Formal, non-formal and informal learning

Rosa María Torres

Formal education. Education that is institutionalized, intentional and planned through public organizations and recognized private bodies and, in their totality, make up the formal education system of a country. Formal education programmes are thus recognized as such by the relevant national educational authorities or equivalent, e.g. any other institution in co-operation with the national or sub-national educational authorities. Formal education consists mostly of initial education. Vocational education, special needs education and some parts of adult education are often recognized as being part of the formal education system.

Non-formal education. Education that is institutionalized, intentional and planned by an education provider. The defining characteristic of non-formal education is that it is an addition, alternative and/or a complement to formal education within the process of the lifelong learning of individuals. It is often provided to guarantee the right of access to education for all. It caters for people of all ages, but does not necessarily apply a continuous pathway-structure; it may be short in duration and/or low intensity, and it is typically provided in the form of short courses, workshops or seminars. Non-formal education mostly leads to qualifications that are not recognized as formal qualifications by the relevant national educational authorities or to no qualifications at all. Non-formal education can cover programmes contributing to adult and youth literacy and education for out-of-school children, as well as programmes on life skills, work skills, and social or cultural development.

Informal learning. Forms of learning that are intentional or deliberate but are not institutionalized. They are less organized and structured than either formal or non-formal education. Informal learning may include learning activities that occur in the family, in the work place, in the local community, and in daily life, on a self-directed, family-directed or socially-directed basis.

Incidental or random learning. Various forms of learning that are not organized or that involve communication not designed to bring about learning. Incidental or random learning may occur as a by-product of day-to-day activities, events or communication that are not designed as deliberate educational or learning activities. Examples may include learning that takes place during the course of a meeting, whilst listening to a radio programme, or watching a television broadcast that is not designed as an education programme.

Source: Glossary, International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) 2011

We start with official ISCED (UNESCO) definitions since there are many misconceptions and confusions with the terms formal education, non-formal education and informal learning (learning that takes place in formal, non-formal and informal contexts).

Many people mention formal education and non-formal education, and forget about informal learning. Others skip non-formal education. Many speak of informal education, which does not exist. It is very common to associate non-formal education with adult education and to think that adult education can only be non-formal. Some people consider that Lifelong Learning and informal learning are equivalent. And so on.
("Education 3030. Incheon Declaration and Framework on Action for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all - approved at the World Education Forum 2015 held in South Korea - refers to "non-formal and informal education", paragraph 10).

There are little or no problems with formal education, another name for education that takes place within the school system. However, people tend to think that the school system does not include higher education.

There are more problems with non-formal education. The very limits and differences between formal and non-formal education are often unclear. There is teaching in both of them; there may be evaluation and certificates in non-formal education.The main difference is that the latter is less structured and more flexible, and that it can be provided by multiple agents, governmental and non-governmental. Non-formal education serves people of all ages and at all education levels.

The biggest conceptual problems relate to informal learning, which is "intentional or deliberate but not institutionalized." ISCED classification refers to formal education, non-formal education and informal learning, because there is no teaching involved in informal learning; it is autonomous learning. ISCED adds another category, incidental or random learning, defined as "various forms of learning that are not organized or that involve communication not designed to bring about learning." I prefer to include it within informal learning. What matters is that it is learning (intentional or not) that is not mediated by teaching.

Formal, non-formal and informal qualify the context and the mode in which education and learning take place. These three variants do not run separately; they are intertwined, not parallel lines. There are many commonalities between formal and non-formal education. There is informal learning in formal and non-formal contexts (playing, reading, talking with classmates or teachers outside the classroom, using the internet, etc.).

Formal education occupies a relatively short period in life, generally during childhood, adolescence and youth, although it may also take place in adulthood. Those with masters or doctoral studies may spend 20 years or more in classrooms. There are also those who have no or little schooling, and whose learning experience comes mostly from informal learning.


Non-formal education (courses, workshops, seminars, conferences, etc.) can occur along formal education, and also before and after it is completed. Many people end up having more non-formal education than formal education. The Internet has contributed to expand and diversify non-formal education.

Informal learning takes place throughout life, from birth to death. Most of what we learn in life comes from informal learning, although very often we are not aware that we are learning. Some of the most important information, knowledge and skills are developed in an informal manner, in the family, in the community, in the school system, at work, while practicing sports, talking, reading and writing, in contact with nature, with mass media, with the arts, with internet, etc.

Lifelong Learning integrates these three types of learning: formal, non-formal and informal. Every person has a specific combination of them and specific life learning trajectories. Some have a lot of formal and non-formal education. Everyone benefits from informal learning, which is essential for life, for work, and for living together.

To learn more

» Council Recommendation on the validation of non-formal and informal learning, Official Journal of the European Union, 22 Dec. 2012.

Related texts in this blog

» Saberes socialmente útiles
» Comunidad de Aprendizaje
» Aprendizaje a lo Largo de la Vida
» Reaching the Unreached: Non-Formal Approaches and Universal Primary Education
» Lifelong Learning: Moving beyond Education for All
» On Lifelong Learning | Sobre Aprendizaje a lo largo de la vida

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