informal, non-formal and formal education – a brief overview of some different approaches

Assessment - scenes from a Mormon social gathering by makelessnoise. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

Many of the debates around informal and formal education have been muddied by participants having very different understandings of basic notions. Here we explore three different approaches commonly found in the literature.

contents: introduction · looking to institutions: informal, non-formal and formal education · turning to process: conversation and setting · a question of style: informality and formality · further reading and references · links

If we examine the literature around informal education that has appeared in the last thirty years or so, three main traditions or approaches emerge. Each of these has something to say about the nature of formal education – and bring out different aspects of the phenomenon.

Looking to institutions: informal, non-formal and formal education

The most common way of contrasting informal and formal education derives from an administrative or institutional concern and includes a middle form – non-formal education. Back in the late 1960s there was an emerging analysis of what was seen as a ‘world educational crisis’ (Coombs 1968). There was concern about unsuitable curricula; a realization that educational growth and economic growth were not necessarily in step, and that jobs did not emerge directly as a result of educational inputs. Many countries were finding it difficult (politically or economically) to pay for the expansion of formal education.

The conclusion was that formal educational systems had adapted too slowly to the socio-economic changes around them and that they were held back not only by their own conservatism, but also by the inertia of societies themselves… It was from this point of departure that planners and economists in the World Bank began to make a distinction between informal, non-formal and formal education. (Fordham 1993: 2)

At around the same time there were moves in UNESCO toward lifelong education and notions of ‘the learning society’ which culminated in Learning to Be (‘The Faure Report’, UNESCO 1972). Lifelong learning was to be the ‘master concept’ that should shape educational systems (UNESCO 1972:182). What emerged was the influential tripartite categorization of learning systems. It’s best known statement comes from the work of Coombs with Prosser and Ahmed (1973):

Formal education: the hierarchically structured, chronologically graded ‘education system’, running from primary school through the university and including, in addition to general academic studies, a variety of specialised programmes and institutions for full-time technical and professional training.

Informal education: the truly lifelong process whereby every individual acquires attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experience and the educative influences and resources in his or her environment – from family and neighbours, from work and play, from the market place, the library and the mass media.

Non-formal education: any organised educational activity outside the established formal system – whether operating separately or as an important feature of some broader activity – that is intended to serve identifiable learning clienteles and learning objectives.

The distinction made is largely administrative. Formal education is linked with schools and training institutions; non-formal with community groups and other organizations; and informal covers what is left, e.g. interactions with friends, family and work colleagues. (See, for example, Coombs and Ahmed 1974).

These definitions do not imply hard and fast categories – as Fordham (1993) comments. When we look more closely at the division there can be considerable overlap. For example, there can be significant problems around the categorizing the education activity linked to involvement in groups and associations (la vie associative) sometimes it might be informal, at other times non-formal, and where the group is part of a school – formal. We can see similar issues in some of the discussions of informal science education in the USA.

[I]nformal education consists of learning activities that are voluntary and self-directed, life-long, and motivated mainly by intrinsic interests, curiosity, exploration, manipulation, fantasy, task completion, and social interaction.  Informal learning occurs in an out-of-school setting and can be linear or non-linear and often is self-paced and visual- or object-oriented.  It provides an experiential base and motivation for further activity and learning.  The outcomes of informal learning experiences in science, mathematics, and technology include a sense of fun and wonder in addition to a better understanding of concepts, topics, processes of thinking in scientific and technical disciplines, and an increased knowledge about career opportunities in these fields. (National Science Foundation 1997)

The NSF definition falls in line with what Coombs describes as informal education – but many museums and science centers also describe their activities as informal science education (and would presumably come fall under the category of non-formal education). Similarly, some schools running science clubs etc. describe that activity as informal science education (and may well fulfill the first requirements of the NSF definition).

Just how helpful a focus on administrative setting or institutional sponsorship is a matter of some debate. It may have some use when thinking about funding and management questions – but it can tell us only a limited amount about the nature of the education and learning involved. The National Science Federation While a great deal of the educational activity of schools, for example, involve following prescribed programmes, lead to accredited outcomes and require the presence of a designated teacher, a lot of educational activity that goes on does not (hence Jackson’s [1968] famous concern with the ‘hidden curriculum’). Once we recognize that a considerable amount of education happens beyond the school wall or outside the normal confines of lessons and sessions it may be that a simple division between formal and informal education will suffice.

Recognizing elements of these problems, some agencies have looked for alternative definitions. One possibility here has been the extent to which the outcomes of the educational activity are institutionally accredited. Such activity involved enrollment or registration – and this can also be used as a way of defining formal education. Non-formal education is, thus, ‘education for which none of the learners is enrolled or registered’ (OECD 1977: 11, quoted by Tight 1996: 69). Using non-accreditation as a basis for defining an area of education has a strong theoretical pedigree. Eduard Lindeman famously declared that:

…education conceived as a process coterminous with life revolves about non-vocational ideals. In this wor1d of specialists every one will of necessity learn to do his work, and if education of any variety can assist in this and in the further end of helping the worker to see the meaning of his labor, it will be education of a high order. But adult education more accurately defined begins where vocational education leaves off. Its purpose is to put meaning into the whole of life. (1926: 5)

Institutional accreditation became the basis for allocating funding within the English adult education sector during the 1990s – but in an almost exact reversal of what Lindeman intended. Programmes leading to accredited qualifications were funded at a much higher rate than those leading to none. Significantly, such a basis said little about the nature of the educational processes or the social goods involved – with two crucial exceptions. Accredited programmes were more likely to be outcome focused (with all the implications this has for exploration and dialogue), and more individualistic. Indeed, it can be argued that one of the things this funding regime did was to strengthen an individual bias in education and undermine the building of social capital. Many groups and classes that had previously looked to a mix of learning and social interaction, had to register students for exams. This then had an impact on the orientation of teachers and students.

Turning to process: conversation and setting

Tony Jeffs and I have been critical of administrative approaches to defining informal (and formal) education. Instead we have looked to process as a significant way into setting the boundaries of informal education. Viewed in this way, formal education can be seen as essentially curricula-driven. In other words, it entails a plan of action and defined content. It also involves creating a particular social and physical setting – the most familiar example being the classroom.

In contrast, informal education can be viewed as being driven by conversation and, hence, unpredictable. Informal educators do not know where conversation might lead. They have to catch the moment, to try to say or do something to deepen people’s thinking or to put others in touch with their feelings. Such ‘going with the flow’ opens up all sorts of possibilities.

On one hand educators may not be prepared for what comes, on the other they can get into rewarding areas. There is the chance, for example, to connect with the questions, issues and feelings that are important to people, rather than what they think might be significant. This is also likely to take educators into the world of people’s feelings, experiences and relationships. While all educators should attend to experience and encourage people to reflect, informal educators are thrown into this. (Jeffs and Smith 1999a: 210)

For the most part, they do not have lesson plans to follow; they respond to situations, to experiences. There is not a prescribed learning framework, nor are there organized learning events or packages. Outcomes are not specified externally (Eraut 2000: 12) or accredited. What is more, those working in informal education, for the most part, have far less control over the environment in which they are operating: ‘Informal educators cannot design environments, nor direct proceedings in quite the same way as formal educators’  (Jeffs and Smith 1999).

Informal education, thus:

  • Works through, and is driven by, conversation.
  • Involves exploring and enlarging experience.
  • Can take place in any setting.

Its purpose, at root, is no different to any other form of education. I would argue that it is concerned with helping people to develop the understandings and disposition to live well and to flourish together. John Dewey (1916) once described this as educating so that people may share in a common life. Informal educators have a special contribution to make here.

First, a focus on conversation is central to building communities. The sorts of values and behaviours needed for conversation to take place are exactly what are required if neighbourliness and democracy are to flourish. What is more, the sorts of groups informal educators (such as youth and social action workers) work with – voluntary, community-based, and often concerned with mutual aid – are the bedrock of democratic societies (Jeffs and Smith 1999: 34-46).

This way of approaching informal education views it as part of a continuum.


Whether we are identified as a formal or informal educator we will use a mix of the formal and informal. What sets the two apart is the relative emphasis placed on curricula and conversation, and the range of settings in which they may work.

A question of style: informality and formality

Within the primary education field the notion of informal education has been used to describe the more fluid, ‘open’ and apparently progressive forms of schooling that developed in the 1960s (e.g. McKenzie and Kernig 1975). As Blyth (1988: 11) has commented, informal pedagogy has ‘figured spasmodically in English education from quite early in the industrial age and even before. Robert Owen and, later, Samuel Widlerspin are examples here.  However, there was a particular moment when ‘informal education’ came to the fore:

Certain words have acquired a peculiar potency in primary education, and few more so than ‘informal’. Never properly defined, yet ever suggestive of ideas and practices which were indisputably right, ‘informal’ was the flagship of the semantic armada of 1960s Primaryspeak . . . spontaneity, flexibility, naturalness, growth, needs, interests, freedom . . . self—expression, discovery and many more. (Alexander 1988: 148)

Many of the thinkers (e.g. Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Dewey and Bruner) that we would see as informing the development of informal education as a conversational form are also important influences in this movement (see Blyth 1988: 7-24). However, since the 1960s the terms of educational debate have shifted dramatically. By the mid 1990s, the British government ‘espoused the simple nostrum that the key to enhanced standards and economic competitiveness was an unrelenting concentration on basic skills in literacy and numeracy, to be addressed mainly through “interactive whole-class teaching”‘ (Alexander 2000: 2). It is now far less common to hear informal approaches to primary education being advanced as a blanket alternative to formal ones.

When we look at usage within discussions of primary schooling, the most consistent form by the late 1980s was the noun informality’, rather than the adjective ‘informal’ (see Jeffs and Smith 1990: 5-6). Thus, instead of informal education, we it was possible to examine informality in pedagogy, in curriculum, in organization, in evaluation and in personal style (Blyth 1988). What was being examined here was a tendency. To talk of informality in education was to indicate significant elements of flexibility and openness.

Further reading and references

Bentley, T. (1998) Learning beyond the Classroom: Education for a changing world, London: Routledge. 208 pages. Argues the case for a focus on learning beyond the formal sector and the need to connect what happens in schools to wider opportunities for learning. The book is rather light on theorization, coming, as it does, from a policy perspective (Demos).

Blyth, A. (ed.) (1988) Informal Primary Education Today, Lewes: Falmer Press. 219 + viii pages. Very useful review of informality in primary education from the Plowden Report to the situation in the late 1980s. The contributors are a bit of a ‘Who’s Who’ in the area: Gammage on primary school practice; Blenkin on education and development; Galton on the nature of learning; King on informality and ideology; Kelly on middle years schooling; Nias on teachers’ accounts; and Alexander on teacher development.

Coffield, F. (2000) The Necessity of Informal Learning, Bristol: The Policy Press. 80 + iv pages. Useful collection of material arising out of ESRC Learning Society Programme. Includes Coffield on the significance of informal learning; an excellent piece by Michael Eraut on non-formal learning – implicit learning and tacit knowledge in professional work; Field and Spence on informal learning and social capital; Barron et al on implicit knowledge, phenomenology and learning difficulties; Davies on the impact of accreditation; and Fevre etal on necessary and unnecessary learning.

Coombs, P. H. with Prosser, C. and Ahmed, M. (1973) New Paths to Learning for Rural Children and Youth, New York: International Council for Educational Development. One of several reports involving Coombs that popularized the institutional split between informal, formal and non-formal education. See, also, P. Coombs and M. Ahmed (1974) Attacking Rural Poverty. How non-formal education can help, Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.

Illich, I. (1973) Deschooling Society, Harmondsworth: Penguin. Very influential statement concerning the divisive and dampening effect of schooling. Argues for the disestablishment of schooling and the creation of learning webs. See also his (1975) Tools for Conviviality, London: Fontana, for a wider political and economic statement.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1999) Informal Education: conversation, democracy and learning, Ticknall: Education Now. Introductory discussion of informal education that places the fostering of democracy at the core of informal education. Explores the nature of conversation and reflection, organizing the work, contrasts with formal education and the moral authority of the educator.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (eds.) (1990) Using Informal Education, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Has a number of case studies concerning both organisationally and community based initiatives; plus an analytical overview of the concept and practice of informal education. Criticizes approaches that focus on informal education as an institutional form. Instead focuses on setting and process. Text in archives

McKenzie, M. and Kernig, W. (1975) The Challenge of Informal Education. Extending young children’s learning in the open classroom, London: Darton, Longman and Todd. Review of informal primary education – post-Plowden, Chapters on learning in the informal school; setting the scene for informal learning; evaluating learning etc.

Richardson, L. D. and Wolfe, M. (eds.) (2001) The Principles and Practice of Informal Education, London: RoutledgeFalmer. 290 + xiv pages. This introductory text is divided into four sections: exploring education; working with; elements of practice; developing professional practice. It includes chapters on the nature of education, working with, the history of informal education, programme planning, activities, doing projects with formal groups, managing and evaluation.


Alexander, R. (1988) ‘Garden or jungle? Teacher development and informal primary education’ in A. Blyth (ed.) Informal Primary Education Today, Lewes: Falmer Press.

Alexander, R. (2000) Culture and Pedagogy. International comparisons in primary education, Oxford: Blackwell.

Coombs, P. (1968) The World Educational Crisis, New York, Oxford University Press.

Coombs, P. (1985) The World Crisis in Education, New York: Oxford University Press.

Coombs, P. with Ahmed, M. (1974) Attacking Rural Poverty, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.

Eraut, M. (2000) ‘Non-formal learning, implicit learning and tacit knowledge in professional work’ in F. Coffield The Necessity of Informal Learning, Bristol: The Policy Press.

Fordham, P. E. (1993) ‘Informal, non-formal and formal education programmes’ in YMCA George Williams College ICE301 Lifelong Learning Unit 2, London: YMCA George Williams College.

Henze, R. C. (1992) Informal Teaching and Learning. A study of everyday cognition in a Greek community, Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Jackson, P. (1968) Life in Classrooms, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1999a) ‘Informal education and health promotion’, in E. R. Perkins, I. Simnett and L. Wright (eds.) Evidence-Based Health Promotion, London: John Wiley.

Leadbeater, C. (2000) Living on Thin Air, London: Penguin.

Lindeman, E. C. (1926) The Meaning of Adult Education, New York: New Republic.

McGiveney, V. (1999) Informal Learning in the Community. A trigger for change and development,Leicester: NIACE.

McKenzie, M. and Kerig, W. (1975) The Challenge of Informal Education. Extending young children’s learning in the open classroom, London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

National Science Foundation (1997) Informal Science Education: Supplements to Active Research Awards

Rubenson, K.(1982) Interaction Between Formal and Non-Formal Education Paris, Paper for Conference of the International Council for Adult Education.

Tight, M. (1996) Key Concepts in Adult Education and Training, London: Routledge.

UNESCO (1972) Learning to Be (prepared by Faure, E. et al), Paris: UNESCO.

Acknowledgement: The picture is ‘Assessment – scenes from a Mormon social gathering’ by makelessnoise. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons  Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) licence.

To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2002). ‘Informal, non-formal and formal education: a brief overview of different approaches’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 2002.