind and feelings.

Non-formal learning combines learning at the individual and group levels. Participants support and inspire each other in their learning process through group dynamics: cooperation instead of competition.

Non-formal learning focuses on the input of participants in the learning process, but does not exclude theory and expert input. It is important to leave space for participants' own exploration to find commonly accepted definitions. For example, there are many definitions of entrepreneurship.  Nevertheless, your mentees will better internalize the concepts if they define them for themselves first, as concepts applicable to their own environment and the real situations they face. This allows participants to make direct connections through learning that is closer to the reality and real life of the participants.


Understanding formal, informal and non-formal learning

In formal learning, the knowledge and skills acquired are measured by some form of assessment - it can be a test, an exam or a series of practical tasks. For example, structured programmes of study which deliver an explicit curriculum are part of formal learning.

Informal learning is a daily life activity which happens in the sphere of work, family life or leisure. This learning doesn't have a fixed content, a learning time, an objective or documents of supports. The learner is not intentionally involved in the learning process.

Non-formal learning is not provided by an official center but it structured in learning objectives, time, outcomes and documents of support. The learner is fully aware that a learning process is currently taking place. Unexpected benefits, skills and knowledge that learners may acquire (such as empowerment for example) are indicators of non-formal learning.

Activity: Recognizing non-formal learning

Which of the following examples are formal, informal or non-formal learning?

  • Studying a course in communication strategy.
  • Participate in an event on entrepreneurship in your city
  • Taking care of an elderly relative
  • Joining a gym class
  • Studying driving test theory element
  • Joining a book club
  • Fixing a puncture on a bicycle
  • Updating your Linkedin page
  • Attending a finances workshop with your WECoach
  • Taking a night class of body posture in order to get ready for a talk
  • Joining an official advanced Excel class to update your level and use of the tool


  • This type of learning usually results in a FORMAL qualification
  • A self-directed activity where knowledge is acquired INFORMALLY
  • A self-directed activity where skills are acquired INFORMALLY
  • The enjoyment and appreciation of a healthy lifestyle is NON-FORMAL learning
  • A self-managed activity with a FORMAL assessment at the end of the process.
  • A structured learning situation where progress is assessed NON-FORMALLY
  • The INFORMAL development of a skill, maybe learnt from a booklet or ‘teacher’.
  • An opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge INFORMALLY.
  • An organized session after the mentee has expressed the need to be empowered, NON FORMAL learning
  • The empowerment that the learners will acquire is proof on NON-FORMAL learning
  • The class will be delivered according to a specific curriculum in a FORMAL way that can lead to a certification

Project Coordinator

Centre d'Information Europe Direct

47, rue du Coq, 13001 Marseille, France
+33 4 91 42 94 75

Charlotte Perault, EU Project Manager

Hélène Seigneur, EU Project Manager

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